The fight for Mo­sul

Our view: Iraq will still face enor­mous chal­lenges even if its forces suc­ceed in re­cap­tur­ing the north­ern city from Is­lamic State fight­ers

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD -

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was surely right to pre­dict the bat­tle that be­gan Monday to re­take the Iraqi city of Mo­sul from Is­lamic State fight­ers will be hard fought and ugly. The in­sur­gents have had two years to beef up their de­fenses in and around the city of more than 2 mil­lion, and ini­tial re­ports sug­gest the op­er­a­tion, which al­ready has been slowed by ISIS sui­cide at­tacks, road­side bombs, con­crete bar­ri­ers and booby trapped build­ings, could take weeks or months to com­plete. “It’s go­ing to be a tough fight and a dif­fi­cult fight,” the pres­i­dent ac­knowl­edged.

It will also rep­re­sent the big­gest test so far of Mr. Obama’s strat­egy of avoid­ing putting U.S. boots on the ground in fa­vor of sup­port­ing lo­cal forces with airstrikes, in­tel­li­gence and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port. With only months re­main­ing in his term at the White House, the pres­i­dent clearly hopes to be able to hand over a much more sta­ble Iraq to his suc­ces­sor than the one he in­her­ited on tak­ing of­fice in 2009. But even if the mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion in Mo­sul im­proves in com­ing weeks, the Iraqi govern­ment will still face enor­mous chal­lenges gov­ern­ing the restive re­gion and en­sur­ing that the smol­der­ing ethnic, re­li­gious and sec­tar­ian ten­sions at the root of the con­flict aren’t re-ig­nited.

The at­tempt to re­cap­ture Mo­sul is the largest of­fen­sive car­ried out by the Iraqi army since the 2003 U.S.-led in­va­sion and will mar­shal a hodge­podge force of some 25,000 Iraqi govern­ment troops, Sunni tribal fight­ers, Kur­dish para­mil­i­tary forces and Shi­ite mili­tia groups backed by Iran to con­front as many as 6,000 Is­lamic State de­fend­ers. Get­ting all those dif­fer­ent groups, some of which de­spise each other, to work to­gether will be a ma­jor diplo­matic and po­lit­i­cal headache for of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton and Bagh­dad.

The Shi­ite mili­tias, in par­tic­u­lar, have been ac­cused of com­mit­ting atroc­i­ties against Sunni com­mu­ni­ties, and their par­tic­i­pa­tion threat­ens to in­flame sec­tar­ian ten­sions. Rights groups have charged the mili­tias with killing hun­dreds of Sunni civil­ians dur­ing the govern­ment’s cam­paign to re­take the west­ern city of Fal­lu­jah ear­lier this year, and Mo­sul’s much more di­verse pop­u­la­tion in­cludes not only Sun­nis but Kurds, Yazidis and other ethnic mi­nori­ties as well as a large Chris­tian com­mu­nity. Con­cerns that the Shi­ite mili­tias will seize the op­por­tu­nity to run roughshod over those com­mu­ni­ties were only partly al­layed when they an­nounced this week that they would re­strict their op­er­a­tions to the out­skirts of Mo­sul and would not en­ter the city it­self.

Mean­while, in­ter­na­tional aid groups are scram­bling to pre­pare for a mas­sive ex­o­dus of refugees from Mo­sul as the U.S.-led coali­tion draws closer to the city. More than1mil­lion res­i­dents are be­lieved to be still liv­ing there, and of­fi­cials worry a hu­man­i­tar­ian A Kur­dish pesh­merga soldier aims his ri­fle to­ward a road to Mo­sul as forces con­tinue the bat­tle to re­take the northerin Iraqi city. catas­tro­phe could be im­mi­nent if the fight­ing is pro­longed and Is­lamic State fight­ers re­sort to us­ing flee­ing civil­ians as hu­man shields. Re­ports de­scribe the makeshift refugee camps that have been set up as woe­fully ill-equipped to deal with the in­flux, rais­ing the threat of disease out­breaks linked to short­ages of medicines, hospi­tal beds and ac­cess to clean wa­ter.

If history is any guide, Mo­sul’s civil­ian pop­u­la­tion will pay a heavy price for the city’s de­liv­er­ance from two years of brutal rule by the Is­lamic State. When coali­tion forces fi­nally re­cap­tured the cen­tral city of Ra­madi in Jan­uary, large parts of the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal had been re­duced to rub­ble laced with im­pro­vised ex­plo­sives that made it im­pos­si­ble for peo­ple to re­turn safely to their homes. The U.N. es­ti­mated that some 2,000 build­ings, streets, bridges and other struc­tures in Ra­madi lay in ru­ins by the time the fight­ing ended. The scale of de­struc­tion in Mo­sul, a much larger city, is ex­pected to far ex­ceed that, and bil­lions of dol­lars will be needed for the re­con­struc­tion ef­fort.

Pres­i­dent Obama pledged to end Amer­ica’s in­volve­ment in Iraq and Afghanistan nearly eight years ago, but that proved eas­ier said than done. The U.S. has learned to work with re­gional al­lies and thereby avoid send­ing its own ground troops to fight in­ter­minable Mideast­ern wars, but we have learned our in­flu­ence only goes so far when it comes to con­vinc­ing our part­ners of the need for a po­lit­i­cal res­o­lu­tion to the prob­lems that cre­ate such con­flicts. Ul­ti­mately, only the Iraqis can bring peace to their coun­try, and re­gard­less of what hap­pens in Mo­sul over the next few months they will still have a long way to go on that score.

CARL COURT/GETTY IMAGES

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