Iraq: will fall of Mosul widen war?
The prime minister of Iraq on July 10 declared the full liberation of Mosul, as the last ISIS-controlled area in the Old City was taken by coalition forces. In a televised speech at the Counter Terrorism Service headquarters in Mosul, Haider al-Abadi said: "I announce from here the end and the failure and the collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terror." The operation to take Mosul from ISIS was launched in October 2016, bringing together a 100,000-strong force including the Kurdistan Region's Peshmerga, the Iraqi military and Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary forces, all backed by the US-led multinational Combined Joint Task Force (CJFT). (Kurdistan24, Military.com, July 10)
The cost of this liberation has been horrific. Much of the city lies in ruins. Large military vehicles were never supposed to be part of the battle for the Old City—its ancient streets are too narrow. But the intensity of the air-strikes in the final stages of the offensive has been so great that armored bulldozers now plough their way through. And ISIS could now resort to a terrorist insurgency in the city. There have been multiple reports of ISIS deploying suicide bombers, especially women, as they lost ground. (IRIN, July 6)
Iraqi military and paramilitary forces especially have been accused of atrocities against the civil population of Mosul. As these forces are Shi'ite-dominated and the city's populace mostly Sunni, this has enflamed sectarian hatreds that could serve ISIS well in making the city ungovernable.
Nearly 1 million have been displaced from Mosul and its immediate area over the course of the fighting, and the damage to their homes is an obstacle to return. The United Nations is requesting emergency funding to address the humanitarian crisis. "Many of the people who have fled have lost everything. They need shelter, food, health care, water, sanitation and emergency kits. The levels of trauma we are seeing are some of the highest anywhere. What people have experienced is nearly unimaginable," said the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Lise Grande. (Rudaw, July 10)
There is also great potential for the anti-ISIS coalition itself to fracture. The Kurdistan Regional Government joined Baghdad in hailing the victory in Mosul, with Security Council chancellor Masrour Barzani issuing a statement congratulating the combined forces. (BasNews, July 10) But the KRG's current push for indpendence could soon pit the Kurdish region against Baghdad.
And the Kurds themselves are divided—as is the CJTF on the Kurdish question. On the same day the liberation of Mosul was declared, Turkey carried out new air-strikes on Iraqi territory, targeting positions of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The strikes, hitting the Avasin-Basyan area of the Kurdistan Region, along the Turkish border, killed at least three PKK fighters. (BasNews, July 10) The KRG, viewing the PKK as rivals, has not protested the sporadic Turkish strikes on its territory—while, ironically, Baghdad has. The US, meanwhile, is backing PKK-aligned Kurdish forces in Syria.
Now we'll see if the victors can avoid opening a new war for control of the city and northern Iraq generally.... a dilemma we will soon be faced with in Raqqa, the besieged ISIS stronghold in Syria, as well....
And even as a new war looms, the old one isn't quite over. The coalition is now preparing an assault on Hawija, the last ISIS stronghold in Iraq. ISIS is said to be undertaking a massive recuiting drive in the city, calling up all males aged 15 or over, and organizing military parades in a show of force. (Iraq News, July 10; VOA, June 29)