Iraq: The Terrible Battle for Mosul

Iraqi civilians fleeing from the ISIS-controlled towns of Shirqat and Gwer, which Iraqi and Kurdish forces were attempting to recapture as part of the Mosul offensive, July 2016
Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos with support from the Pulitzer Center
Iraqi civilians fleeing from the ISIS-controlled towns of Shirqat and Gwer, which Iraqi and Kurdish forces were attempting to recapture as part of the Mosul offensive, July 2016

Until late this summer the town of Qaryat Kanhash, in northern Iraq, was a stronghold of the fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) and one of their last points of defense around the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul. Then, on August 14, as part of a campaign to drive them out, 2,500 of the Kurdish troops called peshmerga swept across Nineveh province from Iraqi Kurdistan and attacked the town from the north and the east.

The peshmerga fired on enemy positions with artillery and rolled through the streets of Qaryat Kanhash in tanks and armored personnel carriers. US jets swooped in, destroying Islamic State vehicles, command-and-control centers, and barracks with precision air strikes. In two days, the Kurdish forces and their American allies killed one hundred ISIS fighters and sent the remaining two hundred fleeing thirty miles west to Mosul. The Kurds lost fifteen men—all killed by ISIS snipers firing from the top floors and rooftops of a hospital, a school, and other public buildings.

Ten days after the fighting, two peshmerga fighters agreed to take me on a tour of the battlefield. We met in 110° heat at the Black Tiger base, a dusty military camp west of Erbil, the main city of Iraqi Kurdistan. The camp is named after its commander, Sirwan “Black Tiger” Barzani, a mobile phone company magnate and the nephew of the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, who earned the name while fighting against Saddam Hussein’s forces in the mountains in the 1990s. Just inside the entrance to the camp, Barzani’s fighters had piled a dozen burned and bullet-riddled pickup trucks. They were ISIS suicide vehicles, I was told, intercepted and shot to pieces as they sped toward Kurdish military checkpoints inside the town.

We crossed a badly damaged bridge over a canal leading from the Tigris—patched together by the Kurds after ISIS engineers had blown it up—and drove down the road into Qaryat Kanhash. Except for soldiers, the town was deserted: the peshmerga had evacuated the civilians to a nearby camp for displaced persons. Engineering teams were inside houses, searching for booby traps. Small red warning flags surrounded the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the roadside.

Moments after we arrived a thunderous explosion rocked the town when peshmerga engineers blew up a cache of ISIS bombs in a controlled detonation; thick smoke rose from inside a building a hundred yards away. A second explosion sounded just behind a barren brown hill half a mile to the north, followed by another plume of smoke. “Daesh is based just behind the hill, and the Americans are bombing them,” said my escort, Sadullah Abdullah, a husky lieutenant colonel, using a common Arabic term for the Islamic State.

Abdullah told me that Kurdish forces had taken ten smaller villages up the highway during the offensive, but they had not yet secured the road, and there was a chance that Daesh stragglers still lurked in the fields. “It’s very dangerous,” he said. I saw half a dozen US soldiers relaxing on the porch of an opulent villa. According to Abdullah they were Special Forces advisers—so-called eyes. They entered combat zones alongside Kurdish troops and helped to identify targets for US bombers. The peshmerga were under orders, he said, not to allow journalists to speak to them.

Abdullah told me we had to leave; the town was all too clearly now within range of Daesh artillery, and a shell had killed two peshmerga the night before. As we drove back to the base I asked him when he thought the Kurdish forces would resume their advance toward Mosul. Would they be permitted to enter the city? According to an agreement with Iraq’s central government, the peshmerga are allowed to fight only inside the autonomous Kurdish regions of Iraq, and Mosul is well outside them. But the definition of that territory has always been fluid—and in the vacuum created by the collapse of Iraqi security forces, the Kurds have expanded their zone of control. Already Kurdish forces have taken additional territory equivalent to around 50 percent of the size of their recognized autonomous zone.

“We are just waiting for the politicians to decide when and where we should move,” Abdullah told me. “I am impatient to start.”

The Islamic State began its drive across Iraq in December 2013, when several hundred jihadists formed an alliance in Anbar province with former Baathists and Sunni tribal militias, all opposed to the sectarian politics of Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister. The jihadists gained control of Fallujah, Ramadi, and other towns in Anbar in early 2014. During the following months they also seized parts of Salahuddin, Kirkuk, and Diyala provinces, leaving a trail of atrocities behind them. (The most notorious crime was the murder of more than a thousand Iraqi air force cadets at Camp Speicher, near Tikrit, on June 12.)

