As Mosul battle looms, stakes grow higher
BAGHDAD - The battle to liberate Mosul is about to resume. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said an air base near Iraq’s second largest city was being prepared as a staging point for aerial attacks on Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists, as Iraqi ground troops are set to advance north to try to recapture the city.
Despite improved morale after the victory in Falluja, difficulties loom. The Iraqi Army has been involved in months of bloody offensives in and around Baghdad and the vast western desert in Anbar province where the provincial capital, Ramadi, and a handful of cities and towns, mainly Falluja, Haditha, Rutba, al-Qaim and Hit, were rid of ISIS.
“Now we must equip and assemble to take on the target in Mosul and surrounding areas in the north,” an Iraqi security official said, insisting on anonymity.
But Baghdad-based analyst Raheem al-Shammari said that ISIS’s defeat in Falluja encouraged both Iraqi and US forces to speed up preparations and to be less cautious in their drive to Mosul.
“With the quick collapse of Daesh in Falluja, Iraqi and US commanders think that the time has come for the Mosul battle as militants are losing the will to fight,” he said, using the group’s Arabic acronym.
Mosul fell to ISIS in mid-2014 after a blitz that was a humiliating defeat for Iraqi forces.
Since then, the army has been regrouping. Iraqi soldiers, backed by Shia militiamen, have recaptured major cities in Sunni provinces, with US air support decisive in all the winning battles.
Iraqi soldiers and Shia militiamen drove out the militants from Falluja, a key ISIS bastion about 60km west of Baghdad within one month, although earlier assessments had suggested several months of bloody fighting were needed to recapture the city.
After Falluja, Iraqi soldiers, facing almost no resistance, retook the key airbase of Qayara, about 60km south of Mosul.
During a July visit to Baghdad, Carter said the United States would send 560 more troops to be stationed at the base, bringing the number of US forces in Iraq to 4,647, mainly advisers and trainers.
“These additional US forces will bring unique capabilities to the campaign and provide critical enabler support to Iraqi forces at a key moment in the fight,” said Carter, who vowed to increase US air strikes against ISIS.
Naif Mekaif, a lawmaker from Mosul, said he expected the city to be “liberated” by the end of September, just before the start of the rainy winter season, which could hamper the movement of troops and tanks and block visibility for air strikes.
“The clock is ticking for the end of Daesh in Mosul and Iraq,” Mekaif said. “The matter will not take a long time as the city is surrounded almost from all directions by Iraqi troops, Kurdish forces and the Hashid al-Shaabi (Shia militia) fighters.”
Still, sectarianism poses a possible threat to the battle against ISIS. Senior Sunni politicians, fearing brutal killings of Mosul’s Sunni population similar to the atrocities committed against Falluja civilians, have made it clear that Shia militias are not welcome.
Osama al-Nujaifi, a senior politician from Mosul and the head of a broad Sunni coalition in the legislature, said Mosul residents “need assurances regarding who is going to participate in the liberation of the city”.
“The government should listen to Mosul people who do not want the Hashid al-Shaabi to take part in the Mosul battle in order to avoid any sectarian frictions or violations,” said Nujaifi in a statement after meeting with the special representative of the United Nations for Iraq, Jan Kubis.
The United Nations predicted that the Mosul operation would result in a large number of civilian casualties and force hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. “The impact of the Mosul military campaign on civilians will be devastating,” the United Nations warned in a recent statement.
In Mosul, a housewife going by the name of Um Nashwan said on social media that residents were “anxious” because food supplies were drying up with ISIS stockpiling for a protracted war. She said people were cut off from the outside world as ISIS had disconnected satellite TV reception and disrupted cell phone and internet communication.
“We know that the Mosul operation is coming from leaflets dropped by army helicopters,” she said. “ISIS pretends it is unshaken but it is clearly so as it has mounted arrests and keeps a heavy armed presence in the city.”
It appealed for funds to deal with the humanitarian crisis, saying it would cost $284 million to prepare the necessary aid and up to $1.8 billion to deal with the aftermath.