Battle for Mosul remains fraught with risk

Iraqi forces have launched a battle to recapture Mosul from Isis but the offensive faces many pitfalls and risks © AP

After two years scraping back territory lost in a humiliating defeat to Isis, Iraqi forces are now advancing on the city where the drama all began: Mosul. It is the most symbolic and important military struggle of the war against the jihadi militants, and the riskiest battle yet.

Haidar al-Abadi, prime minister of Iraq, launched the offensive to retake the country’s second city late on Sunday after weeks of political wrangling among the mix of unlikely regional and international allies that have come together for the battle.

“We come to rescue you and save you from the terrorism of Isis,” Mr Abadi said in a televised statement, addressing the estimated 1.5m people inside Mosul. “God willing, soon we will meet in Mosul to celebrate its liberation and your deliverance.”

Some Iraqi security officials insist it will be a quick and decisive offensive. Others fear a long, gruelling campaign.

For Isis, the fight for the de facto capital of its territory in Iraq could be a last stand in the country. For Iraqis, it is a chance to reverse the blow of June 2014 when several hundred Isis militants routed up to 30,000 Iraqi forces who fled Mosul and melted away across the country.

“This is the decisive battle against Isis. What happens here will decide our fate,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi analyst who studies Isis.

Today, Isis holds only about 10 per cent of Iraqi territory, after being defeated in cities including Ramadi and Falluja over the past year.

But while most military and political observers see the defeat of Isis in Mosul as an inevitable outcome, huge questions about the fallout of the battle remain. These include concerns over whether Isis could release poison gases, or if an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents could overwhelm humanitarians.

Most worrying is the highly combustible mix of political rivals who will fight on the same side against Isis but who could yet spark another regional conflagration.

Under a US-led air campaign, and supported by hundreds of US special forces, the campaign for Mosul will be spearheaded by Iraq’s counterterrorism and federal police forces. The elite brigades of some 10,000 Iraqi fighters have fought in nearly every battle against Isis in Iraq.

Kurdish peshmerga forces from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, just north of Mosul, will hold territory on the outskirts. The most contentious issue is the role of Iranian-backed Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, whose role could spark tensions in the mostly Sunni northern city who are wary of sectarian retribution.

Another pitfall could be the potential participation of Baghdad-supported fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), designated a terrorist group by neighbouring Turkey and most western countries.

Already, a war of words has erupted between Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mr Abadi over Ankara’s insistence on Turkey having some sort of role in the battle for Mosul. Tensions have simmered for months over the presence of between 2,000 and 3,000 Turkish troops in northern Iraq. Baghdad wants Turkish forces out, while Ankara demands that Iraq stop supporting the PKK.

“The tensions will begin the moment these forces go in to Mosul,” said an Iraqi security official. “The more the [Isis] threat diminishes, the more these partners will grow further apart … It’s going to get ugly.”

The humanitarian crisis could also be staggering. Aid workers say fighting around the Isis-held town of Hawija, 50km south of Mosul, has sent people fleeing, sometimes barefoot, on a 36-hour journey through territory riddled with explosives planted by Isis. Many arrive hungry, thirsty and on the verge of collapse — and aid workers worry these scenes could be replicated on a far larger scale as people flee Mosul.

“We fear the humanitarian consequences of this operation will be massive,” said Wolfgang Gressmann, country director at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

He added that coalition and Iraqi forces have not done enough to secure exit routes for civilians from the city.

“Unless the warring parties provide safe exits for them, they will be faced with the bleakest of choices: stay behind and risk their lives under attack, or risk their lives trying to flee,” Mr Gressmann said.

Isis has had months to prepare with an estimated 5,000-10,000 militants inside Mosul.

Iraqi security officials said the group has been working to divide roads in the city with concrete blocks in order to split neighbourhoods and hinder any Iraqi ground offensive. Local activists say Isis fighters have conducted mass arrests and executions to prevent an uprising inside the city.

Isis has dug long trenches around Mosul that it could fill with oil or gas canisters to cause fires that cause devastating destruction and also blur the vision of coalition aircraft, said a regional security official.

Mr Hashimi said coalition jets were already trying to take out targets seen as critical to improving the chances of the campaign, including suspected storage sites of chemical weapons, militants’ tunnels and sniper defensive lines.

Analysts say the Iraqi forces goal is likely to be to encircle the city and try to force the militants to flee westward, towards Syria.

Such a strategy could put civilians trapped inside the city at risk of starvation if the battle drags on, but also give Iraqi forces an opportunity to advance without a devastating bombing campaign.

Privately, security officials say they are bracing themselves for what Isis might have in store.

“They surprise us all the time — that has been their biggest tactical and strategic advantage so far,” said a regional security official.

Coalition officials also caution that some of most difficult issues will arise after the city is liberated — in particular, how the city will be governed.

Brett McGurk, US special envoy to the coalition, said plans for the city after Isis is defeated will lean heavily on existing Iraqi political institutions, with the governor of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, working closely with someone appointed by the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq to try to stabilise the city.

But political disputes over who should run the province and how have long worried Iraqi and regional leaders, who fear it could lead to future clashes. Washington has been determined to launch the Mosul campaign before next month’s US election, while Mr Abadi has sworn to liberate the city before the end of 2016.

“If you try to resolve all of those issues, [Isis] will remain in Mosul for the foreseeable future, and perhaps forever,” Mr McGurk said.

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