During the preceding week, 1,500 ISIS and other militants swept across the desert from Syria and defeated four depleted army divisions in Mosul. They looted banks, then broke into the jail, where they freed the Sunni prisoners and killed hundreds of Shiites, Kurds, and Christians. Three weeks later the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared at the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul and proclaimed a caliphate. “Allah has bestowed upon [the mujahideen] the grace of victory and conquest…after many years of jihad,” he declared. The jihadists declared sharia law, destroyed churches, shrines, and tombs; cut phone lines and the Internet; made Christians pay extortionate fees to practice their religion; and forbade people to leave the city for more than three days or forfeit all their assets. The spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Operations Command Center, Yahya Rasoul, told me in Baghdad last month that “morale in the security forces had collapsed.”

In the two years since that debacle, the Islamic State’s hold on Iraq has steadily eroded. Peshmerga fighters, backed by US air strikes, advanced through northwestern Kurdistan in November 2015, seizing back territory lost to the militants the previous year, including the town of Sinjar. In August 2014 ISIS militants had murdered five thousand men and boys from the region’s Yazidi sect and enslaved Yazidi women and girls in a “forced conversion campaign.” Iraqi security forces recaptured Tikrit in the spring of 2015—also with the help of heavy US bombing—then reclaimed much of Anbar province. Ramadi fell last January, and the Iraqi army recaptured Fallujah in June following a four-month siege.

Shiite militias, known in Arabic as Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces), which had protected Baghdad during the Islamic State’s initial assault, have seized territory from it in Salahuddin, Diyala, Anbar, and Kirkuk provinces. By August 2014 the Islamic State held one third of Iraq and significantly profited from the country’s oil fields. Since then it has been reduced to a few scattered pockets of resistance north of Baghdad, and a single but major city: Mosul, the mainly Sunni capital of Nineveh province, with a population of 1.8 million.

Does Iraq plan to launch a final assault against Mosul? Western diplomats and military officers I spoke to in Baghdad insist that the advance toward the city is making slow but steady progress: the Iraqi security forces and the Kurds have tightened their control around Mosul, cutting off ISIS supply routes and blocking the principal road across the border to Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria. In July the Iraqi army seized back an air base in al-Qayyara, about forty miles south of Mosul, which will allow them to shuttle in large amounts of supplies and secure a staging ground for an operation.

“We have a clear strategy for the liberation of Mosul, and this strategy will bring very successful achievement, inshallah,” I was told by Rasoul. A US diplomat involved in the preparations told me that the military encirclement has worked “to further isolate Mosul, clear IED networks, and [impede] their ability to get oil revenues and oil trucks and infiltrate or exfiltrate fighters.” In a speech in Baghdad in early September, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who was appointed in August 2014, promised that the city would be “fully retaken” by the end of 2016.

Will it? The Iraqi military was decimated by the Islamic State, and the US military, which brought some five thousand soldiers to Iraq, is rushing to train thousands of raw recruits. Much of the Iraqis’ equipment—consisting mainly of Soviet-era and American weapons—is in desperate need of repair or replacement. The Islamic State has had two years to prepare for the assault, and according to Iraqi intelligence it has created formidable defenses against any attack. Rasoul told me, “The Iraqi army left behind many heavy weapons that can now be used against it, and the militants have laid booby traps and built a network of tunnels and defensive lines.” Between six and nine thousand ISIS fighters are inside the city, few of whom, presumably, would be prepared to surrender. “In Mosul,” the US diplomat predicted, “it will be a fight to the death.”

The hesitation in the drive toward Mosul also has much to do with Iraq’s fractious politics. The three main forces advancing toward the city—the Iraqi army, the peshmerga, and the coalition of independent Shiite militias, some backed by Iran—are in conflict about their parts in the coming liberation. Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government prime minister, announced last summer that the peshmerga would play a “central role” in the liberation of Mosul, which has a minority Kurdish population. The top commanders of the Iraqi security forces, dominated by Shiites, insist that the Kurds stick to the outskirts of the city, which is itself largely Sunni—then withdraw as soon as the battle is over.

