More than two years after ISIS seized its largest prize in Iraq, a coalition of forces have finally begun a massive military operation to pry it out of their hands. The strategically critical city of Mosul has more than a million civilians still left inside the battle perimeter, and their presence will complicate what promises to be a bloody, house-to-house battle to uproot the radical Islamist terrorists who have held the city in bloody tyranny, and used it to threaten the Kurds’ autonomous province in the north. The American commander of the coalition forces, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, announced the start of the operation, which he said will take “several weeks,” or longer. The troops that liberate Mosul will be entirely Iraqi, Townsend promises:
Reuters shows Kurdish Peshmerga advancing on the city in one arm of the operation (no narration):
Iraq’s Haider al-Abadi pledged to keep fighting until the Iraqi flag flew over Mosul, but the question remains as to how many will survive to see it if and when that happens. The Washington Post reports on the concerns over the humanitarian crisis about to unfold, especially if ISIS stays dug into the city. One strategy adopted by the Iraqis is to keep from encircling the city — allowing ISIS to retreat to the west:
To avoid a humanitarian crisis, the Iraqi government has asked civilians to stay in their homes, complicating air support and clearing operations to clear neighborhoods of militants.
“The operation will take much longer because of this,” Obaidi said. “For their safety, but it also means each neighborhood needs to be surrounded and searched as we clear it.” …
The western side of the city will be left largely open, which may make for a less protracted fight inside than if it was besieged. “We’ll try to give them an escape to run to Syria,” Jassim said of the militants.
Estimates of the remaining civilian population run from 1.2 million to 1.8 million, making this one of the largest urban assaults in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. In that brief war, the Iraqi army melted away rather than stand and fight, allowing US forces to minimize collateral casualties among civilians. They’re hoping ISIS will do the same, but history — and the consequences of retreat for ISIS fighters — make this all but a forlorn hope. ISIS’ bloodthirsty leadership in Raqqa have executed fighters who go backwards, and their commanders aren’t likely to worry about civilians getting caught in the crossfire either. In fact, they’ll be counting on the Iraqi Army to care about that and will pressure them to back off by using civilians as human shields.
Even if they do start running, that opening to the west isn’t terribly attractive when fighting an enemy with air supremacy:
Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, a spokesman for the Iraqi military, said that even if the western side is left open, it doesn’t mean a safe escape for the Islamic State. “If we do that, then this area will become a killing zone as we target them with our aircraft,” he said.
The coalition isn’t exactly a smooth-running operation with singular unity. Turkey has 3,000 Iraqis in the fight under their training and command. Despite calls from the Iraqi government to withdraw those forces, Turkey insists they’ll take part in the liberation of Mosul:
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus also told reporters on Monday that Turkey has no intention of withdrawing its troops from a base in northern Iraq, where they have been training Iraqi forces to fight the IS.
He says that so far, nearly 4,000 Mosul fighters, including Arabs, Turkmens, Kurds, and a number of Yazidis, have been trained in this training camp” in Bashiqa, near Mosul.
Kurtulmus says that “about 3,000 of them have joined the Mosul operation” with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan says that the intent of his part of the operation is to prevent “possible demographic changes in the area,” as the AP put it, especially the Sunni-Shiite balance of Mosul. So far, the coalition has told the media that Shi’ite militias will hold outside the city and that the liberation of Mosul proper will use only Sunni forces. Erdogan almost certainly wants to make sure that the Kurds don’t advance into Mosul to increase their prestige and power in the region. That mix could turn fatal for the liberation effort if not handled deftly by the US.
Hopefully, though, the liberation will succeed. It has taken far too long for the West to put an end to the rape of Nineveh and the genocides that have unfolded over the last two years in ISIS-controlled territory.