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How the fight for Mosul is likely to play out

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19 October 2016 09:17

Compared to Syria, Iraq is going well. Admittedly, war-torn Syria is a low bar but still, as the Mosul offensive accelerates, it is worth reflecting on how far Iraq has come since 2014, when its army collapsed in the face of the relatively small force of Islamic State. Iraq’s future will now be decided by its actions after the almost inevitable tactical victory in Mosul. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi must win both the war and the peace, or the destabilisation of Iraq will start over.

Earlier this week Abadi announced that the operation to retake Mosul was underway. In reality, the offensive has been running ever since the Third Battle of Fallujah in June this year. The Iraqi army has been in intensive training, coinciding with a move north up the Tigris and the continuation of both the air offensive and the Peshmerga ring around the west, north, and partially around the east of Mosul. Abadi has promised the Iraqi people he will give them back Mosul by the end of the year, and that is not a bad estimate. It may take another six months to a year to make the city liveable. The hundreds of thousands of refugees to the south and east of the city, including both those in UN camps and those not, should not expect to march back in to normality sometime in January.

Most of the Iraqi forces, be they army, police, Shia militia or Sunni tribal forces, are still about 30 kilometres away from the outskirts of the city. Crossing the Nineveh Plain with its small villages, each of which will be at least peppered with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) if not actively defended, may take some days and possibly weeks. As the US Marines say, 'slower is faster', and there is no need to rush. Sceptics have said that Abadi’s announcement this week was also given with an eye to US politics, to help President Obama gain support for the final fight against the Islamic State in Iraq before he leaves office in January. But Obama’s reputation from Iraq and Syria will not be salvaged by a victory in Mosul. The US actions in those nations under his watch will continue to be questioned, much as the Iraq war has haunted the reputations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

For its part, the Iraqi army has had more than its fair share of ups and downs. Having made a small contribution to its rebuilding in 2005, I was disgusted at its failure against IS in 2014 under then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as were many of its officers and soldiers. Video of the army this week shows a well-equipped force with a certain amount of confidence from wins in Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah. It's a force made more confident by coalition air support overhead, and a number of mainly US advisers on the ground. It's also backed by efficient logistics and an adequate casualty evacuation capability. Our Australian trainers in Taji say they have been impressed by with the Iraqis' willingness to learn, but again, when you are working from such a low base, any change is dramatic.

The militias are a real concern, especially the Iranian backed Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (or PMU). There were accusations of war crimes towards Sunnis following the Tikrit and Fallujah battles, and Abadi tried to stop them from participating in the Mosul fight. He was not able to do this. While the PMU nominally answer to him, many Shia militias are really controlled by Iranian Quds Force officers. Abadi seems to have allocated these militias a task on the West flank of the Mosul offensive in the area of Tal Afar, but what they will do there, and whether they will be content to stay there, is yet to be seen.

Unless IS pulls out soon, the battle will grind on for months. In 2005, Fallujah was about one tenth the geographical and population size of Mosul; it took 10,000 of the best troops in the world, 2000-3000 Iraqi troops, and six long weeks to win it, stabilise it, clear every house and IED, and then start moving residents back in. Supposedly, an escape route has been left out towards Raqqa, inviting IS to move out of Mosul. But IS knows that if its people pull out now, they will be torn to pieces on the road or on the plain by the Peshmerga, the PMUs or the coalition air forces, as they were after Fallujah. I suspect that whatever top IS leadership there was in Mosul will have already pulled out to Raqqa, and those that remain are going to have to be killed one by one.

So even if IS makes a stand, by January Abadi should have his victory and be working to make the city liveable again. I can see no reason why the Kurds will get involved in the house-to-house fighting because they will never control Mosul as part of autonomous Kurdistan; why should they die for Baghdad? But they will consolidate as much as they can of their traditional areas, and then hold on to them. Even if the PMUs don’t go on an orgy of killing and push the Sunnis into the hands of the next extremist who passes by, their presence (along with Hezbollah and other Iranian forces) in Syria could be seen as Iranian influence from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.

Abadi has to make this country work, perhaps as a loose federation of Shia, Sunni and Kurd regions, as is legal under the current constitution. Maliki refused to even consider such an arrangement. We can only hope Abadi will be a bit more imaginative.

Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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