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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Iraqi forces ill-prepared to retake Mosul in spring, say analysts

Despite the overwhelming superiority of Baghdad's troops on paper, the battle for this key city is unlikely to be an easy one, writes Josh Wood.
Shiite Hizbollah fighters gather in Iraq's holy central city of Najaf on February 20, 2015, ahead of relocating to the front lines. Haidar Hamdani/AFP Photo
Shiite Hizbollah fighters gather in Iraq's holy central city of Najaf on February 20, 2015, ahead of relocating to the front lines. Haidar Hamdani/AFP Photo

BEIRUT// The plan announced by US Central Command to wrest control of Iraq’s second city from the hands of ISIL this spring could involve a problematic mixture of forces of questionable battlefield ability, according to analysts.

A CENTCOM official said on Thursday that in April or May, Iraqi army forces backed by Kurdish Peshmerga will assault Mosul, a city the United States says is controlled by between 1,000 to 2,000 ISIL fighters. Twelve brigades comprising up to 25,000 Iraqi troops could be involved in the operation. The US said it will train five of those brigades to enter Mosul while the remaining brigades will act as reserve forces. The Kurds will aim to cut off ISIL forces from the North and West.

Yet, despite the overwhelming superiority of Iraqi forces on paper, the battle for Mosul is unlikely to be an easy one.

Analysts say the battle could be hampered by brigades ill-prepared for the fight and that the ethnic and sectarian make-up of the force could exacerbate the conflict in Iraq.

“It’s technically possible [to retake Mosul] but the cost will be very high for the Iraqis to try to take Mosul this quickly,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq analyst with the Baghdad-based Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform.

In June 2014, ISIL needed just a day to capture Mosul. Tens of thousands of Iraqi troops fled the city, despite dramatically outnumbering their attackers.

The US has been training Iraqi fighting forces for months, but it is unclear how effective its crash courses in warfare have been or whether they will increase the Iraqi army’s will to fight.

Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said that while there have been changes in the leadership of the Iraqi military as of late, the army has not even started to deal with many of its problems and transforming the force will take years.

Analysts said that the US revealing details of the planned operation months ahead of time — and what some believe is a conservative estimate of ISIL’s strength on the ground — could be a move to boost morale in the Iraqi army’s ranks.

The sectarian make-up of the fighting force could make the fight for Mosul difficult as well.

“The offensive relies on a somewhat problematic mixture of forces, none of which can do the job alone, all of which are needed, but each of which has certain problems,” said Mr Sayigh.

Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi, a researcher at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, agreed.

“It’s all about the composition of this force. 25,000 Iraqi soldiers, where are they going to come from? Are any Shiite militiamen going to be involved?” he said.

The role, if any, of Iraq’s Shiite militias in the anticipated operation would likely be controversial and would risk enraging Iraqi Sunnis.

The main Shiite militias – like the Badr Organization, led by transportation minister Hadi Al Amiri – have effectively fought ISIL and received a steady flow of armaments from Iran. Today, the ranks of the Shiite militiamen in the country outnumber the Iraqi army.

But while these militias have proved their proficiency on the battlefield, they are also a major catalyst for Iraq’s sectarian conflict. In their fight against ISIL, Shiite militias have been accused of executing Sunni civilians in towns they have taken. In captured areas, Shiite militiamen have razed homes and joyously dragged the bloody corpses of ISIL militants through the streets.

On February 13, a prominent Sunni sheikh and his entourage were abducted in Baghdad and summarily executed in a move Iraqi politicians quickly blamed on the Shiite militias that have been given free reign of the capital and boycotted parliament in protest.

For any Shiite forces “the further they get into primarily Sunni areas, the more problematic, the less welcome they’ll be,” said Mr Sayigh.

There is also the question of what happens if the assault on Mosul is successful and the city returns to government control.

The US has said that a fighting force made up of tribal fighters from Mosul and former police will be able to go into the city after it is cleared of militants, but the strength and capabilities of such a force remain unknown.

But Baghdad had difficulty controlling Mosul even before ISIL took over the city last year. And the Sunni population of Mosul has major grievances with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government that would likely continue – and perhaps be worsened – by a destructive assault on their city.

Even before ISIL took the city “in the hours of the day, they [the government] were in control, but at night they’d lose control,” said Mr Jiyad. “How do you get control when the actual population doesn’t like you very much?”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae