The Iraqi Armed Forces are closing in on Daesh in Mosul, the group’s last stronghold in Iraq. After recapturing its eastern districts in January after 100 days of fighting, the armed forces are now pushing west of the river Tigris where Daesh continues to maintain a lethal defence. The group’s defeat appears imminent, but what is less clear is whether Haider Al-Abadi’s government will succeed in bringing Sunni factions into the political fold and address the country’s deep sectarian divisions.
Civilians trapped in the city are currently facing unimaginable horrors. The United Nations warns that the estimated 750,000 inhabitants are at “extreme risk” of being caught in the crossfire, killed by booby-traps or used as human shield by the jihadists. With aid agencies unable to enter to provide relief, those stuck in the city are facing severe shortages of food, water and electricity. The scene on the ground is one of chaos, desperation and immense danger, with around 60,000 civilians reportedly trying to flee the city in recent days.
But those trying to escape from Daesh will not find safety east of the river; although under control of the IAF, they are still within firing range from Daesh mortars. Last week a chemical agent was allegedly used in an attack against civilians in the east. Twelve patients, including women and children, were brought into a hospital in Erbil for treatment of blistering and respiratory problems; four amongst them said to be displaying “severe” symptoms associated with “exposure to a blister agent”. It was a first in the battle for Mosul with the United Nations calling for an immediate investigation, stating that there can be “no justification” for the use of chemical weapons.
The situation on the ground will likely get worse as the battle moves towards street to street fighting in the densely populated western districts, with tanks unable to enter the narrow streets. Although Iraqi Armed Forces outnumber Daesh around ten to one, the jihadists are well adapted to this environment, and are equipped with precision-guided munitions, using suicide car bombers, grenades and drones to carry out deadly attacks against both civilians and military targets. But the armed forces are making considerable ground, having already captured key positions including the international airport and a military base. According to a media spokesperson, the army’s elite Rapid Response units are now only “a few hundred metres” from Mosul’s main government buildings.
The Iraqi forces are now succeeding where they previously failed: the grounds gained in Mosul stand in strong contrast to the botched operation in 2014. The military is arguably far better prepared, disciplined and trained than before, with the elite Rapid Response and Counter-Terrorism Services units in particular praised for their highly effective operations against the jihadist group. Military support from the United States, chiefly in the form of airstrikes and training, has also undoubtedly played a huge part. Since kinetic operations began in August 2014, the Pentagon has estimated a total cost around $11.4 billion, averaging at $12.7 million a day for American taxpayers. But the Trump administration wants to see the US start “winning wars” again and sees Iraq as “an important ally in the fight to defeat ISIS [Daesh]”. In acknowledgement of this, Iraq was then removed from the revised executive order on restricting the travel for citizens from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
But whilst the current Al-Abadi government may be enjoying a renewed sense of favour from Western allies with its efforts to defeat Daesh, there is a far more mixed picture back at home. In Mosul, there is still a feeling of deep distrust over the Shia-dominated security apparatus who are considered to be heavy-handed, sectarian and deeply corrupt. Such sentiments played a significant part in the rise of Daesh, as the majority Sunni population came to see the state authorities as an occupying force.
In many regards Al-Abadi seems to be far more committed to improving the Sunni-Shia relationship than his predecessor Nouri Al-Maliki, who heightened sectarian tensions and ordered the arrest of a number of high profile Sunni politicians, including Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi. Under Al-Abadi, by contrast, Sunni and Shia political blocs are coming together to work on a “National Settlement” initiative which seeks to bring about national reconciliation between the different factions once Daesh is defeated. Supported by the United Nations Assistance to Iraq, it outlines key areas of tension that the government hopes to address, including the distribution of power between political blocs as well as ensuring the equitable sharing of the wealth derived from oil and gas sources amongst provinces.
Although the ideas may be well placed, in reality there is still a long way to go before national reconciliation can be achieved. One key setback was the passing of a law on 26 November turn the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), dominated by Shia militias, into an official security force. Created in 2014, the government-backed PMU came into force to counter the rapid advances of Daesh. There are concerns, however, over their involvement in human rights abuses against Sunni civilians; in 2015 Human Rights Watch published a report accusing the PMU of “abducting 200 Sunni residents”, the majority of whom remain unaccounted for, and “destroying several hundred civilian buildings with no apparent military reason”. Yet despite the Sunni bloc’s serious concerns on the PMU, the Shia majority-led parliament pushed through the law, resulting in a walkout from their Sunni counterparts.
Defeating Daesh in Iraq will not guarantee long term stability unless these existing sectarian tensions are addressed. If the armed forces are indeed successful in recovering Mosul from Daesh, as it appears increasingly likely they will, then the Iraqi government needs to make a concerted effort to realise the goals of the “National Settlement” proposal. Until then, it is the civilians who will be caught in the crossfire, trapped in between the everyday horrors of war and an uncertain future that is already stumbling on its path towards peace and reconciliation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.