What lies ahead at the gates of Mosul?

Iraq's counter-terrorism forces enter city suburbs as Mosul battle goes more smoothly than predicted, but much lies ahead.

IRAQI FORCES advance in Qayara to attack Islamic State in Mosul (photo credit: REUTERS)
IRAQI FORCES advance in Qayara to attack Islamic State in Mosul
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In April 2003, as the Americans approached Baghdad, there was fear that intense street fighting and urban warfare could result in a bloody end to the Iraq war. However, after a rapid approach to Baghdad, elements of the 3rd Infantry Division executed a “thunder run,” driving their tanks and vehicles into the center of Baghdad, surprising the resistance and capturing the city. Now Mosul may be set to witness the same thing.
On the flat plain that flows into Mosul today, the Iraqi Counter-Terror Forces (ICTF) have punched a hole in Islamic State defenses and attacked Bazwaya, Gogjali and Karama, interconnected neighborhoods and villages east of the city center. Some postulate that the ICTF, the “golden division,” will use its masses of black Humvees to lead a charge into the city, and that ISIS might fall faster then expected in its last major Iraqi stronghold. But the extent of the advance and whether or not the Iraqis have actually entered Karama is still unclear.
The areas that were being fought over on Monday were heavily populated by Kurds and other minorities such as Shabaks and Assyrians before the arrival of ISIS in June of 2014. According to the blog Mosul Eye, ISIS fighters were heavily present in this area in mid-October when the Mosul offensive was launched, but they had abandoned their headquarters, likely due to threat of air strikes.
The Iraqis are confident. “Soldiers of the Counter-terrorism force are advancing very fast,” said Gen. Talib Shegati to Iraqiya TV. He thought they would be inside the city limits on October 31. The distance from where the Iraqis are to the city center is about five kilometers, equivalent to the distance between JFK Airport and central Manhattan, or Wembley and central London.
The ICTF advance is hampered the lack of support from the other Iraqi forces that were supposed to be at the gates of Mosul alongside it. The 9th Armored Division is moving more slowly after taking Ali Rash eight kilometers to the southeast. Iraqi units that were supposed to attack Hamam al-Alil have not reached their objective, amid UN reports ISIS has brought 60,000 human shields into the town. The Iraqi 16th Division is also outside the city limits to the northeast at Tel Yabis.
Meanwhile, Shia militias associated with Hashd al-Shaabi have been skirting Mosul to the west, hoping to cut off ISIS fighters’ retreat and attack the town of Tal Afar. Iranian state media Farsnews and Presstv are beginning to sow controversy by claiming the US coalition has demanded a pause in the assault and is “hindering Iraqi forces’ advance.”
The positive side of the Mosul battle so far is that the mass casualties and humanitarian disaster that was predicted have not materialized. This is because the remaining residents of the eastern neighborhoods have adhered to calls to stay home. Because these neighborhoods had minority populations in them, such as Shia Shabak, they are “almost depopulated,” according to the account Mosul Eye, which is considered reliable. The neighborhoods the Iraqi forces are entering are also newer, with grid-streets and open avenues, amenable to driving Humvees through them. But what of the large numbers of people in Mosul across the river in the warren of streets that make up the old Mosul?
ISIS has proved ineffective at totally blunting the advance of the Iraqis and Kurdish Peshmerga, but it has slowed them down and created a situation where one Iraqi unit seems tasked with doing the bulk of the work.
An agreement between the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad means the Kurdish Peshmerga will stop their advance toward Mosul and allow Iraqi army units to liberate the city. The coalition fears that any prolonged fighting in the city will lead to many more civilian casualties, and the coalition knows its air power is largely ineffective in the built-up environment. At the same time, ISIS has become proficient in the use of imaginative and deadly improvised explosive devices and tunnels.
But where are the “apocalyptic” scenes of “rivers of oil” that ISIS was supposed to have stockpiled to use in the last battle for the city? It is true there are hundreds of thousands of residents in the city, but where are the human shields ISIS was said to be herding together? The advance so far has shown some of the worst predictions to be hollow. Of course ISIS would like to defend the city the way Hitler tried to defend Berlin, but it also views the local Mosul Sunni Arab residents, who make up most of the population after the minorities were cleansed in 2014, as natural constituents, members of the caliphate.
So far the worst has not come to pass in Mosul. If the Iraqi Army can continue like this, Iraq’s second-largest city will be preserved from the kind of destruction visited on Fallujah and Ramadi during the liberation, and communities that were persecuted might look to return when it is all over. But one false move, such as stories of an atrocity by the largely Shia forces of the Iraq Army in retaliation for ISIS crimes, or the direct use of human shields, and this success could be scuppered.