After months of planning and preparation, the operation to retake Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul from the Islamic State finally began Thursday.
While U.S. forces provide support from the air, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and predominantly Shia Muslim Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will make up the ground contingent.
“The first phase of the Fatah [Conquest] Operation has been launched at dawn to liberate Nineveh [province], raising the Iraqi flag in several villages,” said the Iraqi military in a statement on state television.
ISF is hoping to capitalize from recent successes in retaking the city of Ramadi and Operation Desert Lynx in the Euphrates river valley as they begin the operation. Mosul, however, is several times the size of Ramadi, sporting a population of around two million people. Capturing the city will be the ISF’s largest undertaking since it was formed after the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Awaiting the ISF and Peshmerga is a large ISIS force that has had the opportunity to dig into the city’s large, urban environment. James Snoddy, a former platoon commander who fought in Mosul during the U.S. invasion, warned in an op-ed for Foreign Policy that the fight for Mosul could be a “ten-year siege, perhaps longer.”
Further complicating matters are the differing objectives and influences of those retaking the city. It is well-known that Iran has a dominant influence with Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs), which make up a significant portion of the ISF. There are serious concerns that the mostly Shia Muslim PMUs could create a bloodbath out of the mostly Sunni population in Mosul.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero echoed his concerns as a former combat commander in late February, noting that urban warfare is remarkably difficult and particularly dangerous. “There’s no way the Iraqi Security Forces will be ready for this kind of fighting,” said Barbero.
Coalition forces in Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led mission against ISIS, have been laying the ground work for the Mosul operation for some time. Isolating the city from key supply routes going in and out of Syria has been a major point of focus for both U.S. air strikes and Iraqi ground forces.
In order to address the challenges for the Mosul operation, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has acknowledged that the U.S. role will have to expand.
“Iraqi security forces … will be in the lead, but we will be enabling them. Will we do more to enable them as they continue to go north? Yes, we fully expect to do that,” said Carter during a press briefing February 29.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford concurred with Carter at the same briefing, noting “we probably would do more in Mosul than Ramadi, just because of the order of magnitude of the operation up there in Mosul would indicate to me that we’d have more U.S. support in Mosul than we did in Ramadi.”
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