The battle for Mosul is on. The northern Iraqi city where Daesh proclaimed the establishment of its state is now surrounded by a wide coalition of armies seeking to dislodge the terror organisation from the stronghold. At stake is a fight to end the group's two-year stranglehold over a huge portion of Iraqi territory.
"Mosul is the capital of Daesh," General Sirwan Barzani of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces told TRT World in an interview on the Gwer Front just south of Kurdistan Regional Government’s capital, Erbil. "Even moreso than Raqqa – in terms of strategic location, population, economically – it's the most important for them," he said, referring to the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, often referred to as the capital of Daesh.
General Barzani leads a battalion of peshmerga, or Iraqi Kurdish soldiers, stationed along the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government’s 1100 km stretch of front-line territory, holding firm after Daesh fighters came within 20 km of Erbil in February 2015.
"The reason this battle is so important is because we are on Daesh’s doorstep, fighting them on behalf of all civilization, because, really, they pose a threat to the entire world," General Barzani said. "They are ready to die, all of them, and we are ready to die to defend our nation. The Peshmerga, the Iraqi army, Sunni tribes – we don't know about the Shia militia yet – but we are ready to go to the end to defeat Daesh," he continued.
The offensive against Mosul involves a complex constellation of armies which, despite their sometimes deep-seated resentments and rivalries, are coordinating toward a single goal – expelling Daesh and taking back Iraq. It’s a complicated battlefield, and everyone wants a piece of the action for their own reasons.
Who are the players in the battle for Mosul?
Instead of a single standing army, Iraq’s military and security forces consist of a complex chorus of armed factions. The largest force on the ground is the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), under the command of Baghdad. But when the operation was officially launched in a pre-dawn announcement by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, it came with a caveat: local militias of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a Shia-majority coalition of smaller, semi-professional fighters gathered from around the country, would not be allowed to enter the city of Mosul. Kurdish peshmerga forces under Erbil’s command would back up the rear line of support, but would not charge into the city centre.
It gets more complicated; Turkish troops stationed in Bashiqa at the invitation of the Kurdistan Regional Government to train the local militias of Ninawa Province, the Sunni-majority National Mobilization Forces are involved in the Mosul operation in a support capacity, but would not yet become directly involved in combat, a senior Turkish security official told TRT World on Monday. And above the battlegrounds, the US is lending its air support to clear the way for the cavalry to enter Mosul.
The complicated battle strategy was eventually settled upon after weeks of heated debate among the region’s capitals. The fear is that the Mosul operation might rupture the region’s fragile web of relationships – retaking the city could redirect a triumphal moment into a catastrophe.
Ninewa Province, where Mosul is located, consists of mainly Sunni Muslims. After the US invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein and the country elected a Shia-led government in 2005, the northern region had become increasingly isolated from Baghdad. Public services were left in disarray. Ignored by Baghdad, deep resentment began to take hold. That multiplied when government security forces abandoned their posts around the city, allowing Daesh militants to completely overtake the city, transforming it into the centre of its self-proclaimed "caliphate."
Fears have remained high that if a Shia-led force such as the Popular Mobilization Units were to lead the charge into Mosul, they might be seen not as liberators, but as a different kind of invader. At the same time, recent suicide bombings in Baghdad that killed hundreds over the Eid holiday were claimed by Daesh and are fresh in the minds of many Iraqis. Those incidents caused widespread resentment towards Daesh, an organisation that had initially derived support from marginalised Sunni Muslims.
Baghdad has long had cool relations with the KRG in Erbil. The latter has been accused by some Iraqi politicians as using the offensive against Mosul to expand the territory under its control – fears played out in Kirkuk over the past year
But General Barzani roundly dismissed these concerns. "We know Mosul is not a Kurdish city. When we take our people in there to fight, we want to make sure that they are welcoming us. If not, then why would we go?"
To head off these issues, the Iraqi Security Forces were chosen by Prime Minister Haider al Abadi to be the first to enter the city, carrying the national flag of Iraq. Also participating are the recently reassembled "Ninewa Guard," consisting of native Sunni Arab local militias of the province where Mosul is located, under the leadership of the former governor of Ninewa Province, Natheel al Nujaifi.
For now, the battle of Mosul is off to a steady start. What remains to be seen is how the rival parties can put aside their differences, coordinate to decisively expel Daesh from Iraq, and begin to work on resolving the deep divisions that continue to challenge the country's unity.