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The battle to take back ISIS's last stronghold in Iraq could be long and bloody

An Iraqi soldier holds a position on the frontline on the outskirts of the Kurdish-controlled area of Makhmur, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of Mosul, on July 17, 2016, during a military operation to recapture the northern Nineveh province from ISIS.
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

After the Iraqi security forces (ISF) recaptured Fallujah from ISIS this June, they set their sights on Mosul, the terrorist organization’s biggest prize and Iraq’s second-largest city. Hundreds of the militants are fleeing from Iraq to Syria in anticipation of an imminent offensive to retake the city. Others are burning oil wells and planting improvised explosive devices to stymie enemy advances.

The Iraqi government hopes to expel ISIS from Mosul by the end of the year. It has momentum on its side. ISIS-held territory in Iraq has shrunk from more than 40 percent of the country to less than 10 percent. The ISF are receiving air support from an international coalition and fire support from dozens of Kurdish and Shia militias, which will likely join the offensive.

With ISIS’s impending doom in Iraq taken for granted, analysts have started focusing on the potential aftermath of the battle for Mosul. The obvious concerns include whether the Iraqi government can prevent another terrorist organization from taking advantage of Sunni grievances and reconnect the country’s sectarian fabric. Many observers are pessimistic, given Iraq’s history.

For now, the international community should be worrying less about the future and more about the present. Though the ISF have the numbers and weapons to free Mosul, they lack the coordination and organization. Based on past experience, their dependence on antagonistic countries and militias to defeat a shrewd enemy could bring any offensive to a months-long halt.

Unruly militias help the Iraqi government outgun ISIS

In June 2014, ISIS destroyed several divisions of the Iraqi army, overran much of four governorates, and threatened Baghdad from three sides. The Iraqi government realized that it might need the help of the country’s various militias to bolster the regular army and mobilized as many of these fighters as possible to defend Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kurdish and Shia militias have provided the manpower that the ISF lacked before the rise of ISIS. According to some estimates, the Kurdish militias offer an additional 240,000 fighters, while the Shia militias offer up to 120,000. The international coalition bombing ISIS believes that the terrorist organization, on the other hand, has fewer than 10,000 fighters in Mosul.

However much the militias have improved the Iraqi government’s ability to fight ISIS, their loyalty remains in question. The Kurdish security forces report to an autonomous, parallel government in Erbil, which has often threatened to secede from Iraq. The Shia militias, meanwhile, have pledged allegiance to the Iraqi government despite maintaining worrying links to Iran.

Following the Iraq War, the ISF suffered from systemic corruption and weakness. If the Iraqi government is still struggling to repair its official military, analysts should question its ability to exercise command and control over reckless militias with sectarian foundations. ISIS has even taken advantage of the ISF’s poor management to infiltrate Baghdad again.

The ISF’s size makes them clumsier

The Second Battle of Tikrit, like the Third Battle of Fallujah, can help predict what might happen during the offensive for Mosul. In a month-long campaign last year, American airstrikes and Shia militias helped the ISF, which far outnumbered ISIS, free Tikrit and secure Baghdad from the north. However, the operation suffered from serious logistical and organizational difficulties.

Reports suggested that operations around Tikrit were under the leadership of Shia militias controlled by independent businessmen and Iranian-aligned warlords, not the Iraqi military. The largest militias, which oppose Western intervention in Iraq, refused to continue operations if American warplanes took part in the battle. The Americans in turn rejected working with the militias.

The lack of coordination and organization in Tikrit resulted in a halting campaign marred by accusations of war crimes. Fearing a similar scenario in Fallujah, the Iraqi government forbade the Shia militias from entering the city center and restricted them to the northern suburbs. One militia disobeyed orders and crossed the city limits, while others executed civilians fleeing to Fallujah’s north.

Given problematic but appreciable contributions to the Second Battle of Tikrit and the Third Battle of Fallujah, the Shia militias will likely have a say in future operations, and they have voiced their interest in the Mosul offensive. The addition of Kurdish militias, which have only a limited interest in Mosul’s suburbs, will worsen the operation’s already nightmarish complexity.

Recapturing Mosul will take much longer than expected

The battle for Iraq’s second-largest city will differ from Tikrit and Fallujah in many ways. Before starting a lengthy slog of street fighting and urban warfare, the ISF had to encircle Tikrit; a brutal but effective three-month siege resulting in widespread starvation preceded operations in Fallujah. As of now, Mosul has seven times more civilians than Fallujah’s 100,000.

If the ISF want to besiege Mosul, they need to secure the Syrian border and seize other cities to which ISIS could retreat or from which ISIS could gain reinforcements. An American-backed operation to block the border from the Syrian side has failed, and the militants still control al-Qaim to the southwest, al-Baaj and Tal Afar to the west, and Hawija to the southeast.

The delicate balance of power between the Iraqi government, the Kurdish and Shia militias, and the Americans will decide whether the ISF can encircle Mosul and, if so, when. The Kurdish and Shia militias have clashed over sectarian tensions in isolated cases, and radicals among the Shia militiamen are calling for attacks on American advisers in Iraq.

The coalition forming around Mosul will include Iraqi police and soldiers, Kurdish and Shia militiamen, Western advisers and commandos, anti-ISIS insurgents from the city center, and anti-ISIS tribesmen from the countryside. The Iraqi government will have to direct these forces — many of which hate one another — through its byzantine command structure. Success would be exceptional.

Progress toward Mosul, like in Tikrit, has come in fits and starts. American and Iraqi officials were planning an offensive as early as last January only to turn their attention to Iraq’s western desert after ISIS seized a governorate capital there. Now the Western advisers in Baghdad are far more reluctant to place a timeline on Mosul’s distant but eventual liberation.

Plans to capture or even encircle Mosul by December are ambitious at best. More likely, the Iraqi government will stumble through a bloody, clumsy campaign lasting well into 2017 as the Kurdish and Shia militias ignore its orders and the Americans wonder why no one saw this mess coming. Till then, analyses of Iraq’s post-ISIS future are a little premature.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on conflict in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

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