In bat­tle for Mo­sul, many forces with many mo­tives

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Su­san­nah Ge­orge and Lee Keath

BAGH­DAD >> An un­likely ar­ray of forces is con­verg­ing on the city of Mo­sul, lin­ing up for a bat­tle on the his­toric plains of north­ern Iraq that is likely to be de­ci­sive in the war against the Is­lamic State group.

The tacit al­liance — Iraqi troops along­side Shi­ite mili­ti­a­men, Sunni Arab tribes­men, Kur­dish fighters and U.S spe­cial forces — un­der­scores the im­por­tance of this bat­tle. Re­tak­ing Mo­sul, Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city, would ef­fec­tively break the back of the mil­i­tant group, end­ing their self-de­clared “caliphate,” at least in Iraq.

But vic­tory doesn’t mean an end to the con­flict. In a post-Is­lamic State Iraq, the en­mi­ties and ri­val­ries among the play­ers in the anti-IS coali­tion could eas­ily erupt.

The bat­tle, ex­pected near the end of the year, threat­ens to be long and gru­el­ing. If IS fighters dig in against an as­sault, they have hun­dreds of thou­sands of res­i­dents in the city as po­ten­tial hu­man shields. And as res­i­dents flee, they fuel the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in Iraq’s Kur­dish re­gion around Mo­sul, where camps are al­ready over­crowded with more than 1.6 mil­lion peo­ple dis­placed over the past two years. Hu­man­i­tar­ian groups are rush­ing to pre­pare for po­ten­tially 1 mil­lion more who could be dis­placed by a Mo­sul as­sault.

The big­gest prize cap­tured by the mil­i­tants af­ter they over­ran much of north­ern, west­ern and cen­tral Iraq in the sum­mer of 2014, Mo­sul has been vi­tal for the Is­lamic State group. The re­serves in its banks pro­vided a mas­sive cash boost to the group, and the city’s in­fra­struc­ture and re­sources helped IS as it set up its caliphate across Iraq and Syria.

Mo­sul was the lo­ca­tion cho­sen by Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi to make his first pub­lic ap­pear­ance af­ter declar­ing the caliphate, a tri­umphant ser­mon de­liv­ered at a his­toric mosque in the old city. For the past two years, much of the lead­er­ship seems to have op­er­ated from Mo­sul.

If Mo­sul is re­taken, it would be a nearly com­plete re­ver­sal of the ji­hadis’ 2014 sweep. The group would be left with only a few pock­ets of ter­ri­tory in Iraq. IS fighters have al­ready re­sponded to bat­tle­field losses by re­vert­ing to guer­rilla-style tac­tics or re­treat­ing into neigh­bor­ing Syria to de­fend the group’s ter­ri­tory there, which is also rapidly erod­ing.

For weeks, the dis­parate forces have clawed back ter­ri­tory in Nin­eveh prov­ince, where Mo­sul is lo­cated, seiz­ing vil­lages and key sup­ply lines. Still, the Iraqi mil­i­tary’s clos­est po­si­tion is some 30 miles south of Mo­sul and there re­main dozens of mil­i­tant-held vil­lages with civil­ian pop­u­la­tions that the troops must take be­fore reach­ing the city’s out­skirts. Kur­dish forces are closer, some within 10 miles of the city to the north and east.

U.S.-led coali­tion forces have sped up train­ing for Iraqi troops and Kur­dish fighters, con­dens­ing cour­ses that once took more than two months into just four weeks. In July, the Pen­tagon an­nounced that 560 more U.S. troops would de­ploy to Iraq to trans­form Qa­yara air base, south of Mo­sul, into a stag­ing hub for the fi­nal as­sault.

Still, Iraq’s mil­i­tary is thou­sands of sol­diers short of the es­ti­mated 30,000 troops needed to launch the as­sault, and the ex­ist­ing forces are stretched thin try­ing to hold other re­cap­tured ter­ri­tory, par­tic­u­larly in west­ern An­bar prov­ince.

