Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of an offensive to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State militant group on 17 October 2016. Within hours, Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi army units were advancing on villages surrounding Iraq’s second-largest city, although hopes that the Islamic State would withdraw without a fight soon evaporated. The militants made use of burning pits of oil-soaked tyres, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs), and underground tunnels across Mosul, and shot civilians trying to flee the fighting.
According to Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) commander Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, speaking at a press conference in the Kurdish capital of Erbil on 19 October, Mosul was being defended by 6,000 Islamic State fighters. The first stage of the operation will be to capture the hills and villages overlooking Mosul and to clear a route to the city of IEDs. The push into the city will be led by ISOF and the Iraqi federal police.
Falah Mustafa Bakir, minister of foreign affairs of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), speaking at a roundtable attended by IHS Jane’s on 12 October, made clear that the Peshmerga would hold the outskirts of Mosul, but would not enter the city unless units from Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – especially a number of Iranian-backed militias – began to do so. Baghdad’s control over these forces varies from unit to unit, but planners hoped that assigning PMF units zones of responsibility outside Mosul would keep those units out of the city.
Iraqi military and Western intelligence sources expected the east of the city to be re-taken within weeks. The west of the city, with a population more invested in the Islamic State’s survival, was expected to take two to three months. A concurrent operation was also set to begin south of Mosul to capture the town of Hawija. Its launch had been delayed to allow for the build-up of Sunni tribal fighters trained by the Peshmerga, which, along with the most reliable units of the PMF, notably the Al-Abbas Division, were poised to begin their assault.
The timeframe is uncertain, but the outcome is not. Iraq is finally in a position to drive the Islamic State out of its last strongholds. However, the real difficulties will only begin once Mosul has been recaptured. “It is the end of a chapter, and the beginning of a new chapter,” said Bakir. “We don’t want to lose the peace the day after.”
From a humanitarian and financial crisis to sectarian neighbourhood violence and a renewed insurgency, Iraq will face a range of challenges when Mosul is retaken. Moreover, the unity imposed on Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Erbil by the common enemy of the Islamic State will evaporate, limiting capacity to address those challenges.
Sectarianism and insurgency
“The shape of Mosul after it is captured will depend on the settlement between Baghdad and Erbil over its governance,” Michael Stephens, Middle East fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told IHS Jane’s on 19 October. “A lot will be determined by the behaviour of people on the ground.”
There is a range of proposals, from dividing the city into ethnic zones to the reinstatement of an appointed governor. With no prior agreement in place, the establishment of a clear division of responsibilities for security and humanitarian support will be slow.
Meanwhile, the security outlook is negative. The UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq told the Associated Press on 17 October that up to 700,000 of Mosul’s civilian inhabitants were expected to flee over the course of the fighting. Iraqi intelligence officers, speaking to IHS Jane’s in early October, said that they expected Islamic State fighters to try to pass themselves off as refugees. That risk is likely to slow down the provision of aid and the processing of displaced civilians.
“Mosul is complicated, with Sunnis, Shia, Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, [and] Kurds,” said Lahur Talabany, head of the KRG’s Zanyari intelligence service and commander of the Peshmerga’s counter-terrorism group, at a roundtable attended by IHS Jane’s on 7 October. “We can push Daesh [the Islamic State] out of the city, but what happens after? I’m not very optimistic.”
The most likely outcome is that order will be maintained by sectarian neighbourhood watches, as has occurred in Diyala, a governorate in eastern Iraq, northeast of Baghdad. Yet the experience of Diyala suggests that such a model could be highly problematic.
“My son was going to university in Diyala,” Abdul Rahman, a magazine editor, told IHS Jane’s in Karbala on 28 September. “Then he started to receive death threats and I decided that he had to come home. Diyala is mixed between Sunnis and Shias, and they are killing each other. Outsiders don’t have a community in the city, and so they don’t have anyone to protect them.”
Mosul is facing an offensive by Sunni tribal fighters trained by Turkey, the Peshmerga, and Iraqi security forces, who may carry out reprisals against suspected collaborators, Islamic State insurgents, and Shia PMF. A report by Human Rights Watch following the battle of Fallujah in June 2016 found that PMF and federal police members had carried out atrocities. The threat of similar acts in Mosul will likely prompt the formation of neighbourhood watches.
“Sectarianism is required to some extent for governance,” explained Iraqi national security advisor Faleh al-Fayad at a roundtable attended by IHS Jane’s on 14 September, reflecting the reality that Mosul’s population would feel safest protected by members of their own communities.
With law and order only partially overseen by the state, a large number of internally displaced people (IDPs), and multiple military units operating under separate commands, it could be easy for Islamic State insurgents to move out of Mosul. A corridor of instability runs from Mosul through Hawija and
into Diyala province, and the activities of Islamic State militants could be supported by sympathisers. “We find people inside the intelligence, security organisations, and local government who are with Daesh,” said Fayad.
