Iraqi forces, backed by Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite militias as well as US airpower, have launched their long-awaited offensive to retake Mosul, the last major city in Iraq under the Islamic State’s control. Iranian-backed Shiite militias are expected to play a key role in liberating Mosul from the Islamic State, which has occupied the city since June 2014.
“The campaign to liberate Mosul has begun,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi told the Iraqi media, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The anti-Islamic State coalition has been preparing the battlefield to retake Mosul for well over six months. Iraqi troops liberated the Qayyarah West airfield and the town of Shirqat over the summer, freeing up the supply lines to the south and allowing troops and aircraft to operate close to Mosul.
The final elements of the operation were put into place over the past several days. Hundreds of Iraqi special forces have moved to the front lines in preparation for the battle. Iraqi special forces have spearheaded the assaults of previously held Islamic State cities such as Tikrit, Baiji, Ramadi, and Fallujah. The Iraqi Air Force is dropping leaflets on the city warning civilians that the final push is imminent. Additionally, the US has stepped up airstrikes in and around Mosul, launching 11 strikes against a range of targets including “a chemical weapons facility,” tunnels, ammunition caches, a media center, and military units.
Masoud Barzani, the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, announced yesterday that “the preparation for the operation to liberate Mosul have been [sic]completed and have paved the way to begin the Mosul operation.”
If the Islamic State digs in and defends Mosul, the fight is expected to be bloody. More than 6,000 Islamic State fighters are thought to be in the city. It has deployed thousands of mines and has dug an elaborate network of tunnels and trenches across Mosul in preparation for a protracted urban fight. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in the city as the Islamic State has prevented them from leaving. However, during recent battles in major Iraqi cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah, the Islamic State withdrew the bulk of its troops and left a smaller rearguard force to bleed the Iraqi military and militias.
The forces in the fragmented anti-Islamic State alliance, a mix of Iraqi special forces and regular troops, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and Sunni and Shiite militias who number a total of 60,000, are each positioning themselves to reap the benefits of a post-Islamic State Mosul. The most dangerous element among these forces is the network backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC).
The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of Shiite, Sunnis, Christian, and Yazidi militias formed following the fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in 2014 to drive the Islamic State from Iraq, is controlled and dominated by IRGC-backed proxies. In an effort to rein in these militias, Prime Minister Abadi has created a parallel military organization for the PMF in the security apparatus outside of the command structure. However, the PMF remains riddled with Iranian-supported militias, and its key leaders are beholden to IRGC-Qods Force’s commander, Qassem Soleimani.
These forces and their Iranian advisers will participate in the operation for Mosul, as affirmed by Harakat al Nujaba head Akram al Kabi. Soleimani is expected to play “a major role” in the operation for Mosul, a PMF spokesman said two months ago, though this has not been confirmed yet.
The PMF alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga have reportedly agreed to clear and hold areas in the outskirts of the city, while Iraqi Security Forces backed by US airstrikes lead the brunt of the operation to take the city. This was implemented to assuage local Sunni Arab population concerns about vengeful retribution and abuse from the militias, though there is no guarantee and this has not stopped Shiite militias from abusing the local populations attempting to flee an area, such as Fallujah this past summer.
Just last week, Qais Khazali, a designated terrorist who leads IRGC-backed Asaib Ahl al Haq, called for Shiite holy war and vowed that Mosul would be revenge for battle of Karbala 14 centuries ago, the defining event that sealed the Sunni-Shiite schism in which the third Shiite Imam Husayn was killed.
Meanwhile, Shiite militias have threatened to attack Turkish forces near Mosul, highlighting a risk factor that can escalate and affect the siege on Mosul. About 500 Turkish troops are positioned in Bashiqa, a town north of Mosul, where they have been training troops there against the wishes of Baghdad, but with the permission of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Abadi has demanded Turkey to leave and not participate in Mosul, but Turkish President Recep Erdogan has refused, voicing his opposition to the PMF’s participation and suggesting that Turkey will play a role in Mosul with or without Baghdad’s permission. This could be more political posturing from Erdogan, who wants to expand his influence in Iraq and strengthen the hand of Turkish-backed factions, especially as Erdogan is boxed in in northern Syria and is silent towards the onslaught in Aleppo because of his deal with the Kremlin. There is nevertheless the risk that attacks against Turkish troops can draw Ankara further into Iraq.
If all proceeds as planned, the PMF and aligned forces will open the operation with an attempt to retake Hawija, a town 100 kilometers south of Mosul. The Peshmarga and Iraqi forces are expected to participate, with the backing of US airstrikes. If the Islamic State loses Hawija, it will not be able to flank Iraqi forces from the east.
The Shiite militias will position themselves to the west of Mosul in order to prevent Islamic State fighters from escaping into Syria, which Hassan al Sari, the Saraya al Jihad commander, has confirmed. Akram al Kabi said last month that forces intend to push into the Islamic State’s stronghold in eastern Syria in order to protect further incursions and “protect Iraq’s national security.” Kabi made the remarks on prime time Iranian television during a high-level visit and meeting with top Iranian officials. The PMF could use such lines of argument to push back against calls for dissolution, portray itself as a necessary security force post-Mosul, and argue that the original 2014 mandate to drive the Islamic State from Iraq is unfinished and needs guarantees to prevent the incursion of the Islamic State and successive groups. The argument could resonate, as the Islamic State still is dangerous: at least 55 people in Baghdad were recently killed by a bombing on October 15.
Kabi also said that Mosul would free more resources to shift into broader operations in Syria. Indeed, more IRGC-backed Iraqi Shiite militia have been deployed in larger numbers since September, and the contingent in Aleppo makes up half of the total 10,000 forces fighting on behalf of Bashar al Assad.
Soleimani and the PMF have been working to ensure that they are well positioned in Iraq once the Islamic State is pushed out of Mosul, as are other armed factions in a fragmented Iraq, including those who desire to chart a different course than Tehran. The Iranian-backed network wants to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity, enshrine the PMF into a permanent part of the state and security apparatus akin to Iran’s IRGC, present itself as legitimate partners, and strengthen its influence on the state’s levers of power. A strong showing in Mosul will further those goals.