LONDON — More than two years after the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State, the battle to liberate Iraq’s second-largest city appears imminent.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in September that he expected the military offensive in Mosul to begin in October, although in later pronouncements he said he would decide at “the last minute” when to give the go-ahead.
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said the operation to liberate Mosul would begin “within weeks” and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, “There will soon be the main attack.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the military offensive would begin Oct. 19.
Iraqi officials said they expected the liberation to be swift and uncomplicated.
“The capture of Mosul will be finished in record-breaking time,” spokesman for the Iraqi army, Gen. Yahya Rasool, told the Financial Times.
Optimism was also expressed by Abadi in a recent interview with CNN.
“Mosul is supposed to be easier than these other cities outside Mosul, which we’ve been liberating, because these are the outskirts,” Abadi said. “They’re supposed to be more pro-Daesh than the city itself,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
“We are planning for a fight for many months but we anticipate the fight for Mosul will be easier than probably Ramadi.”
The United States leads the anti-IS coalition that provided Iraq with air cover, trained its soldiers and sent 5,000 troops — mainly military advisers — to Iraq. U.S. officials said Iraqi forces are ready for the Mosul offensive.
Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. said in September that Iraqi forces “will have in early October all the forces marshalled, trained, fielded and equipped that are necessary for operations in Mosul.”
Observers, however, said they fear complications during and after the liberation of Mosul.
Reports from Mosul indicate that IS has tightened its grip on the civilian population it is holding hostage in the city and is not expected to leave without bloodshed, booby traps and “tunnels of fire.”
The United Nations and aid agencies have said they are not ready to cope with the hundreds of thousands of people expected to be displaced once the offensive begins in Mosul, which is home to around 1.5 million people.
The Save the Children charity warned that the assault threatens “to put more than half a million children in the line of fire unless safe routes and other civilian protection measures are put in place.”
Authorities in Iraq’s Kurdish region, which already hosts some 1.5 million internally displaced people, warned that they might not receive more people if they did not receive additional aid.
There is also the issue of coordination between the various military forces, which include the U.S.-led coalition, the Iraqi Army, various Iran-backed Shia militias fighting under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Arab Sunni fighters and tribesmen.
“Despite talks of coordination between the many factions, the fact remains that there is no unified military command,” said Sabah al-Mukhtar, president of the London-based Arab Lawyers Association. “If there are indeed any agreements, who is going to enforce them?”
U.S. warplanes, coordinating with the Iraqi government, mistakenly killed 21 Arab Sunni fighters, in a strike on Kharaib Jabr village, south of Mosul on Wednesday.
Arab Sunni fighters have long complained of receiving insufficient materiel and military support from the authorities, unlike their Kurdish or Shia counterparts. They play an important role in the anti-IS offensive, as most of the city’s inhabitants are also Sunni Arabs, but they remain far too weak to liberate the city alone.
The Iraqi Army, which is entrusted with the major role of the offensive inside Mosul, may not be strong enough to do the job alone. Although the army is more trusted by the local population than the PMF, “it is still not viewed as a national army for all Iraqis,” Mukhtar said.
The PMF is said to be prohibited by the government from entering Mosul for fear its forces might carry out indiscriminate attacks against the civilian population in the city, following allegations of atrocities in other areas liberated from IS.
Human Rights Watch urged the Iraqi government to prevent Shia militias “implicated in laws of war violations” from taking part in operations in Mosul, and to “take steps to protect civilians fleeing and in camps from revenge attacks.”
“The last thing the authorities should allow is for abusive forces to carry out revenge attacks in an atmosphere of impunity,” said Lama Fakih, Human Rights Watch deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa.
It remains unknown what will happen if the PMF, which is taking part in operations in rural areas around Mosul, decides to enter the city.
There are fears over the role that will be played by Peshmerga forces as Kurdish officials have openly said they will hold on to territories they view as theirs, though they have denied having any design on Mosul.
Baghdad, however, remains wary. “The aim of the battle should not be territorial conflicts but to free the citizens from the persecution of ISIS,” Abadi warned.
By Mamoon Alabbasi, The Arab Weekly