‘They need to be persuaded they don’t need ISIS’: Retaking key Iraqi city of Mosul will be no easy task

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Dutch and Italians training Peshmerga at Duhok Infantry Training Camp on 17 and 18 February
For months, Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been taking up positions around Mosul, Iraq’s second city and a stronghold for the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham. It is now surrounded on three sides and in some cases the front lines are just kilometres away, says a peshmerga spokesman.

But while the world increasingly expects them to take Mosul soon, Kurds don’t: They’re settling in for a long and bloody siege.

Mosul is strategically important to ISIS — its more than one million inhabitants form as much as one sixth of the population living in the extremists’ self-declared caliphate. Retaking Mosul is therefore politically important for the Iraqi government and would mark a turning point in the war against the jihadists.

Last week, a U.S. Central Command official said in Baghdad the assault to retake the city would likely occur in April or May. The attack would involve 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers from eight Iraqi army brigades, three peshmerga brigades and a police force trained in irregular warfare.

However, Iraqi and Kurdish officials were quick to distance themselves from the announcement, leading some analysts to conclude it was more a “slogan” than a serious blueprint for retaking ISIS’s largest city.

Last Sunday, Khaled al-Obeidi, the Iraqi defence minister, denied U.S. officials had knowledge of an attack plan. “I don’t know where the American official got this information,” he said in Baghdad.

Likewise Peshmerga spokesman Helgurd Hekmat Ali was keen to emphasize the obstacles ahead of retaking the city. “Thinking about the fall of Mosul is still very tough,” he said.

Sectarian divisions, the threat of urban warfare and a lack of ground troops keen to fight ISIS in their own stronghold are just some of the factors giving even hardened fighters pause.

Add the United Nations’ concerns if the battle — or siege — of Mosul goes badly, it could displace up to 1.5 million Iraqis, compounding the existing refugee crisis, and it’s little surprise many in the region believe a final push is as far off as ever.

Crucial to understanding why ISIS was able to drive the Iraqi army from Mosul and hold it for so long are the deep sectarian cleavages across the country

Sunni Muslims are a minority in Iraq, but a majority in Mosul, which until recently also had significant Assyrian Christian, Kurdish, Turkmen, Shabak, Yazidi, and Shia inhabitants.

Sectarianism and discrimination left many Sunni feeling marginalized by the post-2003 Shia-dominated governments in Baghdad. ISIS, which practices an extreme form of Sunni Islam,  capitalized on this discontent to win support from disenfranchised Sunni Arabs in Mosul.

Since taking over the city, reduced services, increasing food prices, blackouts and cuts in the water supply have not necessarily weakened ISIS’s support, said Hassan Hassan, an authority on ISIS at the Delma Institute, an Abu Dhabi-based research centre.

Supporters “blame the government rather than ISIS,” he said. “I think ISIS is very comfortable in its heartland.”

This support means ISIS hasn’t needed to base large numbers of fighters, in Mosul, Mr. Hassan says. Thanks in part to the many vehicles abandoned by the Iraqi army in June, ISIS can move large numbers of troops in hours, meaning the low estimates of its fighters in the city were not meaningful.

Meanwhile, ISIS has been steadily preparing defences. Attackers will likely face guerrilla attacks from civilian areas and large numbers of improvised explosive devices.

AP Photo/File

AP Photo/FileIn this photo taken Monday, June 23, 2014, fighters from ISIS parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armoured vehicle down a main road at the northern city of Mosul, Iraq.

After the Iraqi army’s humiliating defeat last summer, when thousands of soldiers fled Mosul without a fight or surrendered, it has been rebuilding with U.S. help.  This past week, it received 10,000 M-16 rifles and other military equipment from the U.S., and American advisors are training troops. So far only, about 2,000 have completed courses and another 3,200 are currently in training, said a U.S. Central Command official.

The main forces leading the fight against ISIS have been Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militias. Neither will be welcomed as liberators by Mosul’s inhabitants, but the militias are particularly reviled, accused of a rash of sectarian murders across Iraq.

“Anyone but the Shia militias,” said a Mosul businessman who fled to Kurdistan last June. “Even the Americans would be better,” added the man, who declined to be named for fear of endangering relatives still in Mosul.

For their part, the Kurds are less interested in helping retake the city than with pursuing their nationalist aspirations and creating a buffer area against ISIS. “The peshmerga don’t want to go to Mosul because they will be seen as invaders,” said Mr. Hekmat Ali, the peshmerga spokesman.

Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdish region’s National Security Council, told National Public Radio last week the presence of Kurds in Mosul obligated the peshmerga to participate in an attack. “The Kurds will definitely have to play a role,” he said.

Normally defiant peshmerga fighters are subdued at the prospect.

At an infantry training camp in a verdant valley in Iraqi Kurdistan recently, members of a peshmerga platoon were being taught urban fighting techniques by Dutch and Italian military advisors. Days earlier, they had been fighting near Sinjar to cut ISIS supply lines between Mosul and Syria.

AP Photo, File

AP Photo, FileA pro-ISIS demonstration in Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014.

The platoon leader, a 27-year-old lieutenant, who went by his first name, Ali, was talkative about these previous exploits, but hesitated when asked about an attack on Mosul itself.

After a considered pause, he answered, “If Massoud Barzani [president of the Kurdish region and head of the peshmerga] says so, we will do it.”

In the meantime, Mosul was “nearly besieged,” said Mr. Hekmat Ali, with fighting continuing around the city.

Coalition air strikes, including by Canadian CF-188 Hornet fighter jets, have targeted ISIS positions there, but fear of killing civilians makes strikes in the city problematic. “If civilians die more people will turn toward ISIS,” Mr. Hassan said.

Already UN agencies in Iraq warn of a potential humanitarian catastrophe. Syed Jaffer Hussain, the World Health Organization’s representative in Iraq, said in Geneva this week a Mosul assault could displace up to 1.5 million people.

With nearly 2.5 million Iraqi refugees already in the Kurdistan region, Marwa Awad, a spokeswoman for the World Food program, said the region was “saturated,” but more kept arriving because there were no camps in southern Iraq.

The Mosul businessman said he worried for family and friends still in Mosul. “DAESH stop them from leaving,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “If there is bombing or fighting, where will they go?”

A successful strategy for retaking the city needs to provide local Sunnis with an alternative, Mr. Hekmat Ali said. “They need to be persuaded they don’t need ISIS.”

Mr. Hassan believes in this context, any talk of a forthcoming attack on Mosul was largely for propaganda purposes. “It’s a smart way of getting Sunnis to think that there is a plan to dismantle this project of ISIS.”

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