As the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces, backed by US-led coalition air and ground support, launched the long-awaited fight to wrest the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State, the world is eyeing the developments in this vicious battle with bated breath. Mosul, Iraq's second largest city is home to over a million people has been occupied by Islamic State for more than two years. But the Iraqi government in alliance with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces finally launched a coordinated military operation to reclaim the city.
Why is the strike historic?
Mosul is the last urban stronghold of the Islamic State in Iraq. It fell to Islamic State fighters during the militants' June 2014 blitz that left nearly a third of Iraq in the extremists' hands and plunged the country into its most severe crisis since the US-led invasion. After seizing Mosul, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi visited the city to declare an Islamic caliphate that at one point covered nearly a third of Iraq and Syria.
But since late last year, the militants have suffered battlefield losses in Iraq and their power in the country has largely shrunk to Mosul and small towns in the country's north and west. Mosul is about 360 km (225 miles) northwest of the capital, Baghdad.
But still, IS wields complete influence over the city, which is strategically important for it because it epitomises the IS's idea of caliphate rule, which it aspires to spread over the rest of the world. If the security forces succeed in reclaiming the city, which according to media reports is highly likely, it will be a huge setback for the IS.
Moreover, the operation to retake Mosul is expected to be the most complex yet for Iraq's military, which has been rebuilding from its humiliating 2014 defeat when the Iraqi soldiers were forced to eat dirt and escape after the vicious offensive launched by IS.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called the launch of the Mosul operation "a decisive moment in the campaign" to deliver a lasting defeat to Islamic State. Convoys of Iraqi, Kurdish and US forces moved east of Mosul along the front line as US-led coalition airstrikes sent plumes of smokes into the air and heavy artillery rounds could be heard.
What it means for Iraq?
The push to retake Mosul will be the largest military operation in Iraq since American troops left in 2011 and, if successful, the biggest blow yet to the Islamic State. Moreover, the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is also hoping that a successful strike against the much-dreaded extremist group will help him gain political mileage, and the International media is keenly watching the developments.
A report in the The New York Times states that Abadi has been attaching his political fortunes to the possibility of reclaiming the city. He announced the operations at around 2 am on Monday, hours before the Kurdish forces were about to launch the operation. According to a report in the Associate Press, Al-Abadi pledged the fight for the city would lead to the liberation of all Iraqi territory from the militants this year. The prime minister's impassioned statements are in fact indicative of what the high-stake army operation means for the political leadership of the country.
"These forces that are liberating you today, they have one goal in Mosul which is to get rid of Daesh and to secure your dignity. They are there for your sake," Al-Abadi said, addressing the city's residents and using the Arabic language acronym for the Islamic State group. "God willing, we shall win," he added, flanked by military commanders.
News reports from around the world are terming the military operation, a "decisive battle", a "difficult and protracted battle" and even a death blow to IS. A report in Guardian says that the "decisive battle" has due support from the US-led coalition forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The forces on ground pass on coordinates of enemy targets for airstrikes while the US, British and French special forces play a supportive role. According to another report in AP, some 30,000 federal forces are leading the offensive, backed by air and ground support from a 60-nation US-led coalition. Apart from this Around 4,000 Kurdish peshmerga are taking part in the offensive.
Sectarian crisis in post-IS Mosul
Whether or not the military offensive serves its purpose depends on how the Iraqi government tackles the post-IS Mosul; International media reports keenly observe that a handful of parties involved in the operations have clashing interests, which they warn should not dictate the narrative in the post-IS Mosul. A report in The New York Times highlights that the political tension between the Kurds and the Iraqi government are a cause of concern. Their apparent coming together for a common cause must last beyond the Mosul military offensive in order to have even an iota of a chance of rebuilding what was once a cosmopolitan trade hub.
Apart from this the natural clash of interest between the Kurdish peshmerga and Iran-backed Shiite militia makes for another gray despite the chances that the coalition forces may finally reclaim Mosul. The two, no doubt are right now fighting on the same side, if only to defeat a common enemy, but their conflicting interests can compromise the stability of the region. A report in CNN also states that one of the major concerns is keeping the Kurdish and Shia's on the side once the military targets are achieved.
Although, according to The Guardian, in view of tackling this situation, a US-brokered agreement has been put in place that bars the peshmerga and Shia militias from entering the city, who will just help in taking down surrounding villages and encircling Mosul. Only Iraqi troops will engage in the "house to house" battle on the street. This arrangement is made to quell the fear of a sectarian crisis in the Sunni-dominated Mosul.
Another report in Saudi-owned news website Al Arabiya also cautions that even a successful military offensive cannot guarantee a stable region unless it is coupled with a sound political road map that is equally well planned. It warns that the Iraqi government wants to reap the benefits of a successful military strike, it must have a mechanism for addressing local grievances apart from which it should also ensure that the clashing interests of Kurdish peshmerga and Shiite militia should not dictate the post-IS Mosul.
Media reports also indicate that even the locals are apprehensive of this aspect even as they badly want the IS to be defeated. Another report in The Guardian states that the people have seen too much violence and been through much anguish to want to have IS rule the city. However, it quotes several Sunni residents of the city, who had escaped after IS took over, as saying that his biggest fear for them is that after IS is defeated, the Shia militias now fighting with the government might carry out a sectarian reprisal. “We do not want to go back to the time of sectarian war and killing civilians. The involvement of Shia militias would have hurt morale,” one of the escaped Sunni residents is quoted as saying.
Another report in Vocative speaks of another problem that the escaping IS fighters may inadvertently fold their arms recede in the folds of the city, hiding amid innocent civilians. Those who are neither killed and would not be able to escape to Syria will seamlessly blend into the community, to which they are so inextricably connected. And this, the article states, has happened too many times before to be ignored as a possibility.
A Russia-based news agency RT, claims a different narrative altogether. It states that according to its diplomatic sources, the US and Saudi Arabia have clandestinely agreed to grant free passage to over 9,000 IS militants to Syria. "During the storm of the city in northern Iraq the US-led coalition’s planes would only strike detached, vacated or uninhabited buildings while keeping terrorists as targets," the report reads.
Humanitarian crisis looms ahead
A report in RT throws light at another problem that stares in the face ahead of the military offensive. According to the report, the ongoing battle may generate as many as 1 million internally displaced refugees but it points out that Iraq is only prepared to provide for 300,000 of them. Besides, civilians fleeing their homes is a problem that the government and the forces might face even during the battle. Amid the chaos of the brutal attack, civilians may panic and attempt to flee the city, where they were earlier forced to stay under IS rule. This may cause a serious issue of safety and collateral damage in the battle.
Although according to Bloomberg, the Iraqi forces have tried their best to warn and advised the civilians to survive the crisis situation. They are airdropping around 7 million leaflets advising people not to flee their homes while telling them how to escape glass shards, or what are the safest places in a house to hide. Still, the possibility of civilians fleeing a conflict zone cannot be ruled out.
The report in The New York Times states that the United Nation is worried that the civilians fleeing may be harmed in the battle. It states that the UN has stockpiled supplies to support up to 400,000 people at ready, but that they are afraid may not be enough. The military has also drawn up secret escape routes for civilians stranded in the fight, but as happened in the battle of Falluja, there is always a chance that the IS fighters may catch wind of the routes known as 'humanitarian corridors' and target them.
With inputs from AP