Mosul is no Falluja
As Iraqi government troops celebrated their liberation of the western city of Falluja from Islamic State (ISIS), US officials warned not to expect Mosul, the biggest urban centre controlled by the jihadists, to be taken back any time soon.
The use of Iranian-backed Shia militias known as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) to recapture Falluja is also a cause of concern as they have been accused of torturing and killing fleeing civilians from the city.
US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said it was unlikely Mosul would be liberated this year, warning that the conflict against ISIS could last for years, perhaps decades.
Before the army offensive against Falluja, it had a population of some 250,000. Mosul though has at least 3 million inhabitants and the prospect of ISIS using civilians as human shields is high. ISIS fighters from Falluja and its environs retreating north towards Mosul are likely to make the city their last line of defence in Iraq. The militant forces are also much more entrenched in Mosul, meaning the army is unlikely to be able to root them out on its own.
If the streets of Mosul were to become the scene of guerrilla warfare between Shia militias and ISIS fighters, it could drag the entire country — or, indeed, the region — into sectarian war.
The United States does not want to upset the balance of power between the three major powers in the region — Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia — while Iraq will need the backing of at least one such regional power to deal a decisive blow against ISIS.
Tensions are on the rise between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Arab Gulf states particularly concerned about Tehran’s growing influence not just in Iraq but among Arab Shias across the region. More worryingly for Riyadh are the signs coming out of Iraq of Iraqi Sunni political and tribal leaders seemingly moving closer to Tehran.
With ISIS’s presence in Iraq, the country’s Sunnis have become increasingly reliant on Iran for humanitarian assistance, not to mention their hopes of liberating ISIS-held territory. This is why the liberation of Falluja was so important, even with the allegations that have been made against Shia militias.
These militias, incidentally, have been designated as official government troops by Abadi, while Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps al-Quds Force leader Major-General Qassem Soleimani — a figure reviled across the Arab world — is present in liberated Falluja under official government sanction, as an official military adviser.
This is despite patently false claims by Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, a Sunni, who has officially denied that Soleimani is even in Iraq, although many photographs have been published confirming this.
The complex situation points to an even more complicated future, with Iran and its pro-Shia militias wanting to drive out ISIS but ensure that this is not claimed as a victory for Saudi Arabia, which is also fighting ISIS.
For this reason, the liberation of Mosul must, by necessity, be different from that of Falluja, with Riyadh taking a far more hands-on approach, particularly given that any more scenes of sectarian tensions — such as those that accompanied the liberation of Falluja — could lead to regional sectarian war.
Just because all parties — Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iraq’s tribal Sunnis and pro-Shia militias — are on the same side in the fight against ISIS, this does not mean that they have complementary interests. The eventual operation to liberate Mosul will depend on the interaction of these opposing regional interests.