Arab World: Why hasn’t the Iraqi army taken Mosul?

Casualties and urban warfare have slowed the anti-ISIS offensive, but comparisons to US and Israeli campaigns show it’s no surprise.

December 10, 2016 14:36
US Mosul

US military vehicles are seen north of Mosul during an operation against Islamic State in late October. (photo credit: REUTERS)

On December 2, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq released casualty figures for the month of November. A total of 1,959 members of the Iraqi Security Forces had been killed and 450 wounded. The figures included members of the Peshmerga and Iraqi Police and were for the whole country. But almost all had been killed in the fight for Mosul.

“Daesh has been employing the most vicious tactics” in the battle for Mosul, according to Jan Kubis, the special representative and head of UNAMI. The number of casualties was “staggering,” Kubis said.

They were also incorrect. When the Mosul operation was launched in mid-October, the Iraqis committed around 18,000 soldiers in three major units, the elite Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Force (ICTF), the 9th Armored Division and the 16th Infantry Division. If 1,900 had been killed along with the 670 estimated killed in October, the effectiveness of the fighting units would be severely degraded. On December 3, UNAMI said it would discontinue publishing data on military personnel killed and that its previous count was “largely unverified.”

The Iraqi Joint Operation Command had criticized the figures.

Like many things in the Mosul offensive, the casualty figures leave more questions than answers. Since the campaign began, around 77,000 people have fled the fighting, yet the city held by Islamic State still has 650,000 people living in it.

UNICEF claimed that a burst pipeline would force residents to resort to “unsafe water sources.” Even in liberated areas in the eastern part of the city, water supply was intermittent.

Residents told Al Jazeera they refused to leave. “It is safe here, better than other places.” Iraq’s Ministry of Migration and Displacement has been distributing some food and water.

Stories about Islamic State gathering tens of thousands of people for use as human shields have largely been shown to be false. Reporters believe almost any far-fetched story about Islamic State atrocities. But the reality of Islamic State is that its atrocities were carried out two years ago. Most of the people of Mosul lived under Islamic State in relative peace.

I interviewed a family from Mosul in June 2015. The father had fled, but all his adult children chose to stay behind.

They are Sunnis. Yes, Islamic State was “cruel” to Yazidis and Christians, they said, but they felt secure. Some Mosul residents who even initially fled Islamic State in June 2014 returned a month later.

When Iraq launched its attack on this massive city, which is almost 15 kilometers across, it was thought it could take two months to clear. The first two weeks went well, until the Iraqi Army moved into the eastern district of Aden. In a battle there in early November, more than two dozen ICTF vehicles were damaged or destroyed. Islamic State looted them within meters of the Iraqi positions, an incident caught on camera by a CNN team.

The Iraqi soldiers were upbeat; they’d fought like this for months in other cities, house-to-house, like in Stalingrad. As for casualties, they were mounting. A doctor told Al Jazeera on December 7 he was seeing 50 wounded “most days.” The UN figures were exaggerated, but the Iraqi Army could have lost hundreds of men in November. In an elite unit like the ICTF, those men are difficult to replace.

Meanwhile, the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve has reduced its air strikes, due to the presence of civilians in Mosul. On December 6, the CJTF-OIR report noted it had used three air strikes near Mosul to hit an “[Islamic State] tactical unit, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device and an excavator.” The day before it had done better, taking out four mortars, three vehicles, a heavy machine gun, a bridge and a front-end loader. It also did damage to 47 roads, a reminder that Iraq will have much reconstruction work ahead after Mosul.

Islamic State has proven that it can stop what Iraq is throwing at it. On December 5, when armored units took Al-Salam Hospital in southeastern Mosul, Islamic State counterattacked at night, much as it had done in Aden. The Islamists know their enemy. They released a video of hostage John Cantlie speaking about air strikes that had destroyed four bridges across the Tigris in November.

West of Mosul, the Hashd al-Shaabi Shi’a militia has encircled the city by driving 100 kilometers across the desert to link up with the Kurdish Peshmerga near Tal Afar. This means that Islamic State is surrounded. But the Shi’a militias have promised not to go into Mosul itself, something that would anger Turkey and risk further sectarian conflict with Sunnis in Iraq. So Islamic State can rest easy, it thinks; its western flank won’t be attacked.

There are major parts of the city left to take, including the university, Nineveh ruins, the airport, the alleyways of the old part of town and the grand mosque, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate.

It’s not clear how the Iraqi Army will get it’s ICTF across the river, once the eastern side of the city, known as the left bank, is taken. A logistical and tactical headache will involve moving them south, across the Tigris and over to the other side.

The difficulty the Iraqi Army has had in Mosul may seem easy to judge from abroad, but Western militaries have been no more successful in laying siege to cities festooned with terrorists. It took the Americans 10 days to clear Falluja in November 2004, with 13,000 soldiers assaulting a city a quarter of the size of Mosul. It was the heaviest fighting the Marines had seen since Vietnam, according to accounts. By a similar token, it took Israel 10 days to take Jenin in 2002.

Israel has had similar experiences fighting in suburban warfare in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead (2009) and Operation Protective Edge (2014). The Gaza Strip is similar in size to Mosul and its environs.

Considering the difficulties of urban fighting and the advances in technology that Islamic State has displayed, it’s understandable why the Iraqi Army has run into such difficulty on the streets of Mosul. Unlike a US Marine division, or the IDF, it has no real air force without the US coalition assets, and little artillery. Most of the heavy lifting has to be done by Humvees and mine-resistant armored vehicles.

The US presidential election has also changed some of the priorities in Iraq. During the campaign there was an increased tempo in encouraging the Mosul offensive, and Hillary Clinton indicated she hoped that it would be winding up by 2017 and that she would oversee the endgame in Raqqa. But the election changed those calculations. The Obama administration now is winding things up, not looking for continuity.

President-elect Donald Trump has selected three generals with experience in Iraq – James Mattis, Michael Flynn and John Kelly. Two of them are Marine Corps officers. If FDR had the “brain trust,” Trump has the “Kevlar trust.”

But Iraqis themselves have other issues. The Kurdish Regional Government and its Peshmerga are no longer directly involved in the Mosul offensive, and Iraq is busy dealing with a budget crisis and trying to incorporate the Hashd al-Shaabi into an official paramilitary organization. Decapitating Islamic State may take some more time.

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