The Shiite militias, poised within striking distance of Mosul in parts of neighboring Kirkuk province, have also demanded that they participate in the Mosul operation. “They played a huge role in the liberation of areas [around Baghdad] and they are highly motivated,” a US military officer in Baghdad told me. But the prospect of armed Shiites sweeping through Mosul has alarmed many Sunnis, who recall the killings of Sunni civilians during the liberation of Fallujah and other parts of Anbar province last spring. Some Shiite militia leaders, meanwhile, say they will oppose any attempt by the peshmerga to march into Mosul. Kurdish leaders are also demanding a referendum on their own independence as soon as the Islamic State is driven out of the country. Al-Abadi has hedged on Kurdish independence, which is opposed by most of the Shiite majority. (The US government has repeatedly said it supports a united Iraq.)

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Mike King

Leaders of the three groups have tried to iron out their differences in many meetings, and Brett McGurk, the diplomat and lawyer appointed by President Obama last year as special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, has shuttled between Erbil and Baghdad, searching for common ground between Kurdish President Barzani and al-Abadi. (The US won’t meet with the Shiite militia leaders.) “The planning for Mosul has sometimes been raucous,” the US military officer in Baghdad told me. “There has to be a lot of [balancing] of competing interests as they figure out what they’re going to do.” The disagreements—and occasional violent clashes—among the armed groups have slowed down preparations for the attack on Mosul and raised the prospect of bitter conflict in the aftermath of the attack. There is fear that the defeat of the Islamic State, while ridding Iraq of one problem, may bring about the final fragmentation of the country among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds—and produce more instability in the heart of the Middle East.

One blazingly hot afternoon in August I drove to the Inner Karrada neighborhood in Baghdad, the site of a suicide bombing after midnight on July 3 that killed around three hundred and fifty people—the worst terrorist attack in Iraq since 2003. The attack served as a terrible reminder that it is far too early to regard the Islamic State as a spent force. The police had sealed off the street from vehicles, so I parked my car and walked down an alley to the site of the blast. The blackened shells of two four-story residential and commercial buildings, destroyed by a fire that followed the explosion, rose over a deserted boulevard littered with barbed wire and other debris. Inside burned-out cafés and shops on both sides of the street, workmen hammered and sawed to repair damage; an Iraqi flag fluttered from a rooftop. The bomber had driven a van packed with explosives into a crowd of shoppers and cafégoers who were enjoying the cool evening after a long day’s fast during Ramadan. Many were killed instantly, and the fire killed at least two hundred people in a basement shopping arcade. Haider Mohammed, who owns a clothing shop next door, watched the next morning as the police carried out the charred remains of “eighty-seven of my friends”—shopkeepers and café workers he’d known for years. “This was so much different from other explosions we have had because of the incredible fire,” he said.

This latest Islamic State attack caused fear across Baghdad and drove many people indoors just as the city seemed to be coming back to life. The walls against bomb blasts and the barbed wire that had begun to disappear from the streets went back up; the crowds thinned out in cafés and shopping arcades. More police and military checkpoints create traffic jams over bridges and thoroughfares—some, I noticed, decorated with posters of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, venerated by Shiite Muslims.

As the heat receded late one weekday afternoon, I visited the Beiruti Café on the Tigris River, a popular place to sip tea, smoke narghiles, or water pipes, and watch the sun go down over the Tigris. Tinny Arabic music wafted from several other cafés downriver; dozens of customers lounged on sofas at riverside. “We have to pretend that life is normal,” a young man told me.

Yahya Rasoul of the Joint Operations Command described the attack as “a terrible failure in our intelligence and security forces”—and it has shaken the resolve of some Baghdad residents. There is a sense among Shiites that each time the government ratchets up its war against the Islamic State in the Sunni areas of the country such as Mosul, the consequence is revenge attacks against the predominantly Shiite population of Baghdad. “People are tired—they lost so many people, they might sometimes say stop the attacks [against the Islamic State],” said Haider Mohammed, the clothing shop owner. He disagrees with them. “If I would be burned one hundred times,” he said, “I would not let Daesh stay in this country. I would carry a weapon myself if I could.”

The war against the Islamic State has thus raised the specter of a return to the sectarian violence that tore Iraq apart a decade ago. I met Hamid al-Mutlik, a member of parliament from Anbar province, at his home in Yarmouk, a mostly Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, on the west bank of the Tigris River. At the height of the civil war in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, Yarmouk was used as a dumping ground for Shiites who had been abducted and murdered by roving Sunni death squads. “You would see bodies lying on the streets every morning,” my driver and interpreter told me. The neighborhood has since been quiet, but al-Mutlik says that tensions are rising.

