THE build-up to an Iraqi military operation, backed by the United States and Western allies, to recapture Mosul from Islamic State (IS) is approaching its climax. Mosul, a large city in northern Iraq, was captured by IS in 2014 and is its last great stronghold in Iraq. The US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, said that President Obama had responded to a request from the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to send 600 extra troops “to accelerate the campaign at this critical phase”.
In a further sign that an assault on Mosul is close, Mr Abadi on Tuesday directed a radio broadcast at residents of the city. He said: “Today we are close to you, and you are close to us, and victory is near, with God’s help.” He added that the city’s inhabitants were “closer than at any previous time to being rescued from the injustice and tyranny and cruelty of IS.” Some reports suggest that the attack on Mosul could begin this month — certainly by the end of this year.
Recent months have seen Iraqi troops, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and Shia militias, under cover of Western air power, make rapid progress in forcing IS groups out of towns and villages that they occupied in the 2014 surge. In many instances, civilians have been trapped since then and are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) last week delivered basic necessities to people in and around the northern Iraqi town of Shirqat, south of Mosul. WFP’s country director for Iraq, Sally Haydock, said that families were “in desperate need of humanitarian support after being cut off from the outside world for more than two years.”
Aid organisations are also still helping the estimated three million Iraqis made homeless by the fighting. The fear is that a further one million may need assistance when the battle for Mosul begins. To continue supporting displaced families in Iraq until the end of the year, WFP says that it urgently requires the equivalent of £54 million in donations.
Few doubt that the forces deploying around Mosul will eventually succeed in forcing IS out. It is clear that President Obama hopes that the jihadist presence in Iraq can be removed before he leaves office in January. But there is anxiety among Iraqis about the fate of Mosul once it has been liberated — and the concerns are all the greater because of political chaos in the country.
The inhabitants of Mosul say that there may be a battle for control of the city once IS fighters have been defeated. In particular, the Sunni community fears that Iranian-backed Shia militias might aggressively assert their authority, as they have done in the past, leading to sectarian clashes. The Iraqi government will be watching to see whether the Kurds try to take control, as they have done in other liberated areas. At the same time, Turkey has said that it is standing by to protect the interests of the Turkomen community in Mosul.
Iraqi Christians in and around Mosul and elsewhere in Nineveh province have also suffered greatly at the hands of IS, forcing many thousands to flee. A suggestion has been made that a new province for Christians should be established in Nineveh plain. A priest in the area, Fr Jamil Gorgis, told the Rudaw news agency that “almost all Christian refugees who come to my church to pray would favour to live in a Christian region or province under international protection.” But MPs, rejecting the idea, said that it would be unconstitutional to change the boundaries of Nineveh province.
Iraqi parliamentarians have had a hand in increasing the turmoil in political life. Over recent weeks, they have forced the defence minister and finance minister to resign over corruption charges. The interior minister stood down in July after a major car bombing in the capital. As the Mosul military showdown approaches, these three crucial posts remain unfilled, with bitter disputes among different factions of the dominant Shia majority in government paralysing Iraqi politics.