Mosul could be Trump’s first crisis
MOSUL could be Trump’s first crisis. Iraqi troops are bogged down in the battle for the city. Iraqi elite special forces and an armoured division are fighting to hold districts in the eastern outskirts of the city against IS fighters using tunnels to move about unseen.
“In one day we lost 37 dead and 70 wounded,” said a former senior Iraqi official, adding that the Iraqi forces had been caught by surprise by the 45-mile long tunnel system.
The Iraqi CounterTerrorism Service (CTS) and the Ninth Armoured Division have been trying for two weeks to fight their way into that part of Mosul city.
IS is sending suicide bombers, snipers and mortar teams, to restart the fighting in a dozen districts that the Iraqi Army had said were captured.
“At first I was optimistic that we might capture Mosul in two or three weeks, but I now believe it will take months,” said Khasro Goran, a senior Kurdish leader familiar with conditions in Mosul.
He said that “if they (IS) continue fighting like this then a lot of Mosul will be destroyed. I hope it will not be like Aleppo.”
A prolonged siege with heavy civilian casualties and the possibility of Turkish military intervention is likely to be the first international crisis to be faced by president-elect Donald Trump. The heavily-contested advance of the Iraqi armed forces means that the attack will still be going on when he is inaugurated on Jan 20.
Trump would have to decide if he is willing to sanction an escalation in US-led airstrikes to destroy IS defences, though this would inevitably lead to heavy loss of life among the 1.5 million civilians in Mosul.
A threatened military intervention by Turkey will also become more likely if the best Iraqi combat units suffer heavy losses and look for reinforcements from the Shia paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
Under an Americanbrokered agreement, these are being kept out of Mosul to avoid sectarian and ethnic tensions between them and its Sunni Arab population.
Turkey has sent tanks to the Turkish-Iraqi border and said it may invade if the Hashd or Peshmerga fight inside Mosul.
The problem for the Iraqi armed forces is that they have previously relied heavily on US-led airstrikes to destroy IS positions. There have been 10,300 such strikes in Iraq since 2014.
In the battle for Ramadi in 2015 some 70% of the city was destroyed, but almost all of the 350,000 population had fled and IS did not fight to the last man. The same was true of the outer ring of towns around Mosul like Bartella and Qaraqosh a dozen more miles from the city, which were empty of their inhabitants, making it easier to destroy from the air buildings held by IS.
During the almost two-anda-half years in which IS has ruled Mosul since it captured it in June 2014 it has concentrated on recruiting young adolescents and teenagers. They are given extensive ideological and technical training.
IS is holding out effectively in east Mosul and may be able to withstand a siege for many months, but it is likely to lose the battle for the city. Iraqi army units are approaching Mosul from the south and the Hashd are closing off the west. A last stand by IS in the city, however, could lead to its destruction.
The same tactics cannot be used in Mosul because its people are still there and the city is very big. The government offensive that began on Oct 17 went well until it reached Mosul’s outskirts two weeks ago.
Since then the fighting has swung backwards and forwards.
In al-Qadisiyah al-Thaniya district, which the CTS had entered on Friday, the elite soldiers later retreated and IS fighters returned. A resident said that “they came back to us again, and this is what we feared. At night there were fierce clashes and we heard powerful explosions.”
In Intisar, another embattled east Mosul district, the Iraqi army’s Ninth Armoured Division has found that its tanks are vulnerable in street fighting. It lost two T-72 tanks on Nov 8.
There were some signs of IS disarray at the start of the siege. Hoshyar Zebari, the former Iraqi finance and foreign minister, says that by far “the biggest surprise for IS was some months back when the Iraqi government and the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) agreed on a joint offensive.”
When Iraqi forces first attacked east Mosul, there were reports of wavering morale among some IS fighters, but the IS leadership has mercilessly enforced its control.
The UN says that it has executed some 70 civilians in Mosul accused of collaboration with Iraqi forces. On Nov 8, 40 people were dressed in orange jumpsuits and shot for “treason and collaboration” before being hanged.
Another 20 civilians have been shot for using mobile phones to leak information to the Iraqi army.
The real level of support for IS in Mosul is unclear. The 54,000 people who have fled the city and sought refuge behind Peshmerga or Iraqi army lands all express their hatred of movement and deplore its atrocities.
But locals view the displaced civilians from IS with suspicion. “I see that IS are getting their families to safety,” said one resident driving past a camp occupied by Internally Displaced People at Khazar.
Goran is an expert on the internal politics of Mosul where he was deputy governor between 2003 and 2009, and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the city until 2011.
He believes that reports of extensive anti-IS armed resistance inside the city was largely propaganda designed for the media. He pointed out that there might be a lot of foreign fighters in Mosul, but “the majority of fighters are Iraqis”. – The Independent