Iraq’s “big­gest chal­lenge is gen­er­at­ing the forces re­quired to get to Mo­sul,” said Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the head of U.S ground forces in Iraq. “If you want to pull some­one out of An­bar to go to Mo­sul, you’ve got to put some­body else there.”

Iraq’s mil­i­tary fell apart when it fled Mo­sul in the face of the IS blitz two years ago, with a third of its troops melt­ing away. In the en­su­ing months, it was re­vealed that tens of thou­sands of troops on the rolls did not ex­ist: They were only names whose pay was pock­eted by com­man­ders. Since then, the mil­i­tary has been slowly re­build­ing, while other armed forces such as Shi­ite mili­tias and Iraq’s Kur­dish forces have steadily grown in strength.

The ri­val­ries within the al­liance are al­ready start­ing to show and are likely to come to a head once IS falls.

The Kurds, who seized large swaths of ter­ri­tory dur­ing the fight against the mil­i­tants, want to keep it. Ira­nian-backed Shi­ite mili­tias de­mand recog­ni­tion for the po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary strength they have gar­nered dur­ing the war. The Sunni mi­nor­ity is deeply wor­ried about Shi­ite dom­i­na­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion, and those fears are likely only to grow as the com­mu­nity tries to re­cover from Is­lamic State rule and re­turn to their homes.

The Shi­ite-led gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad will have to bal­ance among th­ese fac­tions.

The most im­me­di­ate ques­tion will be whether Shi­ite mili­tias and Kur­dish forces will join the as­sault into mainly Sunni Arab Mo­sul. It’s a sen­si­tive is­sue. Shi­ite mili­tias have been ac­cused of abuses against Sun­nis in other ar­eas they have re­taken from the Is­lamic State group. If Kurds cap­ture parts of the city, it gives them a strong card in fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions over the ter­ri­tory they hold.

Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi has said all forces will par­tic­i­pate in the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion, a nod to Kur­dish and Shi­ite mili­tia de­mands.

But at a news con­fer­ence last week, he also said Iraqi mil­i­tary de­ci­sions must re­spect the del­i­cate eth­nic bal­ance in Nin­eveh prov­ince, where most of the pop­u­la­tion is Sunni Arab, with pock­ets of Kurds, Shi­ites, Chris­tians, Yazidis and other mi­nor­ity groups.

When asked what role Shi­ite mili­tias would have in Mo­sul, al-Abadi was cir­cum­spect. “I don’t want Daesh to make use of sec­tar­ian con­flicts,” he said, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for the Is­lamic State group.

Sun­nis make up the vast ma­jor­ity of the 3.3 mil­lion Iraqis dis­placed by the con­flict. The treat­ment of civil­ians in Mo­sul will likely be seen as a test of the gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to last­ing po­lit­i­cal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. The marginal­iza­tion of Sun­nis and in­creas­ingly sec­tar­ian pol­i­tics un­der al-Abadi’s pre­de­ces­sor, Nouri alMa­liki, fu­eled the rise of the Is­lamic State group in Iraq to be­gin with.

For al-Abadi, re­tak­ing Mo­sul is a key po­lit­i­cal prize. In of­fice just over two years, he has faced in­creas­ing anti-gov­ern­ment sen­ti­ment fu­eled by IS at­tacks in and around the cap­i­tal and the fail­ure to fight cor­rup­tion or bring rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Al-Abadi said he be­lieves Iraq is more uni­fied to­day than when he took of­fice, but dif­fi­cul­ties still re­main and “new chal­lenges” are likely to erupt af­ter Mo­sul is lib­er­ated.

“Some peo­ple tell me we should de­lay the lib­er­a­tion of Mo­sul be­cause of th­ese chal­lenges,” he said. “I say: No.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A sol­dier from the 1st Bat­tal­ion of the Iraqi Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Forces lis­tens to an ad­dress by his com­man­der Aug. 13 in Bagh­dad af­ter a train­ing ex­er­cise to pre­pare for the op­er­a­tion to re-take Mo­sul from Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

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