It was over a month ago that Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi announced that the battle to recapture Mosul was entering its final stages. But seven months after the operation began, Iraqi troops are yet to take control of the heart of the heavily populated western sector of the city. Daesh fighters are refusing to give anything away without a bitter struggle.
Iraqi forces are backed by US-led coalition jets that have intensified their bombing raids, sometimes with catastrophic results. On March 17, US airstrikes in west Mosul are believed to have killed at least 200 civilians, in what was described as the most devastating attack by the US against civilians in more than two decades.
Indiscriminate bombing by Iraqi forces of crowded neighborhoods in the besieged old city has killed hundreds of civilians since February. Daesh has carried out mass executions of people fleeing Mosul. By the time the city, or what is left of it, is recaptured, the death toll could reach thousands. Eyewitness reports speak of destruction of entire neighborhoods; over 80 percent of the city is in ruins.
The civilian calamity does not stop here. Iraq’s government is blamed for gross negligence and ill preparation in dealing with hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens who have fled their homes since the battle for Mosul began.
According to the UN and other agencies, between 300,000 and 400,000 civilians have been displaced and are living in inhumane conditions in refugee camps near east Mosul. They are in bad need of shelter, food and medicine, and Iraq’s government has been blamed for failing to prepare for the humanitarian crisis that was expected to unfold.
Liberating Mosul was always going to be a controversial operation. Daesh has been preparing for it for more than two years. The heavy resistance that its fighters have put up so far is not surprising. Their use of suicide bombers, explosives-laden cars, underground tunnels, booby-trapped houses and civilians as human shields was expected, making Iraqi forces’ advance costly and slow.
The civilian toll and the deep humanitarian crisis have deepened political schisms in Baghdad and raised the stakes for the government. But the final outcome of the battle is assured. No matter the cost, retaking Mosul is a high priority for both Al-Abadi and US President Donald Trump. Dislodging Daesh from its most important stronghold in Iraq will be used by both as a major achievement.
He will liberate the city, but his biggest test will be to keep his country intact following the fallout. He must find ways to attract disgruntled Sunnis who see themselves as victims of Daesh terror, Shiite retribution and a dysfunctional political system.
The US hopes to use its victory in Mosul as a launch pad for its operation, led by a coalition of Syrian Kurds and Arab tribes, to advance on Raqqa in Syria, thus fulfilling one of Trump’s regional priorities. After Mosul, Iraqi forces, backed by the US, will head toward Daesh positions in Tal Affar and the border.
Al-Abadi knows his growing dependence on the US will exact a political price once the dust settles. Trump’s second regional priority centers on weakening and containing Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria. In the former he needs Al-Abadi, who now finds himself fending off attacks by members of his Dawa Party and other pro-Iran politicians and power players.
The battle for Mosul, despite its heavy political and humanitarian cost, will be small compared to what awaits Al-Abadi. As well as dealing with the challenge of repatriation and reconstruction, he must find ways to attract disgruntled Sunnis who see themselves as victims of Daesh terror, Shiite retribution and a dysfunctional political system. Mustering the political will to launch national reconciliation and fix an ailing and corrupt system will not be easy.
This is perhaps why he needs the support of Saudi Arabia, whose Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir was in Baghdad last month on a historic visit, and other Arab countries. Undercutting Iran’s influence in Iraq was one of the objectives of the Arab League Summit last month in Jordan. The summit’s final communique called on Iraqi leaders to find ways to end policies of exclusion and achieve national reconciliation.
Another challenge facing Al-Abadi after the Mosul battle lies with Iraqi Kurdish political and territorial ambitions. Besides signs that the Irbil government is considering ceding from Iraq, it took a provocative measure last week in disputed oil-rich Kirkuk by raising the Kurdistan flag on government buildings.
A showdown between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Baghdad government in the coming weeks will test Al-Abadi’s ability to lead a fractured country that is grappling with sectarian rifts, failing institutions, kleptocracy and soon US-Iranian struggle for dominance. Al-Abadi will liberate Mosul, but his biggest test will be to keep his country intact following the fallout.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.