Arab world: A long, grinding advance against ISIS

Iraq’s ill-fated Mosul offensive is symbolic of the country’s problems.

April 1, 2016 13:48
IRAQI SECURITY forces wait for vehicles traveling to Mosul to fight against Islamic State at an Iraq

IRAQI SECURITY forces wait for vehicles traveling to Mosul to fight against Islamic State at an Iraqi army base in Camp Taji in Baghdad on February 21.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A week after a long-anticipated offensive by the Iraqi Army to recapture the city of Mosul was launched on March 24, it is bogged down, having captured little ground from Islamic State. With recriminations among the different groups taking part in the offensive and rumors of weakening morale, it is a story all too familiar for those following the army’s progress in the last two years and is symbolic of Iraq’s fractured state.

Mosul is the third-largest city in Iraq and up until 2014 had a population of two million people. Before Islamic State conquered it in June 2014, up to 15 percent of its population was made up of non-Muslim minorities, such as Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and other indigenous faiths of northern Iraq. It was also known as a center of Sunni Islamist groups, which gained support from the Arab population that resented the Shi’a-led rule of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad.

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Islamic State’s rapid conquest of Mosul overnight on June 10, 2014, is still a traumatic event for many.

In the weeks that followed, more than 300,000 people fled the city, including the city’s Christians, who were expelled.

The Kurdistan Regional Government watched as Islamic State (ISIS) plundered the Iraqi Army bases and later used the American weapons they found to attack Kurdish peshmerga forces in August. “Iraqi Army forces abandoned their weapons and commanders fled,” Osama al-Nujaifi, an Iraqi politician and Sunni Arab from Mosul, told reporters at the time.

“What happened to Iraq [in 2014] began in Mosul,” a senior Iraqi source told me in an interview this week. “When the Iraqi Army fled, the people supported Daesh [ISIS] because the central government was abusing them, Sunnis were alienated. The people there hate the Shi’a government.”

Yet the Baghdad government has been planning to retake the city since December 2014, when sources told reporters an offensive was just “weeks away.”

Throughout 2015 plans were drawn up, as ISIS was slowly weakened by coalition air strikes and Kurdish peshmerga, who drove the extremists out of Sinjar to the west of the city.

In drawing up a plan to retake the city, the Iraqi central government had to balance the interests of the KRG and the Sunnis in Iraq. The KRG wants the threat of ISIS removed, but the Iraqi central government doesn’t want the Kurds expanding their area of control.

A Sunni militia made up of several thousand Arabs who had fled Mosul was trained with the help of Turkish advisers at a base in the KRG, and its leader, Atheel al-Nujaifi, sought to encourage the Iraqi government to include it in the offensive.

Osama Nujaifa, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament and brother of Atheel, told reporters in January that Iraq should not include Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, such as Hashd al-Shaabi, in the offensive.

Hashd al-Shaabi has been one of the forces most effective at blunting ISIS’s advance and pushing it back. “It is not popular in Mosul and is lacking public support in Nineveh province, and its inclusion [in the operation] is unacceptable,” Nujaifi told Rudaw, a Kurdish channel.

There is a feeling among Sunni Arabs and among Kurds, who are mostly Sunni, that Iran wants influence over the operation. Sources said that Iran wants to prevent the establishment of a federal Sunni region after ISIS is defeated and to link up with Bashar Assad’s Syria, which it supports.

THE OPERATION, which Iraq warned media would take many months to complete, began with an attack on several villages overlooking the Tigris River. The Sunni militia, staging from the villages of Kudaila, Karmardi and Khatta, and the Iraqi Army tried to push west into a village called Al-Nasr. Other forces struck at villages Sultan Abdullah, Salahiyah, Khaladiya and Kharabarden, a front line about 8 kilometers long and 100 km. from Mosul.

US Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, named Task Force Spartan, provided artillery fire as elements of the 71st Brigade of Iraq’s 15th Division assaulted ISIS positions on March 24.

“The coalition is assisting the operation with air strikes and fire support to protect Iraqi forces,” Christopher Sherman, a Defense Department spokesman, told Stars and Stripes.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a journalist in Iraqi Kurdistan who was on the front line for the first week of fighting, said the Iraqi Army ran into numerous difficulties. “They ran away quite fast after they thought Islamic State would respond to artillery with mortars. But they came back afterward and they realized not even one shot was fired by ISIS.”

Bad weather slowed the attack to a crawl. “The [Iraqi Army] did not even reach the river yet and they are stuck, so it’s not going well, because the operation was not planned well.”

The Sunni militia, without peshmerga support as it has had in the past, did not achieve its goals either, fighting only alongside the army.

It is clear the Kurdish peshmerga, who are not participating, but whose front line is next to the area of operations, have a sense of schadenfreude in the army’s troubles. Before the operation, Kurdish commander Polad Jangi told the Voice of America that the battle would be a “bloodbath.”

Sunnis warned that the Iraqi Army was ill-prepared. Kurds marveled at how the coalition provided the Iraqis with state-of-theart equipment and new weapons, which Kurds do not receive. Some Kurdish positions in Makhmur near the battle have been fighting ISIS for almost two years, sometimes without proper ammunition.

“They have no morale,” a senior Sunni Iraqi source said. “The problem is not the weapons but the soldiers.”

There is a feeling the Iraqi Army should sit with the peshmerga and Sunni politicians and draw up a new plan, instead of this operation showcasing the new Iraqi Army’s strengths, an operation most agree has failed to achieve even meager results.

The problem is compounded by the competing interests on the ground. The strongest unit in the area is the peshmerga, who are hardened fighters. But many of them do not want to lose their lives conquering what they see as Arab villages that will not be included in the KRG in the future. There is also support for a Sunni federal state in the aftermath of the fall of ISIS, as there are fears that if the Iraqi central government does not allow a Sunni role, not only will ISIS resistance be stiffer, but Iran will use any advance to undermine the KRG and increase its hold on Iraq.

If things continue like this, the road to Mosul will be a long, grinding advance up the Tigris River valley, symbolic of the hard road ahead for Iraq.

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