Peshmerga soldiersMosul, which is the ancient Nineveh, is divided in two by the Tigris and lies in a fertile plain, squeezed between the desert of Jazira and the mountains of Kurdistan. In its 8,000 years of existence, it has seen countless battles and the succession of numerous peoples on its lands, so much that even today, in some way, the city can be considered as a kind of boundary stone placed at an intersection of some of the most uncertain and conflicting borders of the Middle East. In the first place, Mosul marks the point of friction between the Arabic and Kurdish fault lines; secondly, between the Sunni provinces, nostalgic of their former president Saddam Hussein, and the Baghdad government, dominated by the Shiites; and it is also the front line between the forces of the “Caliph”, who proclaimed the restoration of the Caliphate from the minbar of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, and his many enemies, divided on everything except on fighting the Islamic State. Finally, the city is at the crossroads of the interests of Turkey, Iran, United States, and their local allies. Therefore, in the ongoing battle to win back Mosul, behind the common goal of eliminating ISIS, a dangerous heterogony of ends is hiding, which is already placing a grave unknown on the future of the area’s stability.
And if we analyze the composition of the troops on the ground, the complexity of the situation is quite evident. In fact, on the Southern front there are the 15th Iraqi Army division, the federal police and its special forces, working with the support of the American artillery. Their goal is, essentially, to advance along the axis leading to Mosul’s airport. To the South-East, along the axis of Khuwair, there are Kurdish forces and the 1st and 9th Iraqi Army divisions, and they advance along the highway toward Baghdad, west of the Tigris; as a support, they seem to have French forces and the 9th Iraqi Armored division, while behind them, the freed territory is controlled by Christian militias, given the presence of Christian villages.
On the Eastern front, instead, Kurdish Peshmerga – partly trained by Italians – are advancing, followed by the “Golden Division”, the Iraqi forces’ spearhead, made up of counter-terrorism service’s units. To the North-East, on the axis of Bashiqa, where there is a Turkish presence, there are Peshmerga, but at the base of Zilkan few thousands Turkish soldiers operate together with about 3,500 local Sunni militants, armed by Ankara and guided by Atheel al-Nujaifi, former Sunni governor of the province. Moreover, Baghdad’s government openly opposed the presence of Turkish troops, but Turkey refused to withdraw them, and the tension between the two countries is extremely high. To the North and North-West, there are the 16th Iraqi Division, some counter-terrorism battalions and some Peshmerga. To the West, on the axis toward Tel Afar, there are Shiite militias of Popular Mobilization Units – Hashd el-Shaab – supported by Iran.
The overall estimates are extremely approximate, but on the ground there may be at least one hundred thousand men. What is striking is the paucity of the Islamic State forces, estimated to be between 3,000 and 7,000 men, including a thousand foreign fighters. The fact that a few thousand militants still keep under control a city of about a million and a half citizens shows the fear created by ISIS among the population.
The plan of the coalition engaged in the operation in Mosul has seen a gradual siege of the urban area of the city, with the conquest of dozens of surrounding villages. Then, the offensive has progressed through a series of simultaneous attacks from almost every direction, and now the Iraqi forces are advancing from East toward the center of the city, while to the South the advance is slow. All this is happening with the air support of Western air forces.
In fact, the success depends on a political agreement seal whereby, to conquer the city, it should be only the regular troops of the Iraqi armed forces; moreover, the entry of Shiite paramilitaries or Kurdish Peshmerga would easily trigger clashes between different factions and would pose too many unknowns for the future.
For now, the resistance offered by the jihadist forces has been less harsh than expected. In fact, the reaction of the Islamic State will increase proportionally as the coalition approach the center of the city, where urban density, the concentration of civilians and the defenses prepared for two years will make the advance slow and bloody. The “Caliphate” militias avoid large gatherings and prolonged defenses, which would expose them to the air forces’ threat; rather, they act in small groups, moving through tunnels, with “hit and run” attacks, using the population as a shield, using snipers, explosives vehicles driven by suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. Moreover, it is expected that, under pressure, the jihadist forces will blow up the five bridges of the city, gathering on the West side.
Once the city is conquered, as it happened in Fallujah and Ramadi, the government will seek to ensure control through local police and paramilitaries, while ISIS militants presumably will return to insurgency tactics. At this point, however, three problems will arise. First, the Sunni unknown, with its population to be reintegrated in the state – today, in fact, they still suffer marginalization and political and economic persecution, reasons why the Sunnis had initially supported the “Caliphate”. Secondly, there is the problem of the economic and institutional reconstruction: while on the one hand, it will be difficult for Baghdad to accept the Sunni projects of decentralization and local self-government, on the other hand, the central government does not have the financial resources to rebuild the city. Finally, the Kurdish and Shiite pressures, complicated by the influence of Iran and Turkey, could trigger again clashes and political and military tension. After the military fight, the fight for the future of the city will begin.
[This article was translated from the original Italian]