On 17 October 2016, Iraq launched a large-scale offensive to restore control over the city of Mosul from the hands of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Sunni extremist organization which had occupied since 2014 the city of then one million inhabitants. The Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder Al-Abadi delivered a televised speech on the day of the launch of the military operation, in which he said: “The time of victory has come and the operation to liberate Mosul has started.” Al-Abadi called on the people of Mosul to cooperate with security services, a step that was interpreted as a message of reassurance to the people of Mosul and the Nineveh Governorate because it implied that the the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU), composed of mostly Shiite militia groups, would not enter the city.
The operation to liberate Mosul involved the participation of a 100,000 men strong coalition of forces that consist of Iraqi Army, Counterterrorism Service and Rapid Response forces, local and federal police and Peshmerga soldiers, as well as the Popular Mobilization Forces. These Iran-backed Shiite militias fighting alongside the Iraqi Army, although having played an important role in retaking several cities and vast areas from the Islamic State, have also been accused of grave violations against Sunni citizens.
The liberation operation was initially limited to attacks on the city of Mosul from the northern, southern, and eastern axes to leave the door open for the residents to flee from the western axis. However, the Popular Mobilization Forces, en route to Tal’Aafar, which is located between Mosul and the Syrian border, launched attacks to advance on the southwestern part of Mosul to retake Tal’Afar from ISIL and cut off the supply route used by its militants from Syria.
Surprisingly, there was high coordination and cooperation between the Iraqi and Peshmerga forces, a coordination that was described by the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Mas’ud Barzani as “great,” and that the current battles are going as planned. He added that there was an agreement between the governments of Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region on the territories to be recaptured from IS. Barzani later wished for similar political plans to the military ones, stressed the importance of reaching a common understanding between Baghdad and Ankara, and reassured the people of Mosul that the liberating forces “will protect them and their property.” On October 27, 2016, Barzani confirmed that the Peshmerga forces will not enter the city of Mosul, stressing that only the Iraqi Army and Counterterrorism Service forces are entitled to enter the city.
Up to the first days of November, 2016, the battle developed quickly. The Iraqi and Peshmerga forces were able to liberate several areas. On October 31, 2016, two weeks after the launch of the battle, a senior Iraqi Army officer announced that the Iraqi forces had entered Mosul’s Al-Karama neighborhood and were close to breaking into the eastern neighborhoods of the city after they controlled the village of Al-Zuwiyah. By doing so, the Iraqi forces achieved a significant breakthrough on several axes in two weeks of military operations.
After two weeks, there were many military and political surprises and challenges. First, the participation of the Popular Mobilization Forces has been the source of political altercations, with Sunni leaders voicing their disapproval. But the Popular Mobilization Forces announced their intention to liberate the western part of Mosul, starting from the southern area of Sin Al-Dhubban in order to liberate the areas of Al Hadar, Tall Abtah, Sallal, and Tal’Afar where most residents are Shiite Turkmens. Western Mosul is the only destination that the Iraqi forces have not reached, although they are moving steadily towards the city from the north, east, and south.
On the other hand, the vast majority of the residents of Mosul are Sunnis, which is one of the reasons why Arab and Kurdish Sunni officials have objected to the participation of the Popular Mobilization Forces in the operation to liberate Mosul. The Iraqi-Turkish crisis has come to the surface again in light of Iraqi preparations for launching the battle to retake Mosul. The crisis has intensified to the extent that the Iraqi prime minister and the Turkish president engaged in a war of words. The crisis, however, is only one new chapter of tensions between the two countries: Turkey had deployed troops in the Iraqi city of Ba’shiqah, north-east of Mosul, on December 4, 2015. Both countries summoned their ambassadors against the backdrop of the Turkish military presence in Iraqi territory and the statements that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made on Turkey’s plan to participate in the battle to liberate Mosul. President Erdogan also objected to the Popular Mobilization Forces entering the city.
On the other hand, Iraqi officials protested the Turkish military presence. Some parties in Iraq even went as far as considering the military force stationed in the Ba’shiqah camp to be an occupation force. The Popular Mobilization Forces have also taken part in the tension, especially after Ahmad al-Asadi, the spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, announced that the response of the Iraqi forces will be “earthshaking.” Turkey’s main motivation behind its military movements could be its concern that some of the units of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, will be participating in the Mosul battle, and that the fight could lead to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents.
Problems and Challenges
An audio recording of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, was released following reports that the fighters of ISIL are withdrawing in the direction of Syria. In the recording, al-Baghdadi urged his followers to remain steadfast, fight the forces participating in the Mosul liberation battle. He called on the fighters to fight until the end and not to withdraw.
The Mosul liberation operation entails high risks and big challenges. According to Ravina Shamdasani, official spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who spoke in Geneva on October 29, 2016, DA’ISH [Arabic acronym for ISIL] killed and executed more than 250 people in Mosul within two days. Shamdasani also said that the Islamic State is holding at least 8,000 families from the area to be used as human shields in its war, confirming the terrorist organization is using “a cowardly strategy” to confront the advance of Iraqi troops planning to liberate Mosul. Lynn Maalouf, deputy director of the Beirut regional office of Amnesty International (AI), described ISIL’s actions as a “war crime.” She added, however, that this did not mean the Iraqi forces and the international coalition forces should not take the presence of these families into consideration, and should indeed “take all measures possible to minimize the damage that civilians in Mosul could be inflicted with, and avoid launching attacks that could cause harm to the civilians.”
In another report, Amnesty International called upon the Iraqi government and the international coalition not to use white phosphorus. AI emphasized that using white phosphorus, a substance that burns muscles and bones and has a burning effect in the air and at high temperatures, puts civilians in serious danger. The organization received photographic evidence of the use of white phosphorus bombs that were reportedly fired north of the village of Karemlash, approximately 20 kilometers east of Mosul, as well as on other areas.
According to the United Nations, another problem that Iraq is facing during the liberation operation, and will continue to face even after the liberation, is that almost one million people may be forced to leave their homes, which will lead to a suffocating humanitarian crisis. The camps that have been prepared cannot host even half of this number. According to the International Organization for Immigration, nearly 68,100 people have already been displaced since the start of the military operation. The living conditions of the displaced may become more difficult with the approach of winter.
Another challenge of the military operation is what Nechirvan Barzani, Prime minster of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, said in an interview with the German newspaper Bild published on Friday, 28 October, 2016. In the interview, Barzani said that he will discuss the “independence” of the autonomous region immediately after retaking Mosul from the jihadists of the Islamic State organization.
He added that the Kurds “have waited long enough,” and that after the invasion of Iraq led by the United States in 2003, the “new democratic Iraq” that the Kurds awaited had “failed to happen.” He also called on the international community to supply the Peshmerga forces with more arms.