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Analysis: Is Iraq’s Mosul Op progressing?

January 12, 2017 at 1:15 pm

Iraqi security forces patrol Bertilla town during an operation to liberate Mosul from Daesh terrorists [Anadolu]

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have now claimed to have captured eighty five per cent of the eastern half of Mosul, and have also claimed to have reached the Tigris River in some sectors (although, as yet, no footage has been released showing Iraqi forces by the river). When one reads such figures and reports, it gives the impression that Iraq’s mission to clear Daesh militants from its last major urban stronghold is all going “according to plan”, as Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi would have us all believe. But is that truly the case?

Tigris still needs to be crossed

Undoubtedly, Al-Abadi and his government have utterly failed in their promises and military timescales. Before the launch of the US and Iran-backed Mosul offensive, Al-Abadi was repeatedly telling the world and the Iraqi people that by the end of 2016 Mosul would be free of Daesh control and Baghdad’s authority would reign over Iraq’s second city.

We are now in 2017 and almost into the fourth month since the Mosul operation began. The claim that the ISF has captured 85 per cent of the eastern half of the city is probably a government over-exaggeration and, as I have pointed out elsewhere before, there is an enormous difference between “presence” and “control”.

What is meant by this is that the Iraqi military, federal police and allied Iranian proxy Shia jihadists can be fighting in many places at any given time, but does that mean that they control wherever they are fighting? Of course not, and no objective person with knowledge of military operations would ever make such a claim. While ISF units may be present and engaged in combat in many districts in east Mosul, that does not mean Daesh have relinquished control or are not contesting the field in those areas.

Also, one has to bear in mind that reaching the Tigris River alone is not a hallmark of military success. The problem is that government propagandists like to use the imagery of the Tigris as some kind of “halfway” mark in the operation. Unfortunately, war rarely plays out like a linear footrace, and there is no clear “finish line” to this operation short of the removal of Daesh from the city.

To breach western Mosul, largely acknowledged as the more entrenched and difficult half of the city to capture, the ISF has two options:

Firstly, and seemingly most obviously, the Iraqi military would have to bring in combat engineers and create temporary bridges to cross the river. This is because the US-led coalition has put all of Mosul’s bridges out of action by bombing them repeatedly in an attempt to halt the resupply of Daesh forces from the western bank.

Such temporary bridging would be at the mercy of Daesh attacks on either the bridges themselves, or forces attempting to cross. It may seem overdramatic, but ISF forces would have to create smaller versions of bridgeheads like the Allies did when attempting the beach landings at Normandy. In an urban context, that means they would either have to land troops via the air or conduct boat crossings to secure the areas before crossing – highly risky and fraught with danger. Another alternative would be to create bridgeheads by providing a screen of constant artillery or airstrikes, but the civilian losses would be catastrophic.

Thrusting into west Mosul from Tal Afar

The second option would be for the ISF to reinforce the Iran-backed Shia militants of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), now an official part of Iraq’s military organisation, as they attempt to gain control of the Turkmen majority city of Tal Afar, about 60 kilometres west of Mosul’s western edges.

Once Tal Afar and the surrounding areas have been controlled, the ISF could attempt to breach Mosul from the west. Assuming they control the eastern bank by that point, they could use the distraction of an assault coming from the west to complete bridging the Tigris from the east which would allow them to press in on Daesh from both sides.

However, for the main Iraqi Army to be seen to be closely cooperating with extremists within the PMF in order to breach Mosul would be another embarrassment for Prime Minister Al-Abadi, who already promised that the PMF would not be involved in operations to recapture the city, the vast majority of whom are Sunni Arabs. The PMF and other elements of Iraq’s security apparatus have been committing war crimes against the Sunni population for years, and the fact that so much global attention is now focused on Mosul would make a repeat of the atrocities committed in Fallujah or Tikrit, but on a larger scale, a dangerous political threat to not only Iraq, but its US allies.

For now, it appears that the ISF will focus its efforts on securing Mosul’s eastern bank. However, they should beware of making yet more grandiose statements which they may not be able to back up, especially if Daesh launch counterattacks that send them reeling as they have proven they are capable of doing throughout this operation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.