I have spent the past week traveling around the Kurdish Region of Iraq conducting research on the behalf of FPRI and the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. For the past two days, IRIS held the Suli Forum. Now in its fifth year, the Suli Forum has emerged as one of the top policy forums in the Middle East. The Forum mostly looked ahead to the strategic landscape facing the region after ISIS. However, we also received updates on the current situation in Mosul from Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, who commands Iraq’s venerable Counter Terrorism Service and thus leads Iraqi counter-ISIS operations. We also heard news about Mosul from the Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider Al-Abadi, various Kurdish Peshmerga Commanders, and a representative from the controversial Popular Mobilization Forces (which have been accused of carrying out a number of atrocities). Many of the views that these figures expressed were challenged by fellow participants and audience members, but the picture that they presented about the current status of the operation to retake Mosul is generally as follows:
Everyone acknowledges, at least tacitly, that the human cost of Iraqi operations to take other cities in the campaign against ISIS has been unacceptable. The military used heavy weapons in densely populated areas. The Popular Mobilization Forces, which consist mostly of Shi‘i militias that were created (or at least reinvigorated) following the ISIS assault on Iraq in 2014, have been undisciplined and unaccountable. Thus, operations to take cities such as Tikrit and Ramadi over the past couple of years nearly destroyed those cities. Had the same tactics been used in the much larger city of Mosul, the result would have been a humanitarian nightmare. Therefore, the Iraqis are attempting a different strategy. Lt. Gen Shaghati insists that no Popular Mobilization Forces have entered the city and that only light weapons are being used (though these points were disputed by some other participants). The Iraqi Army is also applying well-worn counterinsurgency tactics quite effectively for the first time. They are moving slowly to prevent the destruction of infrastructure (the battle for Mosul began in October and it is still ongoing). And the general insisted that civilians in Mosul were his number one priority. He claims that Iraqi forces regularly put their own lives in danger to win the respect and trust of the local population. This required not only new tactics, but also significant changes in the structure of the Army. For example, under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Counter Terrorism Service had been considered a sectarian arm of the Shi‘i led government, but recent reforms have changed its essence. The service now consists of members from all of Iraq’s sects, and if any member openly touts their sectarian identity, they are removed from the unit.
While there are good reasons to be cynical about many of these claims, the operation to liberate the sections of Mosul on the eastern bank of the Tigris River have been much more successful than Iraqi operations in other cities. Over 80 neighborhoods in Mosul are now controlled by the Iraqi Army, though ISIS sleeper cells remain and attacks are still common. Unlike in Tikrit, Fallujah, or Ramadi, the civilians in liberated eastern Mosul have largely remained in their homes and neighborhoods.
These facts mark a real and positive shift in the manner in which the Iraqi military is operating. However, there are still a number of challenges ahead as well as many unanswered questions. The Iraqi Army has yet to liberate Mosul’s old city, which everyone agrees will be much more difficult due to its narrow, winding streets and dense population. Seventy-five percent of Mosul’s population lives in this unliberated part of the city, and it is considered ISIS’s stronghold. One could easily see the Iraqi assault bogging down there. Moreover, some participants challenged the rosy picture of a “clean” operation in eastern Mosul that the Iraqi government and military presented. Some unofficial casualty reports reach into the thousands, and recent stories have leaked claiming that heavy weapons were indeed employed in Mosul, leveling homes and infrastructure (though the government and military deny these claims). Moreover, while the government insists that it takes human rights violations seriously, Lt. Gen Shaghati was only able to provide one instance in which soldiers or militia members were punished for such abuses. Finally, the Yazidis do not feel that the military or the Iraqi government has done enough to find and free the captured Yazidi women who ISIS has been using as sex slaves. One Yazidi leader lamented the fact that thousands of these women were in Mosul and nearby towns, but that rescuing them has not been a priority for the government forces.
So, to sum up, the general feeling here is one of cautious optimism. Most stakeholders seem to believe that the military, while far from perfect, is successfully refining its strategy to fight ISIS. They also believe that the liberation of Mosul, while moving slowly, will ultimately succeed. What will happen in Iraq following that liberation remains a matter of wild conjecture.