Making plans in Qayyara: Head of Iraq's elite counter-terrorism forces, Abdul Ghani al-Asadi (centre, in black) speaks with Najim al-Jibouri, the commander of the Iraqi army in Ninawa. (photo: وزارة الدفاع العراقية)
A few days ago Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sent the people living in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul a message, via a new military-run radio station. As preparations to begin fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which has controlled the city for over two years, ramp up, al-Abadi told Mosul locals that the city would be theirs again in the same way that cities in the provinces of Anbar and Salahaddin were also liberated.
But it is clear to everyone both inside and outside Mosul, and Iraq, that this fight will be different from others against the Islamic State, or IS, group. There are demographic, social, political and even foreign relations issues that make this particular fight a lot more complicated.
As Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, has already said: The fight for Mosul will be “one of the most complex, difficult things imaginable”.
In fact, it is quite possible that those fighting the IS group may start fighting among themselves. There have already been clashes between the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias and the Iraqi Kurdish military up north. There’s no doubt that the IS group would use these conflicts for its own ends; fighting could drag on for months because of the rivalries
Even if, as is generally expected, the anti-IS forces eventually drive the extremists out, the aftermath will also see problems that may take years to resolve. While their common goal is getting rid of the IS group, all of the actors have their own agendas for what comes afterwards. And that is even before considering any kind of reconciliation among the local populace, after brutal acts committed by the IS group.
Following, a primer on the various groups involved and the potential problems.
The Iraqi army Chief of Staff, Othman al-Ghanimi, in a camp near Mosul.
Geography: The province of Ninawa is Iraq’s second largest province in terms of land mass, after Anbar. At the Iraqi Ministry of Planning’s last count, the population of the province was around 3.5 million.
Because of the size of Ninawa and the fact that the IS group controls the central, eastern and southern parts of the province, as well as an important border crossing into Syria, anti-IS forces will be fighting on several fronts. Iraqi Kurdish military are deployed in a northern arc that starts in Makhmour and ends in Sinjar. The regular Iraqi army is deployed in the south, around Qayyarah.
In the north are members of the local police and other forces led by former Ninawa governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi. Other forces include a mixture made up of the Syrian-Kurdish militia, the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, more Iraqi Kurdish fighters and Yazidi fighters.
All of these anti-IS forces will have to fight a long way before they reach the centre of Mosul and the IS group has set up a variety of blockages, from improvised explosive devices to trenches and other traps. Locals in the city have told NIQASH that the extremist group is preparing for a siege.
The Syrian border crossing at Biaj, about 110 kilometres west of Mosul, that the IS group controls, is also problematic. This allows the extremists to keep supply lines open or to withdraw and return, any time they see an opportunity. Controlling the Iraq-Syria border around here will also be a prerequisite to success.
Demographics: The population in Ninawa is diverse and is more varied than many of the cities and towns that have already seen the IS group pushed out. In Anbar, Salahaddin and Diyala the areas where the IS group had control were home to a mostly Sunni Muslim population. In Ninawa there are Yazidis, Turkmen and Shabaks who now identify themselves as either Shiite or Sunni rather than by ethnicity, Christians, Kurds and Sunnis. Many of the minorities targeted by the IS group – such as Ninawa’s Christians – have left the province altogether.
Al-Nujaifi’s forces: The regular Iraqi army refuses to recognize the fighters headed by former governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi. However, al-Nujaifi has said that his troops, numbering around 3,000 men, will definitely take part in the fighting. This group has voiced opposition to fighting alongside the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias and the Iraqi Kurdish military.
This group is made up of former police officers in Ninawa and tribal fighters. It is backed financially, and in terms of supplies, by Turkey, which also has its own troops in the area.
Turkish troops: Even though Turkish troops, that number between 1,000 and 1,500, have been in this part of Iraq for years, their increased presence grows increasingly controversial as the fight for Mosul nears. Neither the Iraqi army or the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias considers the Turkish presence legitimate nor do they welcome their help with Mosul. The Turkish military here says it will not fight alongside the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias although it welcomes, and is welcomed by, al-Nujaifi’s forces and Iraqi Kurdistan’s largest political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. Both of the latter have a history of good relations with Turkey.
Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK:This militia, which is categorised as a terrorist organization by some countries due to a long running and deadly campaign for Kurdish independence inside Turkey, is present in the Sinjar area. The PKK ended up here after the IS group attacked the Sinjar area, killing and kidnapping those of the ethno-religious Yazidi group. The PKK came to the aid of the Yazidis and remains in the Sinjar area. However, the Iraqi Kurdish military that fights under the KDP considers the PKK interlopers. The Iraqi army and the Turkish army also disapprove of the PKK having any part in the fighting.
Yazidi militias: The plight of the Yazidi people of Sinjar has been well covered, with the IS group killing and kidnapping thousands of the ethno-religious group. The Yazidis have since formed militia groups to protect themselves and appear determined to take revenge on the IS group. As past events show, they are also likely to punish the Sunni Muslim civilians who they see as IS collaborators. The Yazidi militias are allied with the PKK.
Shiite Muslim volunteer militias: These are the irregular fighting forces formed in 2014 when the highest Shiite religious authority in the land called for volunteers to protect Iraq from the IS group, who base their ideology on Sunni Muslim practices. The informal militias, of which there are over a dozen with differing loyalties, have been considered both heroes and villains in Iraq. They have been praised for the integral role they played when the Iraqi army appeared incapable of fighting the IS group and they have been criticized for taking revenge against the Sunni civilian population. They are becoming increasingly powerful politically too.
In some of the fighting down south, the militias were consigned to a more peripheral role. And there is concern as to what they would do if they managed to get to the centre of Mosul, the IS group’s “capital” in Iraq, first. A few days ago in Babel, the leader of one of the more extreme volunteer militias, known as the League of the Righteous, said that the volunteer militias would definitely participate in the fighting and they would “take revenge for Imam Hussein”; he is referring to a historical figure, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was killed by Sunni Muslim fighters centuries ago. This kind of statement does not exactly put the minds of Sunni Muslim fighters or civilians at rest.
Additionally, the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias have their own agenda in the fight over Mosul. They wish to regain control over Tal Afar, where many Shiite Muslims used to live – these were either Shabaks or Turkmen.
Iraqi Kurdish military: This is the official military force belonging to nearby semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own borders, government and legislation. They are also known as the Peshmerga. While generally seen in a positive light, the Iraqi Kurdish also have their own agenda. Critics say they see this battle as an opportunity and that they are seeking to expand their region and gain control of the Sinjar area and the Christian towns of the Ninawa Plain. The Iraqi Kurdish military had a strong presence in these areas before the IS group arrived even though these areas were not officially part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraqi soldiers at a camp near Mosul.
All of the various conflicts of interest between those who would remove the IS group from northern Iraq are already being reflected in suggestions for what to do with Ninawa after the fighting is done. Controversial suggestions have already been made about dividing the province up into a number of new, smaller provinces, with each reflecting the ethnic or religious makeup of the population. This would mean the creation of Yazidi, Christian, Sunni and Shiite areas, independent of one another.
This is quite likely to prove more difficult than one might imagine though – and that is mainly because the IS group’s incursion into Ninawa has changed the demographics of the province so much. For instance, there are hardly any Christians living in Ninawa anymore. The same is true for Shiite Shabaks in the province, many of whom have fled to southern Iraq, which is predominantly Shiite. Many members of these groups say they don’t want to return home because they no longer trust their Sunni neighbours and fear they may be targets of further religiously motivated violence.
Sunni Muslim leaders are also starting to manoeuvre, with some, like al-Nujaifi, calling for Ninawa to be turned into a semi-autonomous region that would operate like Iraqi Kurdistan does. Apparently officials from Anbar like this idea too, having praised the idea that eventually Anbar and Ninawa could be joined together to create one large Sunni homeland inside Iraq.
Unfortunately, the Iraqi government in Baghdad doesn’t seem to have any good ideas about what to do with Ninawa and Mosul after the IS group has been driven out. Their main goal appears to be re-establishing the status quo – the provincial administrative system - that existed before the IS group took control of Mosul in June 2014. But there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is going to be extremely difficult with various populations and various military forces taking turns to jockey for power and territory, and possibly continuing to fight amongst themselves.