Far from a pause in the fighting, the fall of Mosul will lead to an increase in VBIED attacks and insurgent attacks throughout Iraq. Such a development was already foreshadowed on 21 October, when Islamic State militants – possibly from sleeper cells, or who had earlier left Mosul disguised as refugees – launched multiple dawn attacks on government buildings in Kirkuk and a power station to the north of the city, killing at least 99 people. Such attacks in territories of disputed control will also raise tensions over who is responsible for security and could lead to stand-offs between Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga, especially around Kirkuk, whose status is disputed by the central Iraqi government and the KRG.
During the advance of the Islamic State towards Baghdad in 2014, the Peshmerga moved into a band of territory traversing the provinces of Ninawa, Kirkuk, Salah Al-Din, and Diyala to protect the population. The Peshmerga also seized a number of oil fields and the city of Kirkuk.
Kurdish politicians are unequivocal that they will not withdraw from these territories, arguing that the failure of the Iraqi army to defend the population leaves the Peshmerga with a responsibility to remain.
Furthermore, a referendum on whether Kirkuk should become a part of the KRG was scheduled for 2007 but never held. The KRG believes that holding the territory will ensure that the referendum occurs. There would also be electoral consequences in withdrawing, which, according to a Kurdish minister speaking to IHS Jane’s in early October, amounted to “political suicide”.
The position inside Kurdistan will greatly limit the KRG’s willingness to negotiate over the disputed territories. Both main Kurdish parties – the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – face growing protests among their supporters over the mismanagement of the economy that has left Kurdish civil servants unpaid for more than six months. Oil in the Kirkuk field and the city of Kirkuk itself – a major economic centre – will therefore be crucial for the Kurdish government.
Internal divisions are also being exacerbated due to the president of Kurdistan extending his term of office because of the conflict with the Islamic State. By agreement, he must give way to the PUK at the end of the conflict.
The disputed territories provide a vital bloc of the PUK’s electoral support to justify their holding the presidency. Fears of possible fighting between the PUK and KDP, in the event of a dispute over the transition of power, are plausible but unlikely. “They will do everything in their power to prevent it,” explained RUSI’s Stephens, adding that Peshmerga units aligned with both parties have indicated that they would not participate in any clashes.
Tom Hardie-Forsyth, a former British official and an adviser to the KRG, told IHS Jane’s on 19 October 2016 that the last time the KDP were in a position to hold on to power, with the PUK divided, “they let it go for the good of the country. If they hadn’t and the PUK broke up, it could have been the end of Kurdistan”.
It is more likely that there could be clashes with Iraqi units in the disputed territories. Calls by the KDP for a referendum on Kurdish independence were a concern to Baghdad even before the PUK took over one of Iraq’s major economic centres. Hardliners in Baghdad will push the government to adopt a tough negotiating position, and there is a danger of units loosely controlled by Baghdad clashing with the Peshmerga, especially militia groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
Iran’s attitude will be crucial in preventing a confrontation. “The PUK have been grateful when Iran has tried to reduce tensions around Kirkuk,” said Stephens.
As Iran has worked to lessen tensions around Kirkuk, Turkey’s involvement in the Mosul operation has alarmed Baghdad and Erbil alike. This was exacerbated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s public references on 17 October 2016 to historic Turkish claims on Mosul. According to Hardie-Forsyth, “The Turks want to have a say over what happens to Mosul ... They will want to extract what they can from the negotiations after the city is retaken.”
Turkish involvement does not appear to be benign. “Some neighbouring countries are intervening in Iraq’s internal affairs, such as Turkey,” said Iraqi minister of foreign affairs Ibrahim al-Jaafari during a speech in London on 14 September 2016. “We don’t want them to interfere.”
Fayad went further, saying, “Turkey plays the same role with ISIS [the Islamic State] as Pakistan did with Al-Qaeda [sic]”, potentially alluding to Islamabad’s ambivalent relationship with certain Islamist militants. A Kurdish intelligence officer, speaking to IHS Jane’s in early October, claimed to have evidence to support this accusation. Turkey is clearly pushing for concessions, with its place in negotiations ensured by the presence of its troops – including 3,000 Sunni tribesmen – and could act as a spoiler on progress, given the hostility emanating from Baghdad. That in turn would slow the settlement of Mosul’s governance and contribute to ongoing instability.
In contrast, Iran appears to be satisfied with its current position in Iraq. It has control of a number of armed militias, is able to move men and materiel through Iraq to Syria, and Iranian businesses are expanding their interests in southern Iraq and Kurdistan. Iran is more likely to work to reduce tensions between the KRG and Baghdad to maintain its favourable position. However, the status quo also facilitates crime, corruption, and insurgency.
The PMF are not all Iranian-backed units, nor are they all accurately described as militia. The Ali al-Akbar Brigade and Al-Abbas Divisions were set up, funded, and run by the Shia holy shrines controlled by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. These units have worked closely with the government and are reliable and effective. However, the shrines are funding them for a specific purpose – to defeat the Islamic State. Once this is completed, the prevailing view among the shrines’ leadership is that they should be demobilised.
