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Mosul’s fall will not end Iraq’s radicalism threat

Some good news is finally coming from Iraq, with Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi announcing last week the full liberation of the eastern bank of the besieged city of Mosul, the country’s second-largest urban center and the main base of Daesh militants. But it was not an easy gain for the Iraqi army and its special forces, backed by the US military, which launched the massive operation to retake the city and the governorate of Nineveh some 100 days ago.
There have been reports of heavy casualties among Iraqi troops — almost a fifth of the elite force has been injured or killed. Daesh fighters have put up stiff resistance, having had plenty of time to buffer their defenses via a network of tunnels. As they withdrew to the western side of the city, they blew up all bridges across the Tigris, making the second phase of the battle more difficult.
Across the river, the bulk of the city lies with its old and heavily populated neighborhoods and narrow winding alleys. The UN estimates that 750,000 civilians, of whom half may be women and children, are trapped in the western sector of Mosul, and they are clearly being used as human shields.
The Iraqi operation suffered many setbacks, and underlined the government’s lack of preparedness in dealing with the influx of refugees from the outskirts of the city and neighboring towns that the militants had abandoned. More than 100,000 civilians continue to face harsh weather in scattered camps with limited assistance from Baghdad. The same happened last year when Iraqi forces advanced on Ramadi and Fallujah.
Bitterness among the predominantly Sunni population of Nineveh remains high. Documented incidents of summary executions, torture and humiliation by members of the notorious Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), comprising Shiites and backed by Tehran, have added to sectarian tensions.
Al-Abadi has ordered the PMU not to enter Mosul, and has bowed to pressure to allow the local National Mobilization Units, now known as the Nineveh Guard, to have a bigger role in the liberation of their city. His decision has fueled controversy in Baghdad, as members of his own Dawah Party accuse the former governor of Nineveh and head of the Nineveh Guard of relying on his Turkish paymasters.
Turkey maintains a military presence in the governorate, and has expressed concern for the future of Mosul. Ankara had historical claims to the oil-rich region, which were partly settled in a treaty in 1926.
The proposal to integrate the PMU and the Nineveh Guard will hinder the launch of the second phase of the liberation of Mosul, especially as Al-Abadi finds himself targeted by his predecessor and challenger Nouri Al-Maliki, whose troops abandoned the city to Daesh in June 2014. Al-Maliki, a pro-Iran Iraqi politician, continues to entertain plans for his political comeback.
Sectarian clashes flared during his premiership, while tens of billions of dollars went missing from the national coffers. He was never put on trial. Moreover, Iraqi Kurdistan, which also has interests in Mosul and the governorate, has threatened to declare independence from Iraq if Al-Maliki returns to power.
Political bickering and infighting will hinder the resumption of the Mosul operation. Even if the offensive resumes, there are fears that the civilian cost and destruction of much of the city will prove too high. Added to this, those who survive are fearful of PMU retribution.
Meanwhile, it is unclear if the US will want to be associated with the much more difficult phase of conquering the left side of the city. The Donald Trump administration has asked the Pentagon for a new strategy to defeat Daesh to be readied in 90 days. It is not known if this will affect Al-Abadi’s drive to resume the offensive.
Meanwhile, Daesh militants appear ready to defend their territory no matter the cost. The siege of Mosul has not prevented them from launching a series of lethal attacks in Baghdad, or retaking Palmyra in southern Syria. They are still in control of Raqqa and the border town of Al-Bab in northern Syria — the latter has been under siege by Turkish troops and their allies for weeks.
Estimates of the number of Daesh fighters inside Mosul vary, but most sources agree that it is not more than 5,000. This is remarkable when we know that the liberating forces number more than 100,000.
Mosul will be retaken eventually, albeit at a high price, but what follows will be more challenging for Al-Abadi and the people of Iraq. The fall of the city will be a resounding defeat for Daesh, but it will not spell the end of religious radicalism in Iraq. An Iranian-backed sectarian agenda will further alienate the country’s Sunnis, which in turn will radicalize many who could embrace the movement’s ideology.
Al-Abadi and other political players must summon the strength and courage to launch a process of national reconciliation that ends ethno-confessional politics and salvages what remains of Iraq’s threatened unity.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.