There is currently a lull in the battle for Mosul. The Iraqi Special Operations Forces, Army, and Federal Police have reached the Tigris River that bisects the city, having more or less completed the recapture of the eastern part of Mosul from the jihadists of the Islamic State. The Special Forces, who are expected to spearhead the next phase of the battle, are moving south, where the offensive looks set to continue.
There is still some gunfire in the Rashidia neighborhood on the river. The authorities maintain that this is merely the jihadists firing from their side of it. Civilians have begun to return to the neighborhoods along the Tigris, and further east the city is already bustling again, though the devastation to housing and infrastructure wrought by the military campaign is extensive.
Much fighting remains to be done in Mosul, of course. The western part of the city is more densely populated than the east. The concentration of population and the narrow alleyways mean that opportunities to use air power, standoff fire, and armored vehicles will be limited. The troops will need to go in on foot and face ISIS’s suicide cars, drones, snipers, and IEDs with minimal cover. The jihadists have no escape route. In the empty ground to the west of the city, the Iran-supported Shi‘a militiamen of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces or PMU) are mustered and waiting. The 5,000-6,000 ISIS fighters estimated to be in the city will fight and die in western Mosul.
But while the battle is far from over, its eventual outcome cannot be in doubt. The two and a half year grip of the Islamic State on Iraq’s second city will eventually be terminated.
It is therefore useful to begin considering what may come next for the city of Mosul and what this may tell us about the future of Iraq as a whole. In early February, I spent a week in Mosul, speaking with the military units engaged in the conquest of the city and with civilians seeking to rebuild their lives in the wake of the destruction. What may be learned from an on-the-ground view of current events in Mosul city?
First of all, the performance of the Iraqi armed forces in the battle for Mosul has been creditable. The conquest of the east of the city took three months, but the Iraqis and their coalition allies eschewed the scorched-earth tactics that could have produced a quicker outcome. The first days of fighting revealed the vulnerabilities of vehicle convoys to ISIS’s main tactical instrument—the suicide car bomb. Subsequently, the forces pushed forward on foot.
Casualties have been very heavy. The government of Iraq does not release precise figures, but all commanders I spoke to acknowledged this. The damage, meanwhile, has not been shared equally among the forces. Rather, the 10,000-strong Special Operations Forces (ISOF) have borne the brunt. The best of the officers of ISOF train at the U.S. Army Ranger School, and their superior skills give them the ability to act as assault troops. The less well-trained army and Federal Police take over maintaining the areas once they are secured. Meanwhile, since it is mainly functioning as a blocking force to the west of the city, the Iranian-supported PMU is avoiding casualties.
Has preventing the PMU from entering the city benefitted the largely Sunni civilian population of Mosul, preserving them from sectarian retribution? The picture is rather more complicated than that.
It is an under-reported fact that the PMU is in the city, though not in the form of the well-known Iran-associated militias such as Ktaeb Hizballah and the Badr Organization. The PMU includes fighters from small Shi‘a communities in the Ninawah area, including Turkmens and Shebek. I saw Shebek PMU fighters in Bartella, 13 miles east of Mosul city, where a base flying the PMU flag lies not far from a facility where U.S. Special Forces are stationed. Human Rights Watch recently published a report detailing abuses by Shebek PMU fighters of civilians in Mosul.
The PMU also includes a 40,000-strong Sunni component, consisting mainly of members of Sunni tribes who cooperate closely with the Shi‘a-dominated Baghdad government. I witnessed the presence of these fighters in the central part of Mosul city.
These forces are under the overall command of the PMU, which is led in the field by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a well-known Shi‘a Islamist figure close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. In the assessment of one Iraqi official I spoke to, the PMU is “all over” the offensive against ISIS in Ninawah. So it is important to see the offensive as a whole, of which actions within the city itself constitute only one facet—and in which the PMU plays an integral part.
Beyond the specific question of the PMU, representatives of all three branches of the armed forces indignantly deny that their forces are operating on anything resembling a sectarian agenda inside Mosul. Captain Ra‘ad Qarim Kassem, an officer of the Najaf Battalion in ISOF, pointed out to me that among his officers were Kurds and Sunni Arab Iraqis, as well as Shi‘a.
Observation inside Mosul, however, reveals the frequent presence of Shi‘a sectarian symbols on vehicles of all units, including the Special Forces. Most ubiquitous among these are banners bearing the supposed visage of Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of Muhammad, and a figure of veneration for Shi‘a.
At the ruined mosque of Nebi Yunus, an ancient shrine in eastern Mosul that ISIS destroyed on July 24, 2014 as a site of “apostasy,” hangs a large and imposing banner of Hussein accompanied by Shi‘a slogans. The symbolism is clear.
Sunni civilians I interviewed generally regarded the armed forces positively. I heard no allegations of mistreatment at the hands of government troops in the course of the recent battle. However, further questioning revealed a more complex picture. The oppressive presence of the army prior to ISIS’s arrival is remembered and resented, and many Sunni civilians fear the possibility of retribution at the hands of Shi‘a troops in the service of the government.
One refugee at the Khazer camp outside Mosul bluntly predicted, “There will be a sectarian war again.” When I asked why he expected this, his response was “The army will seek to take revenge. They want revenge for the Speicher massacre—but on those not guilty of it.” (The Speicher massacre was the slaughter of 1,566 Shi‘a Iraqi Air Force cadets at a former U.S. airbase of that name, carried out by ISIS during its lightning advance across western Iraq in June 2014.)
Another refugee at the camp revealed an ambiguous attitude toward the Islamic State. “The [Iraqi] army had mistreated us before. Too many checkpoints. We were tired of the army. ISIS promised freedom. And in the beginning, it was as they told us. Now they are doing the same thing. So we are tired of them, too.”
The many complaints I heard from civilians regarding the Islamic State related in the main to shortages of food and fuel, particularly as the situation worsened and the Iraqi army approached. The picture of life under ISIS that emerged was a curious combination of extreme religious pedantry, sectarianism, and periodic brutality.
One man described a dispute with a neighbor in which the neighbor threatened to reveal the Shi‘a allegiances of the man’s wife. ISIS authorities investigated the claim, but were satisfied by the production of documents proving that the man’s eldest son was named “Omar” (a typically Sunni name). Other refugees complained about the order of compulsory attendance of mosque lectures given by ISIS “emirs,” which made earning a living difficult. Punishments of twenty lashes for non-attendance or for smoking were also resented.
The sum total of these complaints suggest, however, that for ordinary Sunni Arabs living under ISIS control, life was largely bearable on condition that they did not annoy the authorities. This is in stark contrast, of course, to the terrible fate suffered by non-Muslim communities under ISIS rule. This in turn is a useful reminder that for all its cruelties, the Islamic State should be understood as a manifestation of the sectarian politics of Iraq and Syria rather than a sui generis example of the human capacity for vileness.
It is important to understand that future developments—most importantly the defeat of ISIS, when it comes, as it will—are not likely to end the process of conflict in Iraq, but rather to usher in the next round. The underlying, stark dynamic of Iraq is one of fragmentation and sectarian politics. The effort to build a non-sectarian military presence in the form of the ISOF has been partially successful, but it has not changed the bigger picture, and likely cannot.
In the meantime, the battle for western Mosul is coming. It will involve much sound and fury, and of course death. But it will not signify a fundamental change in the course of events in Iraq and Syria. The fiction of a single, unifying Iraqi national identity has collided with the reality of inter-communal rivalry and struggle—and shattered.