Who Will Rule Mosul?

The operation to recapture the Iraqi city from the Islamic State has turned into a high-stakes political contest for power. And the shooting hasn’t even started.

An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter fires at Islamic-State (IS) militant positions, from his position on the top of Mount Zardak, a strategic point taken 3 days ago, about 25  kilometres east of Mosul on September 9,2014. Kurdish forces in the north have been bolstered by US strikes and took control of Mount Zardak, a strategic site that provides a commanding view of the surrounding area, a senior US officer said. AFP PHOTO/ JM LOPEZ        (Photo credit should read JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter fires at Islamic-State (IS) militant positions, from his position on the top of Mount Zardak, a strategic point taken 3 days ago, about 25 kilometres east of Mosul on September 9,2014. Kurdish forces in the north have been bolstered by US strikes and took control of Mount Zardak, a strategic site that provides a commanding view of the surrounding area, a senior US officer said. AFP PHOTO/ JM LOPEZ (Photo credit should read JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The battle to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State has begun. But so far all the fighting is taking place in the political arena, with Iraq’s rival ethnic and religious factions mired in a power struggle over how to recapture the country’s second-largest city.

Virtually every major armed group in Iraq and their foreign patrons, including local Sunni Arabs backed by Turkey, Shiite militias supported by Iran, and American-equipped Kurdish forces are jockeying for a piece of the action.

The contest over who marches into Mosul will shape who controls the city once — or if — Islamic State militants are forced out. But despite a campaign more than a year in the making, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has yet to forge a coherent political plan that can bridge the divide between the rival groups, all but certainly pushing back a military operation yet again, U.S. officials and experts said.

Obama administration officials are closely watching the political intrigue over Sunni-majority Mosul, which borders the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north and is only a few hours’ drive from the Iranian border. U.S. officials are wary of any scenario that skews the balance too far in favor of any one group — particularly proxies answering to Iran or Kurdish forces intent on carving out more territory.

“Who takes Mosul matters a lot,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Shiite militias with links to Iran (known as Popular Mobilization Forces), Kurdish Peshmerga troops, Sunni tribal leaders, and Iraqi Army commanders “have a different vision for how we get there,” the official told Foreign Policy. “If there’s too much PMF or Peshmerga elements, we’re going to have a problem.”

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden paid a visit to Iraq this week, his first since 2011, and high on the agenda in his talks in Baghdad on Thursday and Erbil on Friday was an appeal to political leaders to arrive at a consensus on how to retake Mosul.

The Islamic State seized Mosul in June 2014, shocking Obama administration officials who had turned their focus elsewhere after U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011 after more than eight years of war and the deaths of nearly 4,500 American forces. The ongoing power struggle over who will rule the sprawling, dusty city shares some similarities with a dispute that plagued an offensive to take back Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, in central Iraq, in March 2015. In that case, American military commanders initially refused to carry out bombing raids against Islamic State militants in Tikrit until Iranian-linked Shiite militias pulled back and allowed the Iraqi government army to take the lead.

U.S. officials said they are prepared to stand down on lending artillery fire and air power once again if plans for Mosul failed to give Baghdad’s army a central role.

Despite misgivings from Iraqi Army commanders and U.S. military advisors, the leader of one of the most powerful Shiite militias, Hadi Amiri, has insisted that his forces will be a part of any fight for Mosul. He leads a political organization once known as the Badr Brigades, which for years targeted U.S. troops in Iraq with so-called EFP bombs from Iran.

“In the battle for Mosul, we will be playing the essential role,” Amiri told the Financial Times in March.

But he said his militia would not enter the city and instead would “isolate and surround” the area, allowing local fighters and security forces to move into Mosul.

Iraqi leaders on March 24 declared they had launched an assault on Mosul. But more than a month later, apart from some fighting in rural areas southeast of the city, near Makhmour, a major operation to push the Islamic State from Mosul has yet to get underway and there is no sign of imminent military action.

The U.S. military has also jumped the gun on the timing of a Mosul offensive. Last year, a senior officer predicted an operation would be underway by the spring of 2015, in remarks that reflected the Pentagon’s bid to push Iraqi leaders to respond faster to the Islamic State. Baghdad bristled at the perception that Washington was directing the fight, and senior U.S. officers backed down. Since then, the Pentagon has resisted rushing Baghdad into an offensive until Iraqi forces are ready.

Sectarian feuding over which forces will lead the military offensive is not the only factor complicating a Mosul offensive. For the past two months, Abadi has been preoccupied with his own political survival, as he struggles to defuse a challenge to his authority in Baghdad from a fellow Shiite, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Exploiting popular anger over corruption and unemployment among impoverished Shiites, Sadr has orchestrated massive protests across Baghdad and outside the Green Zone, where government offices and diplomatic posts are located behind an array of concrete blast walls.

