US seeks to speed up Iraqi push on Mosul
LONDON - Reports predicting the imminent recapture of Mosul began to circulate in December 2014, six months after Iraq’s second largest city was seized by forces of the Islamic State (ISIS).
A year-and-a-half on, a military campaign to liberate the city is still “imminent”, although more cautious voices are suggesting the operation may be as much as six, or even 12, months away.
Aside from the conflicting agendas of those with a stake in confronting ISIS — the Iraqi Army, Shia militias, Kurds, Sunni Arab tribes as well as outside players that include the United States and Iran — an unresolved political crisis is diverting Baghdad’s attention from the war.
US President Barack Obama, during a visit to Riyadh in April to urge Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries to do more to help Iraq, warned of the dangers of Baghdad’s political stalemate. “They’ve got a lot on their plate,” he said. “Now is not the time for government gridlock or bickering.”
On March 24th, with the political crisis already bubbling, the Iraqi military announced the first phase of its Fatah Operation, launched to liberate Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital. A number of villages were recaptured in the initial ground operations but this still left the army about 110km short of its ultimate prize.
The message from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s American allies has been a mixture of caution and impatience. Washington officially defers to Baghdad to decide when and how it chooses to target Mosul and avoids predicting an early offensive.
In February, the director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Marine Corps Lieutenant-General Vincent Stewart, told US senators that retaking Mosul would be a complex operation. He was not optimistic about capturing the city in the short-term.
“We may be able to begin the campaign, do some isolation operations around Mosul but securing or taking Mosul is an extensive operation and not something I see in the next year or so,” he said.
Despite that note of caution, there are indications that a major campaign is in the works. The death of US Navy SEAL Charles Keating in a firefight with ISIS highlighted the growing front-line role of American soldiers, despite Obama’s assurances that there is no plan to put a substantial force of boots on the ground.
The British government is preparing to dispatch “hundreds” of soldiers to Iraq to join about 300 already there, nevertheless stressing that they will be confined to a training role.
Defence ministers from the United States and ten Western allies met recently in Germany to pledge more resources to combating ISIS in both Iraq and Syria in a statement that specifically referred to Mosul.
The ministers pledged to speed up additional support for their partners on the ground and provide more resources “in the near-term, in order to hasten the collapse of ISIS’s/Daesh’s control over Mosul and Raqqa”. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
When it comes to the domestic front, ISIS’s enemies remain divided on the putative offensive. Shia-dominated militias insist they should play a role, despite the danger that this could alienate the local elements in and around the majority Sunni Mosul that Baghdad would like to see on its side in the fight.
Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Iranian-backed Badr organisation, which is one of the strongest Shia militias, was quoted as saying in late March that Shia Hashd forces would play an “essential role” in the battle for Mosul, although local fighters and the army would be the ones to actually enter the city.
Kurdish peshmerga forces will inevitably continue to play a significant role in the anti-ISIS campaign. That, however, raises further suspicions among the Kurds’ nominal Iraqi allies that they will want to exact a price, possibly staking a claim to Kurdish-populated areas to the east of Mosul.
Whenever the offensive comes, Stewart is right to warn it will be complex. ISIS is generally on the retreat but yet was able to mount multiple attacks on peshmerga forces east of Mosul.
The jihadists may be getting nervous, however, as are the civilians marooned under ISIS rule. Operations around Mosul have forced refugees to flee the area and the United Nations fears a further 30,000 could be displaced in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, in Mosul, residents report that ISIS has begun dismantling satellite dishes — the city’s main ear to the outside world — as part of a blackout to ensure locals cannot follow news of their promised liberation.