Last June, as the Iraqi security forces advanced into the mainly Sunni city of Fallujah, the US urged al-Abadi to delay the assault until his army could prepare escape routes for civilians. Instead, I was told, al-Abadi rushed into battle and allowed two armed Shiite groups, Asaeb Ahl al-Haq and Kataeb Hezbollah—both of which receive funding from Iran and have links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran—to occupy important exit points from the city. The Shiite militias abducted as many as seven hundred Sunni men and boys who were attempting to flee from the village of Saqlawiyah, just north of the Fallujah. “Some of them were killed. Some of them were buried alive,” al-Mutlik told me.

Other Sunni captives freed by these paramilitary groups around Fallujah described atrocities—including beatings, torture, and imprisonment in squalid warehouses. Many Shiite militiamen, al-Mutlik said, were taking revenge for the executions of Shiite cadets by the Islamic State near Tikrit in 2014. Al-Mutlik said he has confronted al-Abadi in his office “numerous times” and begged him to curb the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). “I told him, ‘you are the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi forces. The militias have kidnapped hundreds of innocent people. What is your role?’ He replied simply, ‘These militias have embarrassed me so much.’”

The Western diplomat who observed the Fallujah battle told me that the US moved quickly to stop the bloodshed between Shiites and Sunnis. “When we found out that there had been abuses, we stepped in right away,” the diplomat said. “The Iraqi government made several arrests, and we don’t think those abuses continued.” Mueen al-Kadume, a leader in Baghdad of the Shiite Badr Brigades, now one of the partners in the Popular Mobilization Forces, blamed the Fallujah killings on a “few individuals.” In other Sunni areas, he said, “the people have experienced that the Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi—the Popular Mobilization Forces—is keen to protect them.”

Yet the Shiite militias have acted violently against the Iraqis quite aside from their killings in Fallujah. In the ethnically mixed town of Tuz Khormato, fifty-five miles south of Kirkuk—in a territory disputed between the Kurdish-administered north and the Iraqi central government—Shiite fighters marched into town last spring and began fighting both with the peshmerga and the ethnic Kurds who supported them. “The Shia militia would kill me the minute they see me,” one Kurdish resident told Al Jazeera. “Some [Kurds] have lost their lives only because of who they are, and those who are still alive cannot reveal their identity.”

Shiite residents in turn accuse the Kurdish forces in Tuz Khormato of threatening their lives. Walls and barbed wire have divided the city into ethnic ghettos. Dozens have been killed. The ethnic violence has done little to reassure the Sunnis in Nineveh province, where the Shiites continue to press for a part in the battle for Mosul. Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Nineveh, who has his own Sunni militia, recently warned that residents would “rise up” against the Shiite PMF if its members participated in the assault on Mosul. An Iraqi pollster recently declared that “one hundred percent” of Mosul’s civilians oppose both Shiite militias and the peshmerga entering the city.

On the front lines in Nineveh province, the Kurdish fighters are trying to sound conciliatory. As we left Qaryat Kanhash and headed back to Black Tiger Camp, Lieutenant Colonel Sadullah Abdullah, my peshmerga escort, told me that the Kurds would gladly take a secondary role in the liberation of Mosul if their commanders ordered them to do so. Relations between the Kurds and the Iraqi security forces, he insisted, were good. “Even some Kurds serve as members of the security forces. We work together to make operations together,” he said, gesturing toward the barren hills half a mile away. Just beyond them, he said, the Iraqi army was engaged in a fight with the Islamic State, backed by US air strikes. “We are all of us Iraqi people.”

Still, he boasted that the peshmerga were far better trained and motivated than their Iraqi government counterparts—and the better choice to lead the assault on Mosul. “The Iraqi security forces captured twenty villages in three months,” he said with a hint of derision. “The peshmerga captured eleven villages in two days.” The Kurds, he said, had already approached the city from “all sides” and had seized control of Mount Zardak, a peak 1,200 feet above sea level that provides a clear view of the center of Mosul. “I don’t care how many soldiers they have,” Abdullah told me. “Wherever there is Daesh, we are ready to fight them.” The peshmerga indeed may take a back seat to the Iraqi security forces in the final push to capture Mosul. But in view of the violent record of the Shiite Islamist militias and of the Sunni fighters, restraining the Kurds’ ambitions is just one challenge that Iraq is certain to face before it can overcome the conquests of the Islamic State.

October 12, 2016