Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Captain Raed Shaker Jawdat, a senior Iraqi police official, announced that his forces had “liberated” 135 square miles of the areas south of Mosul, Afghanistan since the beginning of the battle to liberate the city earlier this week from Islamic State (ISIS) control. If, as expected, it is eventually successful, many analysts say it will be the most serious setback for ISIS since the group was formed in 2014.
Those involved say it will not be an easy fight. Peshmerga Brigadier General Sirwan Barzan, a Kurdish military commander in charge of forces in Iraq, says it could take two more weeks before troops even reach the city limits of Mosul, and a further two months to liberate the city from ISIS. He said that bad weather could delay that timetable even further.
The Iraqi army estimates there are somewhere between 5000 and 6000 ISIS troops still defending Mosul, with fears that there could be bloody house to house fighting amid booby-trapped homes. Residents of Mosul said they are being used as human shields and not allowed to leave their homes.
Some residents of the city did manage to leave, however. The aid group Save the Children said that 5000 Iraqis have fled the area around Mosul and arrived at the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria in the past ten days. The camp, however, is not prepared to receive this many refugees.
“Conditions are among the worst we’ve seen,” Tarik Kadir, of Save the Children told The Media Line. “And, we expect thousands more people to be on their way soon.”
He said there are only 16 toilets in the camp shared by 9000 people. Many have access only to dirty water and there are fears that cholera could break out. The UN refugee agency said that more than 900 Iraqis have crossed into Syria this week.
In a statement, UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said he is “extremely concerned” for the safety of up to 1.5 million people living in Mosul.
“Tens of thousands of Iraqi girls, boys, women and men may be under siege or held as human shields,” he said in a statement. “Thousands may be forcibly expelled or trapped between the fighting lines. Children, women, the elderly and the disabled will be particularly vulnerable. Depending on the intensity and scope of the fighting, as many as one million people may be forced to flee their homes in a worst-case scenario.”
He urged all parties to uphold obligations to protect civilians.
Beyond the humanitarian concerns, there is fear that the coalition that is working to defeat ISIS could fall apart, as different groups have competing interests. The largest group, which is comprised of an estimated 54,000 Iraqi security forces, is moving toward Mosul from south of the city. The US is providing these troops with air support.
In 2014, when Islamic State took over Mosul, thousands of Iraqi soldiers shed their uniforms and fled, rather than stay and fight. There is some concern this could happen again.
“The Iraqi troops are improved from 2014 when they fell apart, but they are not capable of handling this fight on their own,” Daniel L. Davis, a senior fellow with Defense Priorities, a new think-tank in Washington, DC, and a retired army colonel, told The Media Line. “A Kurdish general I spoke to recently said he would not be surprised if these troops run away again.”
The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, key US allies, make up the second-largest fighting force with about 40,000 members. They are trying to reach Mosul from the east of the city. Also involved are thousands of soldiers from the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), a group of paramilitary organizations that officially operate under the command of the Iraqi government.
Most of the members of the PMU are Shi’ite fighters, some with ties to Iran. There are also a number of units with Sunni and Christian fighters. The Iraqi government has said that these militias are not allowed to enter the center of Mosul and has limited their fighting to the outskirts of the city.
The US says it does not work with the PMU’s. In addition, there are thousands of Sunni fighters and minority groups such as Turkmen and Yazidis. There are also about 6000 US advisors outside of Mosul.
As the battle continues it will be even more important for all of these groups to coordinate. Analysts say Iraqis should look next door to the ongoing war in Aleppo that has destroyed the city, and left hundreds of thousands of civilians with almost no food or medical facilities for months.
“If everybody works together well, the battle for Mosul could last three or four months,” Davis said. “But, if they follow their own agendas, there could be an Aleppo-style quagmire. These groups are antagonistic to each other and there is about a 25 percent chance this could happen.”