Every party fighting the Islamic State, from the U.S. to Iranian-backed militias, recognizes that Mosul must be liberated, but internal disagreement and an unprepared ground force are delaying plans to retake the city, reported the Wall Street Journal Sunday.
The U.S., Iraq, Iranian-backed militias and the Kurds all have an interest in seeing Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city — be retaken from ISIS. Despite recent successes in the Iraqi city of Ramadi and Shaddadi in Syria, the push on Mosul has been hamstrung due to each party wanting to seize the prize for itself.
“Each side is striving to claim the victory in Mosul to gain more political influence,” Ammar Tauma, a Shiite Iraqi legislator and member of the Iraqi security and defense committee, told the Wall Street Journal. “For their political rivalry to play out at the expense of our people is unacceptable.”
A main concern stems from Iran’s ever-increasing influence over Iraq. Iran, through its Iraqi Shia militia proxies (Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs), wants to take a leading role in securing Mosul. The U.S. and Iraqi governments, however, would prefer to see the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) spearhead the operation much like they did in Ramadi, according to the report.
The Kurds, who have taken the primary role in fighting ISIS in the northern portions of Iraq near Mosul, desire a large role in the operation, however, old rivalries with the government in Baghdad are making that a difficulty reality. Any large Kurdish involvement in retaking Mosul could lend strength to Kurdistan’s case for full autonomy from Iraq, something Baghdad does not want to see happen.
Despite the unclear strategy for liberating Mosul, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last Monday that “operations against Mosul have already started.”
The operations thus far have mostly consisted of isolating the city from the rest of the so-called caliphate, with special emphasis on cutting it off from the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria. The operation to retake the town of Shaddadi, which lies between the two cities, was key in cutting off a main supply line into Mosul. Syrian resistance forces, aided by U.S. air power, took the city from ISIS February 22 after a week of fighting.
Successful as the Ramadi and Shaddadi operations have been, Mosul is a different beast entirely. With a population of as many as two million, the ISIS-held city is a formidable target and several times the size of Ramadi. In an op-ed for Foreign Policy, former Army platoon Commander James Snoddy wrote that the battle to retake Mosul could result in a “ten year siege, perhaps longer.” Snoddy fought on the ground in Mosul during the U.S. invasion from September 2005 to August 2006 and points to the difficulty of urban combat warfare in a city of millions as a major reason for his estimate.
At the strategic level, former Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero appeared to agree with Snoddy’s assessment, based on his comments in a February 25 Washington Times report.
“Urban fighting is the most sophisticated, complex fight there is,” said Barbero, a former commander in Iraq and the man who was responsible for training the Iraqi Army during the U.S. occupation. “Multidimensional. It’s direct fire. Indirect fire. Precision fires. If you want to gain support from the occupants, the Sunnis, you can’t go in there and just run with it. So it has to be a very, very precise application of firepower against an enemy that has no regard for the population and will indiscriminately use violence to hold on. There’s no way the Iraqi Security Forces will be ready for this kind of fighting.”
It would appear that U.S. and Iraqi officials are aware of the difficulties ISF soldiers are likely to encounter on the battlefield in Mosul. Thousands of Iraqi forces are currently engaged in training at Makhmour, just 40 miles southeast of the city. Around 2,000 to 3,000 troops are currently readying themselves for the Mosul fight, but Iraqi military leaders are keeping a modest view.
“We are all trained, qualified and ready for battle. But this force is not enough to retake Mosul,” said Iraqi Lt. Col Mohammed al-Wagaa to the Associated Press. “The battle for Mosul is going to take a long time.”
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