Abadi, attempting to get ahead of Sadr’s demands but hampered by a weak political hand, proposed a new cabinet of technocrats. But the prime minister has failed to win parliamentary backing for the move, partly because fellow Shiite politicians are reluctant to give up their privileges.

“He’s consumed by this,” said Ben Connable, a retired U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer and now senior analyst at the RAND Corp., who recently returned from a visit to Baghdad. “He’s distracted. And it’s harder to fight a war when you are distracted by near-term security and political threats right outside your front gate.”

Both the United States and Iran are supporting Abadi and his Shiite-led government, as neither country wants to see the Iraqi government fall when the campaign against the Islamic State has gained some momentum. U.S. officials expect Abadi will survive the political turmoil but analysts warn he may emerge scarred and weakened, possibly leaving him more vulnerable to pressures from harder-line Shiite militias.

“Abadi will feel tremendous pressure from Iran” to give the PMF an important role in the operation to recapture Mosul, the senior administration official said.

While political conflict threatens to delay the Mosul operation indefinitely, mounting sectarian and ethnic tensions are coming to a head on the ground, threatening the fragile coalition fighting the Islamic State.

Even as the extremists have been forced to retreat, Kurdish troops and Shiite militia have clashed in contested areas. Last weekend, the two sides battled in Tuz Khormato, a small city with mixed ethnicity in northeast Iraq, in a firefight over two days that left at least 27 soldiers dead.

In the meantime, increasing numbers of Sunni Arabs are fleeing Mosul and its environs, walking through a dangerous no man’s land between front lines to reach Kurdish-controlled territory.

This past Tuesday, 25 families crossed the Tigris River overnight and arrived at dawn in Makhmour, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. After security checks, the families were directed to a nearby camp for displaced persons that is already home to more than 6,400 civilians, well past its maximum capacity.

Aid workers and experts say most of the people fleeing from Mosul in recent weeks appear to be motivated by fears for their safety, given the Iraqi government’s public statements about an upcoming offensive.

They have good reason to fear the war coming to Mosul — and not only because of the explosions and gunfire that will envelop the city once the fighting starts in earnest.

Mosul is the capital of Nineveh province, which borders Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, and is the largest community in the ethnically mixed region. Sunni Arabs there are wary of how they will be treated once Islamic State extremists are kicked out, particularly given concerns of harassment and abuse by some Kurdish Peshmerga units and Shiite militia.

Human rights groups have documented abuses against Sunnis carried out by Kurdish troops and Shiite militia units in areas where Islamic State militants have been rolled back, including in Nineveh province. Amnesty International said in January that Peshmerga forces bulldozed and burned the homes of Sunnis in northern Iraq, purportedly in retaliation for their alleged support of the extremists.

In a report last year, Human Rights Watch found that Kurds had barred Arabs from returning to their villages in Nineveh province for months at a time, allowing Kurdish civilians to seize the land. The Peshmerga stopped the Arabs from returning to their homes by holding them in “security zones,” allegedly denying them basic services and preventing them from checking on their property.

Bruno Geddo, the UNHCR’s representative in Iraq, said the refugee agency will be present on the front lines during a future Mosul offensive to ensure displaced Arabs are not mistreated on the pretext of security concerns.

“We will monitor the conditions of treatment so that there’s food, water, and shelter at the screening center and no arbitrary detentions,” Geddo told FP by phone from Erbil.

Given Mosul’s sectarian and ethnic sensitivities, U.S., Arab, and Western governments would prefer to see a Sunni militia leading the charge into the city. But despite an 18-month concerted effort by Washington and its allies to arm and train Sunni Arab units, there are limited numbers of capable Sunni fighters. As a result, the Iraqi government army, which is mostly made up of Shiite soldiers and commanders, will have to bear the brunt of the offensive, with its elite counterterrorism force spearheading the operation, U.S. officials and experts said.

But the Iraqi Army remains a fragile institution, and does not enjoy the trust or loyalty of many Iraqi Sunnis who remain alienated from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Experts and former U.S. military officers said the Iraqi Army will face a daunting challenge to assert its authority in Mosul if rival factions refuse to disarm and agree on a power-sharing deal that has proved elusive for years.

During last year’s military operation in Tikrit, U.S. officials worried about the behavior of Shiite militias toward Sunni residents of the city. Those concerns were realized when the militias torched and looted homes in Tikrit’s southern and eastern suburbs. But in Mosul, the historical rivalries between Kurdish forces and Sunni Arabs could present the biggest problem. Kurds claim much of the territory east of the city, where they were forcibly removed by Saddam during his “Arabization” policies in the 1970s and ’80s.

“The Kurds are quite open about how anything they take becomes part of Kurdistan forever, which obviously has residents of Mosul slightly concerned, not to mention Baghdad,” said Douglas Ollivant, a former U.S. Army officer who served in Iraq and later in the White House during the Bush administration and early years of Obama’s first term. “What’s really going on here is much more political than military.”

