The 'Apocalyptic' Fight To Reclaim Mosul From IS Has Begun
So the battle for Mosul has begun. Early Monday morning, the Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider Abadi, announced the operation to take back Islamic State's last major urban stronghold by a combined force of Iraqi army soldiers, Kurdish peshmerga, Shia (a denomination of Islam) militias and coalition air power.
Mosul was the first city to be taken by ISIS when they swept into northern Iraq in the summer of 2014 and it's there that their leader, Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi, announced the creation of a caliphate, which is an area containing an Islamic steward (a person considered a religious successor to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad), and the rebranding of the group as the Islamic State. Those citizens who were unable to flee have for two years been living under one of the most repressive and brutal regimes on the planet, where public executions for minor infractions of their strict interpretation of sharia law have been common place.
Image Credit: PA Images
Slowly but surely the Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militias, with the help of coalition air power and special forces, have clawed back territory from IS in fighting that has left major cities decimated and millions of civilians displaced. Mosul remains the last major city under IS control and it's here the Iraqi government intends to break IS as a military power capable of holding territory and extorting and oppressing civilians.
Despite IS military capability having been ground down over two years of heavy fighting that's seen them lose possibly up to 45,000 fighters, this will be no easy fight. The 6,000 or so IS fighters in the city have had months to dig in, setting up sniper positions, machine gun nests and preparing teams of suicide bombers to try and turn the city into an urban meat grinder. Progress is predicted to be slow, with analysts thinking it could take months to take full control of the city. Prior to the IS takeover there were two million people living in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and it is thought now that around 1.5 million remain. Some have tried to flee as the fighting has started whilst many others are still trapped inside.
Image Credit: PA Images
More Like This
Mosul is a majority city of Sunni, which is the largest denomination of Islam, and so the Iraqi army, which is ostensibly a secular force but in reality is a Shia majority, will be taking the lead in the fight. They will be the only force that will supposedly be permitted to enter the city.
The Americans were extremely keen that the Shia militias, also known as the Hashd al Shaabi, were not to take a major role in the fight for the city. The Hashd are a collection of mainly Shia militias, the most powerful of which have strong ties to Iran and fought against US forces when they were stationed in the country. They were instrumental in halting the IS advance on Baghdad but stand accused of a number of abuses against Sunni civilians in areas they control, including the disappearance and suspected murder of 600 men and boys in Anbar. Instead of fighting for the city itself, the Hashd have been tasked with securing the western side of the city to cut off the escape routes for any fleeing IS fighters. However, that being said, the leader of the Badr Organisation, one of the largest Hashd groups, has been quoted as saying: "no one can stop us from entering Mosul". This rhetoric will undoubtedly unnerve the Sunni civilians left in the city who rightly fear that these groups could carry out further atrocities and/or arbitrarily arrest and accuse people of being IS sympathizers and collaborators as has happened in the past.
Image Credit: PA Images
So far, so good. The Kurdish peshmerga, who, like the Hashd, won't be permitted to enter the city, took seven IS-held villages to the east of the city and came under attack from IS SVBIED's (suicide car bombs) as they advanced. The Iraqi army, meanwhile, have advanced from the south. Both forces have received coalition air support which has also targeted IS positions and one of the major bridges in Mosul in an effort to disrupt IS movement within the city.
Over the next few days and weeks, the fighting will increase which will likely see many thousands of civilians attempt to flee towards Kurdish territory in the east. These areas are already under strain from the 1.5 million refugees. The UN predicts this could be the "single largest humanitarian operation in the world", with up to one million people potentially fleeing the fighting and seeking shelter.
It's early days yet in what will be the largest battle of this conflict but the defeat of IS in Mosul certainly won't lead to harmonious times in Iraq. It will have to confront its ailing economy and sectarian divisions that have deepened since IS established its so-called caliphate. It also won't be the end of IS. Some fighters will travel to Syria and continue fighting there. Others will switch back to an insurgency and continue attacks against Iraqi security forces or some may even look for ways to hit targets inside Europe, imitating the horrific attacks in Paris and Brussels.