For two years, along front lines stretching hundreds of miles, tens of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga have gazed over grassy, dusty plains and deserted villages and waited.They have been waiting for the moment that came just before 2 a.m.Monday, when Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operation to liberate Mosul from the clutches of Islamic State.Mosul is the last major stronghold of ISIS in Iraq and its headquarters in the country. The Islamist group recently lost Dabiq in Syria to a coalition of Syrian rebel groups. Paired with the potential loss of Mosul, the operation could mean the rapid reduction in the power of ISIS and its ability to control territory.Mosul symbolizes more than just another city on the road to the defeat of ISIS. Mosul was ground zero for the genocidal program ISIS put in place in the summer of 2014.It was here that ISIS overran and captured two divisions of Iraqi military equipment, including thousands of armored vehicles. With these weapons it was able to overrun Sinjar, the area inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Yazidis, an indigenous religious minority.It was in Mosul that ISIS built a slave market and sold Yazidi women as sex slaves; it was from Mosul that ISIS expelled Assyrian Christians and dynamited 1,600-year-old monasteries; it was the place where it razed ancient archeological sites to destroy any memory of pre-ISIS groups, and it was from this area that it expelled and persecuted other local minorities, such as the Shabak and Kakei, which were among the diverse groups making up the multi-cultural population of Nineveh province that surrounds Mosul.In just a few months in 2014 ISIS destroyed the very social fabric of a countryside that had existed for thousands of years.From Mosul ISIS hoped that it would conquer the rest of Iraq. Riding high in 2014, bolstered by newly acquired heavy weapons, the terrorists swept toward Baghdad, laying waste to towns and villages along their scorched-earth path.ISIS was joined by thousands of local Sunni Arabs, who saw the group as antidote to their anger over abuses by the Shia-led Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki. But, much as Hitler did when he invaded the Soviet Union, ISIS has over-reached with one fatal miscalculation.When ISIS attacked the Kurds in August of 2014, hundreds of thousands of Kurdish men and women who had resisted Saddam Hussein – many in their 40s and 50s – joined their Peshmerga units and helped check the brutal advance. Near Baghdad a similar process happened among Shia Iraqis, as thousands of men flocked to the front line.
(Peshmerga forces prepare to attack ISIS in Mosul, October 17, 2016)Two years after the disasters of 2014, the coalition assembled in those dark August days has finally arrived at the gates of Mosul. Iraqi Army units – trained and equipped by the American-led coalition – will fight side-by-side with Kurdish Peshmerga. American, French and other coalition warplanes, artillery and special forces will aid the advance, along with Assyrian Christian, Kakei and Yazidi fighters.There will also be Kurds from Iran, like the men and women of the Kurdistan Freedom Party, who are fighting ISIS to gain experience they want to use against the Iranian regime. There will be Sunni militias, such as the al-Hashd al-Watani, made up of men who fled Mosul and led by the former governor Atheel Nujaifi. And there will be Shia Iraqis and Kurds from a range of political parties.Over the past months, a parade of officials and dignitaries have come to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, to discuss plans for the liberation of Mosul.Kurdistan region President Masoud Barzani held numerous meetings with high level US military and senior Iraqi army members in September.Officers from Iraq’s “Golden Division,” which has led operations against ISIS and is perhaps the most feared unit in the Iraqi Army, came to Erbil.The fruits of this were made clear on October 16, when Barzani announced that there would be close collaboration between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi forces.“All has been agreed to from a joint supreme political commission to oversee the retaking of Mosul,” Rudaw, a local media outlet, reported.This is an important aspect of the current operation. Iraqi units have been allowed to move through Kurdish areas and deploy east and southeast of Mosul.The Iraqi Army was previously deployed some 40 miles south of Mosul and continues to make slow progress since taking the town of Qayarrah in August.Looking at a map then, it was obvious that if the Iraqi Army wanted to play the main role in re-taking Mosul, it could not only march from the South, when Kurdish forces were only 20 miles from Mosul in other areas.One major problem has been suspicion between the various players. The million civilian residents of Mosul are almost all Sunni Arabs who fear retribution at the hands of Shia fighters in the Iraqi Army. They also fear the Shia militias, such as al-Hashd al-Sha’abi.
(Peshmerga forces prepare to attack ISIS in Mosul, October 17, 2016)The Iraqi government has been adamant that Kurdish forces should not enter Mosul. Nineveh Province lies outside the Kurdistan Regional Government’s borders. Baghdad fears that if Kurds liberate the city, they will want to incorporate or administer it in the postwar period.There is also controversy between Baghdad and Turkey over the deployment of Turkish forces in northern Iraq that have been training the Nujaifi-led Sunni militia that wants to help liberate the city. Turkey wants to safeguard the rights of Iraqi Sunnis and Turkmen and have influence over Mosul.The initial operation to take Mosul will involve a series of offensives along front lines from Qayarrah in the South via Gwer, Khazir, Bashiqa to Telskof east of Mosul. Each will initially be led by Kurds to liberate villages that will pave the way for the Iraqi army to attack Mosul itself.This is a complex operation involving tens of thousands of men and women.ISIS is thought to have very few fighters deployed against the coming onslaught, but they have laced each village with dynamite and improvised explosive devices, and ringed areas with oil to be lit to hide from coalition aircraft.
(Peshmerga forces prepare to attack ISIS in Mosul, October 17, 2016)Like the dying spasms of the Nazi war machine in Berlin in 1945, this will be a massive battle.At the heart and soul of the battle is the question of what the future holds for Iraq. Mosul was a center of resistance to the US occupation in 2004 and 2008.It went from being a city fanatically loyal to Saddam in the 1980s to a city rife with Islamist extremism. This is why it was such an easy conquest for ISIS.The minority communities ethnically cleansed from the city and the areas around it want to return, but they fear the lack of security. Millions of other refugees living in Iraq and the Kurdish region will also want to return.Iraq must ensure that atrocities are not carried out against civilians. Kurdish leaders must decide what role they want in a post-war Mosul. The Sunni militia and its Turkish allies must decide if they can cooperate with the Iraqi government.A new multi-cultural Iraq built on the anti-ISIS coalition could – theoretically – emerge. But divisions of the past and dark memories of more than 30 years of war will likely overshadow this brief alliance of convenience.