During constitutional debates after the fall of Saddam in 2003, Kurdish leaders argued for including parts of Mosul and surrounding areas within the Kurdistan Regional Government that is seated in Erbil and extends through Iraq’s three northernmost provinces. They lost that argument but never abandoned it, and the looming battle for Mosul has breathed new life into the idea among political leaders in Kurdistan, said Osama Gharizi, a fellow with the U.S. Institute for Peace based in Erbil.

Kurdish and Iraqi government leaders, however, cannot even agree on an estimate of the ethnic composition of Mosul before the Islamic State took over the city in 2014, Gharizi told FP. That’s because Iraq has for decades avoided conducting a nationwide census that would ultimately settle territorial claims in bitterly divided Arab, Kurd, and Turkomen communities. And Baghdad has yet to embark on a genuine political dialogue to try to work out what Mosul should look like if the Islamic State is defeated.

“There’s no serious discussion on what the day after should look like,” Gharizi said.

Neighboring Turkey is also keenly interested in “the day after” in Mosul, a city that was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years.

Last December, without asking Baghdad for permission, Turkey deployed several hundred troops and an armored battalion of some 20 tanks to a military base in Mount Bashiqa, 10 miles northeast of Mosul. The troops are still there, despite the Iraqi government’s repeated demands to leave.

Before Turkey sent in troops, a small number of Turkish military advisers stationed at the base trained a 6,500-strong militia organized and equipped by Atheel al-Nujaifi, the scion of a powerful landowning family from Mosul. Analysts say Nujaifi, who governed Nineveh province until Iraqi members of parliament sacked him last year for corruption and alleged complicity with the Islamic State, has designs to return as the provincial governor, or possibly to become mayor of Mosul. His brother, Osama al-Nujaifi, also formerly served as speaker of Iraq’s parliament and vice president as one of the highest-elected Sunnis in the country.

Ostensibly, the Turkish troops are protecting the base at Mount Bashiqa from Islamic State mortar attacks as advisers train the mostly Sunni militiamen in month-long courses in basic combat and marksmanship. But analysts say that Turkey’s actual motive in sending reinforcements is to better secure its interests during the political free-for-all that will follow Mosul’s liberation. Given how much Baghdad resents Ankara’s unilateral training camp, it’s unlikely Turkey would participate directly in a Mosul offensive.

The Nujaifi family and its Turkish-backed private army are “part and parcel to Turkey’s plans for post-conflict Mosul,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow and Turkey expert at the Atlantic Council.

“The Nujaifi brothers are close Turkish allies. … They argue the tribal forces that Turkey is training should be the holding force in a post-conflict Mosul. That’s why Turkey’s tanks are deployed across the front line,” he said.

Ankara is also playing the president of Iraqi Kurdistan off his rivals, and Turkey’s sworn enemies, in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has made sweeping gains in Syria and established a foothold in Iraq’s northwestern Sinjar area. Erbil reportedly leased Ankara the rights to the Bashiqa military camp, and participated in a joint operation with Turkish troops and their Arab allies to free two villages north of Mosul. It’s a delicate strategy of exploiting intra-Kurdish rivalries while papering over other Kurdish-Arab grievances.

During the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation, Mosul was one of the last major strongholds for al Qaeda in Iraq, the terror group that eventually morphed into what is now the Islamic State. The Sunni extremist group regained strength after American troops left Iraq and was further fueled by the Shiite-dominated central government’s sidelining of Iraqi Sunnis from power. Analysts in and outside of Iraq have warned that as long as Sunnis feel disenfranchised, violent extremism will be impossible to stamp out in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq.

Not only do Iraqi authorities lack a coherent political plan to restore security and some semblance of government in Mosul, neither Baghdad nor the international community appears prepared to confront the vast humanitarian and reconstruction task once the Islamic State is forced out. Moreover, plunging oil prices have created a fiscal crisis for Iraq’s government, prompting urgent appeals for donor aid.

In a depressing turn of events for the thousands of Iraqis still living under the Islamic State’s brutal rule in Mosul, the country’s political leaders and rival militias have little incentive to move quickly against the extremists in the city, some experts said.

Delaying the liberation of Mosul — possibly until this fall or even the spring of 2017 — has its advantages for the Iraqi government and every other player in the country, said Robert Blecher, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group.

“One of the most important things delaying the campaign is that leaving the city under Islamic State control is, for the time being, the least bad option for everyone, certainly less costly than the city falling into the orbit of a regional competitor,” he said.

“For just about everyone other than the U.S., the Islamic State is a secondary concern. Better Islamic State than someone else in Mosul.”

Photo credit: JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. Twitter: @HenryJohnsoon

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