To many observers, it feels as though the battle for the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, to free it of the extremist group known as the Islamic State, must begin soon. Various different armed forces appear to be moving into position for an attack on the city, a stronghold of the Islamic State, or IS, group.
In February, two brigades from the Iraqi Army’s 15th division set up in a camp near Mosul that is being called the Ninawa Liberation Operations Command Camp.
A senior member of that force said he was not authorised to comment on the record but told NIQASH that all the necessary preparations had been made to start the fight to drive the IS group out of Mosul and that they were just waiting for a command from the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to get started.
The senior officer also confirmed that there was strong cooperation between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish military, from out of the nearby semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Various other armed forces, including Iraq’s often-times controversial Shiite Muslim volunteer militias and other sectarian militias, including Christian fighters, have also said they are prepared to take part in this all important battle for the city that acts as the IS group’s capital in Iraq.
On March 9, a meeting was held in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to which all the concerned parties, who might take part in the fight for Mosul, were invited. However, despite a lot of discussion about reconstruction efforts to come in a post-IS province, two difficult questions – who would participate in the liberation of Mosul? And who would handle the post-IS security in the city? – were not answered in any concrete way.
There is no doubt that some Sunni Muslim locals in Mosul support the IS group, which bases its doctrine on Sunni Muslim beliefs and sets itself up as a protector of Sunni rights in Iraq. Which makes the fact that other armed groups – including, for example, Shiite Muslim volunteer militias and the Iraqi Kurdish forces – want to fight there, a problem.
And it turns out there are also internal rivalries when it comes to the Kurdish fighting for Mosul. The most recent involve a dispute between Iraqi Kurdistan’s most powerful political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which originates from inside the Kurdish-majority parts of neighbouring Turkey.
The Kurdistan Workers Party is present in the Qandil and Sinjar mountain areas of Iraq and is a group that has been fighting for independence in Turkey for years, in an ongoing conflict that has seen tens of thousands of both Turkish and Kurdish people die. In fact, the PKK is categorised as a terrorist organisation by some Western nations.
Although the PKK is not an Iraqi group, they too have signalled that they wish to be part of the fight for Mosul, mostly in the form of their affiliated Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. They are also associated with Yazidi militias in the Sinjar area.
But the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, whose head, Massoud Barzani, is currently still acting as President of Iraqi Kurdistan, doesn’t want the group to come a step closer to Mosul. Locals know that the actual fighting is of no great interest to either party – instead both parties know that whoever fights for Mosul will get a say in the city’s future after the IS group is driven out.
“We have decided to participate in the liberation of Mosul because we believe the city’s security and stability is essential if the security and stability of other nearby places, like Kirkuk and Iraqi Kurdistan, is to be ensured,” Agid Kalari, the head of the YPG in the Sinjar area, told NIQASH.
Kalari leads a force of around 4,000 fighters stationed in the Sinjar area, which borders on the Kurdish parts of Syria, where the parent party, the PKK, is largely in charge. While the PKK is not an Iraqi group, its affiliated militias can claim to be as they are made up of some Iraqi locals. Some analysts have suggested that the Iraqi government doesn’t mind the PKK’s affiliates being involved in this fight because they would limit the potential influence of the KDP.
“But nothing has been defined as yet,” Kalari continued. “We have only had discussions and we need to make decisions before any military operation can begin.”
Meanwhile the official Iraqi Kurdish military, also known as the Peshmerga, are located mostly on the western side of Mosul. “No other force except the Peshmerga are going to participate in the battle for Mosul,” insists Jamal Eminki, the chief of staff for the Iraqi Kurdish military. “The PKK has nothing to do with this. Their struggle is with Turkey. The Peshmerga are going to liberate these areas and they won’t need any help from the PKK.”
The mayor of Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdish politician, Mahma Khalil, who took on the job after the area was freed from the IS group, doesn’t think the PKK will have anything to do with the battle for Mosul either.
“The Iraqi government won’t allow any non-Iraqi force to participate in this operation,” Khalil explained to NIQASH. “Although you can be sure that the phase after Mosul is liberated will be more complex than any situation we have now.”
Kalari seems to agree with this assessment, saying that where the YPG fighters were around Mosul would depend very much on what happened in the Sinjar area in the future. “A decision will need to be made as to whether Sinjar is part of Iraq or if it becomes part of Iraqi Kurdistan,” he says. “If it becomes part of Iraqi Kurdistan then the locals themselves should form special units to defend themselves.”
This statement indicates that the PKK-affiliated militias may well be happy to withdraw from Sinjar area in favour of, for example, a local Yazidi militia.
This also depends on Iraq’s ongoing problems with Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution. This Article is supposed to deal with the country’s disputed territories – that is, land that Iraqi Kurdistan says is part of its semi-autonomous region but which Baghdad says belongs to Iraq proper. Article 140 outlines a series of steps that should be taken in order to resolve who exactly the disputed territories belong to. However after the IS group sparked Iraq’s current security crisis, the areas that are controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish have changed significantly. For instance, the Iraqi Kurdish now control Kirkuk, the northern city they have always said belongs to them.
Today the Iraqi Kurdish do not want to withdraw from any of the areas they control and have also said they want to go back to running areas they used to control before the IS group turned up. Meanwhile the PKK-related militias don’t want to withdraw from Sinjar, an area they helped to free from the IS group but which used to be pro-Iraqi Kurdish, at least politically, for various reasons.
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, who heads the Middle East Research Institute, an organization based in Erbil, doesn’t think that tensions between the PKK, and its offshoots, and the Iraqi Kurdish military will come to anything once the fight for Mosul begins. At that stage the two will need to cooperate. Although he’s not sure if it’s possible given levels of hostility, Ala’Aldeen also thinks that before any fighting begins the two parties should sign some sort of agreement regarding what happens after the city has been freed of the IS group.
“It is not in either of their interests to create conflicts,” Ala’Aldeen told NIQASH. “If any conflict occurs they would resolve it quickly,” he suggests.