Battle for Mosul & Iraq's future

Those faultlines etched onto the Iraqi polity are today the driving force of national fears as the populace waits for the fall of Mosul.

Iraqi forces are now poised to attack Mosul. The fall of this town over two years ago to a few hundred militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had marked the nadir of Iraqi self-confidence and self-respect. Then, 20,000 of its terrified soldiers abandoned their uniforms, weapons, treasury and the two-million strong population, and with their cowardice had enabled the establishment of the Islamic State as Islam’s first “caliphate” in 90 years by the most rabid, cruel and intolerant band of jihadis the faith has produced in over 1,400 years. Today, Iraqis believe this blot on their national firmament will at last soon be erased. But there’s little sign of triumph or joy at this impending deliverance. Instead, the country seems to be exposing all the bloodstained faultlines that have defined it since the American assault 13 years ago, when their nation was deliberately shattered physically and institutionally in an orgy of violence and abuse, and a political order founded on time-honoured divide-and-rule principles was grafted forcefully upon that beleaguered land.

Those faultlines etched onto the Iraqi polity are today the driving force of national fears as the populace waits for the fall of Mosul. The Iraqi forces preparing to attack Mosul are made up of national Army elements, special counter-terror units, the mainly Shia Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) that were set up after Mosul’s fall, and Kurdish peshmerga units. These are backed by US and British special forces, artillery and air support, with the French insisting on being counted as the endgame takes shape. The Americans are said to be pushing for a quick assault, perhaps anxious to make the liberation of Mosul a part of their outgoing President’s otherwise modest legacy. Though only a few thousand ISIS fighters are now left in Mosul, no one underestimates their ferocity, with the liberation effort complicated by the presence of a large civilian population and the possibility of the ISIS having extensively mined the pathways and tunnels.

Absence of a plan for what the Economist in a recent article called “the day after”. The portends here are not good: the sectarian divide that defines Iraq today is having an impact on the debate on the role of the attacking units during and after the battle. Iraq’s Sunni politicians are deeply concerned about the lead role of PMU: these units led the successful attacks on ISIS strongholds at Ramadi, Tikrit and Fallujah, and are believed to have exacted revenge for ISIS’ atrocities on hapless Sunnis in those “liberated” towns. They are alarmed that, on the eve of the battle for Mosul, the Shia-dominated Iraqi Parliament is pushing through legislation giving immunity to PMU forces, viewing this measure as a blanket sanction for the murder and abuse of Mosul’s Sunni population.

The PMU, on their part, declared they reject participation by Western troops in the forthcoming battle as they are an “occupation force that pretends to be assisting us”. The PMU believes the US’ main interest is to make Qayyarah airbase outside Mosul a key military facility in the region. They also fear being targeted by US aircraft in the battle. The presence of a few thousand Turkish troops at Bashiqa, a few kilometres from Mosul, and their readiness to join the imminent conflict has complicated the Iraqi and regional scenarios. Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi has called them an “occupation force” and sought their immediate withdrawal. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has retorted that his troops were part of an “international training mission” to boost Iraqi capabilities against ISIS and were invited by the Kurds at Erbil.

Mr Erdogan didn’t stop here. Speaking on Dubai’s Rotana TV, he strongly said the PMU “must not be allowed to enter Mosul”, and that Turkey and Saudi Arabia should work together to ensure this. He added: “Mosul belongs to the people of Mosul... No one else should be allowed to enter these areas.” He clarified the people who should control Mosul are: “Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turcoman, and Sunni Kurds”. Turkish PM Binali Yildirim firmly said the Turkish forces would remain to fight ISIS and “to prevent the change of structure of the region by force”, a clear reference to perceived spread of Shia influence promoted by Iraq and its mentor Iran. Mr Erdogan, at one stroke, has exposed all the ethnic and doctrinal divisions that make up Iraq today and made Mosul the theatre of a larger regional geopolitical confrontation anchored firmly in the sectarian divide.

The Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which Mr Erdogan has cultivated for years, has backed the Turkish President, seeing in the Turkish military presence a source of strength against the PMU’s attempts to dislodge Kurds from Mosul’s outskirts where they have settled after the ISIS occupation. But Turkey’s sectarian rhetoric has not been well received by other Iraqis, not only Shia leaders but also its Turkman allies. The latter noted that PMU is not just Shia; several Sunnis from Mosul will be part of it in the Mosul conflict. Again, Mr Erdogan’s reference to “Sunni Turkman” has left out the several thousand Shia Turkman who are part of Iraq’s security and political fabric. Their simple message to the Turkish patron is: “What is important is for Iraq to solve its own problems.” But Iraqis have more serious concerns about Turkey’s intentions: the physical takeover of the Ninawa province, that was till 1976 the Mosul governorate. Before that, for several decades, it was the Mosul vilayet of the Ottoman Empire that was forcibly detached from a weak Turkish Republic and, under British pressure, made a part of “Mandated Iraq”. In West Asia, history is always a part of the ever-lasting present.

( Source : Columnist )
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