New Delhi: Initial reports coming from Iraq indicate that the government forces have achieved success in their ground assault to retake Mosul, the last major stronghold of the Islamic State (IS) in the country, and closing in on the terror group’s positions. BBC reports that “Iraqi pro-government forces have made gains at the start of a large-scale operation to retake Mosul.”
Iraqi military and Kurdish fighters launched their advance towards the city on early Monday. It is the biggest operation in Iraq since the 2003 American-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, says Reuters. IS seized Mosul in June 2014. The city was Iraq’s second-largest city at the time and inhabited by a diverse mix of population from the country’s various ethnic groups.
Where is Mosul?
Located in northwestern Iraq, Mosul was home to around 2 million people before it was captured by the IS (also known as ISIL, ISIS or Daesh) in June 2014. Mosul is the capital of oil-rich Nineveh province and also famous for its rich ancient historical and cultural heritage.
Mosul’s significance and IS
Mosul is strategically located near the borders with Turkey and Syria. The control of Mosul gave the IS to launch and support the insurgency against the Syrian regime of president Bashar Assad. The IS also controlled the Mosul dam, built by Saddam Hussein on the Tigris River, considered by many experts as among the most dangerous of its kind in the world, as CNN reports.
The pro-government forces with support from the US-led air strikes reclaimed the structure from IS control in 2015. Moreover, Mosul, surrounded by the Kurdish controlled region of Iraq, gave the Sunni-dominated IS a launch pad to start jihad against Kurds and exacerbate Iraq’s sectarian strife and its impact on the coalition heading the government.
Mosul is Daesh’s last remaining stronghold and has been central to the terror group’s ideology and territorial ambitions. It was in June 2014 that IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of a caliphate from the city, as The Telegraph reports.
The coalition offensive and challenges
As BBC reports, about 30,000 pro-government troops are involved in the operation. The main assault is being led by Iraqi army troops aided by 4,000 Kurdish forces along with other Shiite and Sunni tribal militias. US Special Operations personnel along with British and French personnel are advising forces on the ground. The Guardian reports that “The US has recently deployed an additional 600 troops to aid in the retaking of Mosul, bringing the total number of US military personnel in Iraq to more than 5,200, according to the Pentagon.” Elite Iraqi counterterrorism forces are expected to join in the coming days. Turkey too has committed troops and involved in the training of the Iraqi army as well.
IS reportedly has an estimated 4,000-8,000 fighters defending the city. The terror group is using suicide attacks to target the government forces and to suppress their advance. Amaq, IS-linked news agency reported 8 such attacks on the Peshmarga forces on Monday.
The offensive is likely to take weeks, if not months, to complete. The Guardian reports that even more than a year’s US-led air strikes has not softened the IS fighters and they are offering stiff resistance to the Peshmarga forces. The terror group also can use chemical weapons as they have used mustard gas against Kurdish forces—up to 19 times in the past two years.
A test of Iraq’s future
A major fear in the battle for Mosul is that the Iraqi army (mostly composed of Shiite officers and soliders) and Shiite militias will try to exact revenge on the mostly Sunni residents of the city, as The Jerusalem Post reports. In the previous offensives against IS in other Sunni-stronghold areas, the Shiite militias were involved in violence against Sunnis.
Also, the objectives of participating forces are very different from each other once IS is driven out of the city as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s central government is weak.
The Battle for Mosul poses twin challenges of ensuring safety of civilians in the war zone and providing for those fleeing the war zone. As PRI reports, “An immediate impact of the offensive to retake Mosul is the near certainty of a refugee crisis that no one is prepared for.” The UN estimates some 200,000 people to be displaced in the first weeks of fighting with the final number of civilians feeling the war zone going up to a million.
At present, the aid agencies have capacity for just 60,000 people and require massive resources to avert a major humanitarian disaster. Save the Children have said the lives of more than half a million children “now hang in the balance”, as The Guardian reports.