Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced late Sunday night the start of the operation to liberate Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, from the Islamic State more than two years after it fell to the terrorist group.
“The hour has come and the moment of great victory is near,” al-Abadi said in a speech on state TV, surrounded by the Iraqi armed forces’ top commanders. “I announce today the start of the operation to liberate the province of Nineveh.”
The operation is the largest deployment of Iraqi soldiers since the US invasion in 2003, and it is being bolstered by airpower from a 60-country coalition opposed to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh.
The liberation of Mosul has been the linchpin of the Obama administration’s plan to defeat ISIS in Iraq, though Washington has expressed concern over Baghdad’s plans to move forward with the Mosul operation this year.
More than 80,000 troops are involved, Maj. Salam Jassim, a commander with Iraq’s elite special forces, told The Washington Post. The Iraqi army dropped thousands of leaflets on the city over the weekend warning its residents to stay away from known ISIS enclaves and to tell their children that the sound of airstrikes and bombs were “a game or thunder before the rain.”
Still reeling from the humiliating loss of Mosul in summer 2014 – when US-trained Iraqi forces dropped their American weapons and fled as ISIS advanced on the city – the Iraqi government spent the better part of the past year preparing for the offensive. Sunday’s start is most likely only the beginning of a very long battle to retake the large city.
“The United Nations is deeply concerned that in a worst-case scenario, the operation in Mosul could be the most complex and largest in the world in 2016, and we fear as many as one million civilians may be forced to flee their homes,” Lise Grande, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, told The New York Times last week.
Conflicting reports have emerged over how fiercely ISIS is preparing to fight the coming offensive. CNN reported on Sunday that members of ISIS were fleeing the city as Iraqi soldiers approached, but many experts have speculated that ISIS is unlikely to go quietly. Mosul is the terrorist group’s last stronghold in Iraq, where its territory has shrunk from 40% of the country at its peak to roughly 10% now.
“Mosul is the human and moral reservoir for ISIS, and the strategic link between Syria and Iraq, and they depend on Mosul,” a former ISIS commander who defected to southern Turkey told Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio. “It has a great significance in the hearts of the fighters. They will fight fiercely.”
Giglio, who is on the frontlines, tweeted late Sunday that there was a “rumor among soldiers at this Kurdish base that ISIS just brought 400 fighters to the villages they plan to try and take tomorrow.”
The New York Times reported that the 3,500 to 4,000 ISIS fighters who remain in the city were “frantically making military preparations,” though many of them have been fleeing to underground tunnels in anticipation of airstrikes.
The Iraqi army evidently expects many to try to escape. According to The Washington Post, the army plans to leave an escape route for the jihadists on the west side of Mosul in the hopes of lessening the struggle inside the city, where 700,000 to one million civilians still live.
“If ISIS does take an escape path later on, big risk of them using human shields,” Giglio said on Twitter. “Especially after their convoy was decimated fleeing Fallujah.”
- REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
The Iraqi army has taken back Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah from the terrorist group over the past year with the help of US-led coalition airstrikes.
Iraqi commanders inside Fallujah – which fell to ISIS in 2013 and was liberated by Iraqi forces in June – were optimistic about the offensive’s success in driving the militants out of the city for good. And most analysts agree that the gains made by Iraq’s security forces against ISIS since last year have been significant.
But many are also cautiously optimistic at best because of what ISIS’ quick retreat might indicate about the group’s shifting priorities and tactics and the role Shiite militias have played in liberating the overwhelmingly Sunni city.
Indeed, the Mosul operation’s complexity also stems from the number of actors participating in the city’s liberation. Up to 12 Iraqi army brigades, elite Iraqi counterterrorism units, Sunni tribal fighters, Kurdish peshmerga forces, at least seven different Iran-backed Shiite militias, and possibly some Turkish forces are expected to play a role in driving out the militants.
The role that will be played by Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashid Shaabi – a group of predominantly Shiite militias that have contributed to the kind of sectarian tensions that made Mosul susceptible to an ISIS takeover in the first place – is still a wild card that could undermine any short-term success against the terror group.
“The difficulties in liberating Mosul have as much to do with politics as with military strategy,” Warzer Jaff, a photojournalist from Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan who has been embedded with the Iraqi army and, most recently, with Iraq’s special forces, told Business Insider over the summer.
If the Shiite militias have any part in retaking the city itself, he said then, “it will be a bloodbath.”
That’s why a predominantly Sunni unit within Iraq’s much more capable special forces will need to drive the offensive, Jaff said, with the peshmerga and Shiite militias remaining well in the background.
Ultimately, that seems to be the plan – though for the first 48 hours, roughly 4,000 peshmerga forces will lead the offensive on Mosul’s eastern front, according to The Washington Post. Iraqi army units will push from the south.
After that, Iraq’s special forces will take the lead. But many expect the battle to be long and difficult.
“We’re expecting up to six months of house-to-house fighting,” a Kurdish official told BuzzFeed’s Giglio.
In any case, “the bigger issue has always been what happens after ISIS leaves the stage,” Stephen Biddle, who has worked in groups under Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus forming US counterinsurgency policy, told Business Insider in June.
That is why, in a piece published earlier this month, The Washington Institute’s Michael Knights – an expert on Iraqi politics and security – argued that the US-led anti-ISIS coalition should be prepared to extend its support to Iraqi security forces well past the liberation of Mosul.
“In other words,” Knights wrote, “don’t try to postpone Mosul, but do stay engaged in stabilizing Mosul for longer.”