“If we defeat Daesh, most youth should go to their homes and back to their jobs,” Sheikh Ali al-Najafi, son of Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, told IHS Jane’s on 27 September 2016. “The best can join the army if they wish, and it would make sense for them to do so.”
The commander of the Al-Abbas Division, who is also a member of the board of directors of the Al-Abbas Shrine, Sheikh Maitham al-Zaidi, told IHS Jane’s on 28 September that he hoped that “the Hashd [al-Shabi] will become a social organisation to ensure employment and look after the wounded”, after the defeat of the Islamic State.
Members of these units have a mixed range of ambitions, but they all include moving on. Mohsen Kadhum, a 22-year-old infantryman in the Al-Abbas Division, told IHS Jane’s on 28 September that upon demobilisation, “I want to volunteer to stay in the army when Daesh is defeated. Some of my comrades also want to remain as soldiers. Many want to go home”. However, the government will not make the decision about whether these units remain.
“We came by a fatwa [religious ruling], and we will leave by a fatwa,” Adil Talib, overseer of logistical operations for the Ali al-Akbar Brigade, told IHS Jane’s in Karbala on 26 September.
The government has no substantive plan for handling the demobilisation process or reintegrating thousands of young men into the economy. “Once the war is over we will see the economy pick up because it will free up a lot of the budget,” suggested Nisayf Jasim al-Khattaby, the president of Karbala’s provincial council, speaking to IHS Jane’s on 26 September. This overlooks the costs of reconstruction and fighting the insurgency.
The security forces are unlikely to be able to integrate all of the demobilised PMF units, because they are funded by non-state organisations and the government’s budget will be focused on recruiting local fighters in Hawija, Mosul, and other liberated territories. The result will be large groups of trained but unemployed soldiers, and this will likely contribute to a rise in crime. Moreover, some limited weapons stockpiles are being buried near PMF bases in southern Iraq, and there is a danger that soldiers will move between PMF units that continue to operate, but pursuing new political agendas.
A political settlement in Baghdad that gives Sunni communities confidence that their interests are protected and resolves ongoing disputes over territory between the government in Baghdad and the KRG is essential for Iraq’s long-term stability. “There needs to be political dialogue with Baghdad,” said Bakir. “We cannot go on like this ... We need to find a political settlement.”
Iraqi prime minister Abadi may be competent, but he is politically weak. His position is further imperilled by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose ambitions to return to power are currently constrained by his responsibility for the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in 2014. However, with the Islamic State defeated, Maliki’s political and economic leverage in southern Iraq will become a significant disruptive factor in Abadi’s capacity to negotiate.
A fundamental problem in any such negotiation is that many in the south do not believe that there is a problem with the status quo. “Our view towards the new Iraq, which is majority Shia, is that it is inclusive,” explained Sheikh Ali. “The speaker of parliament holds a lot of power, and he is Sunni. The minister of defence is Sunni. Our sons are giving blood to liberate Sunni land.”
Jaafari claimed that there was no Sunni-Shia problem, saying, “The governors in territories taken by ISIS are Sunni, as are most of their victims.”
However, if the power-holders in the current government enter negotiations believing that the status quo is fair, it is unlikely that they would be prepared to make concessions. Shia reluctance to hand power to Sunni communities is clear, given their experience under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and their majority status. Moreover, there appears to be a greater propensity for Sunni communities to view the conflict as sectarian than for Shia communities.
“We must talk to each other, Shia, Sunni, Christian, even non-believers,” said Sayid Saleh al-Hakeem, nephew of Grand Ayatollah Saeed al-Hakeem, speaking to IHS Jane’s on 27 September. “Sunnis follow four imams who died centuries ago ... Therefore their scholarship has not remained as relevant to today’s problems.” The risk is that such an attitude, combined with the fierce political rivalries that limit the government’s room for manoeuvre, will either prevent a political settlement, or cause negotiations to carry on indefinitely.
The breadth and depth of Iraq’s challenges are daunting and involve overlapping economic, political, security, and humanitarian crises. While the Islamic State has clearly been the top priority, the secondary problems are far harder to prioritise, and consequently do not provide the same impetus towards unity.
Clear political leadership, aimed at establishing a working political settlement in Baghdad and a detailed plan for the governance of Mosul, could pre-empt many of the challenges that will arise after Mosul’s fall. Iraqi officials stress the importance of post-Mosul planning at every opportunity, but the reality is, as an Iraqi minister admitted to IHS Jane’s in early October, that “there is no serious planning”.
In the absence of a coherent strategy, the security situation is likely to deteriorate, further weakening Abadi’s position, while Shia hardliners will limit the government’s room to manoeuvre in resolving the fate of the disputed territories. Kurdistan is also likely to become deeply divided, and in the absence of clear political leadership, Iraq will continue to face a long period of insecurity and instability.
First Published by IHS Jane's Intelligence Review, 1 November 2016
Jack Merlin Watling
Jack is a journalist and historian. He formerly worked as planning editor at NewsFixed, and has contributed to Foreign Policy, Reuters, the Guardian, Vice, the Herald Group and the New Statesman.