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Iraq Puts ‘Hold’ on Liberation of Mosul from Islamic State

The Iraqi military has announced that it is halting its operation to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS), as they wait for Baghdad to send police and military reinforcements to continue capturing the villages surrounding Iraq’s second-largest city.

“We do not want to use all our units to hold territory,” the head of the Mosul operation, Major General Najm Abdullah al-Jubbouri, said in a statement, noting that federal police and local militia reinforcements were on their way to meet Iraqi soldiers in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital. The Iraqi army has taken back three villages in Makhmour, an area near Mosul, and does not want to leave the villages without police to keep the peace should the Islamic State attempt to attack them once again.

Three weeks ago, the Iraqi military announced Operation Fatah, or “Conquest,” an expansive effort to surround Mosul and take it out of the hands of the Islamic State. Mosul is second only to the “capital” of the caliphate – Raqqa, Syria – in importance, having had a population of over one million before the arrival of ISIS in 2014. American officials noted in the aftermath of the announcement of Operation Fatah that the project will be led by the Iraqi military but ultimately executed by a “mix of forces,” according to U.S. Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State Brett McGurk. McGurk warned at the time that the operation would be “very complicated.”

What that “mix of forces” will look like remains unclear, though Jubbouri has emphasized the need for an American presence in the operation. “I want to see more support from the Americans and the coalition,” he told CNN in a report published Wednesday. He clarified that he hoped to receive support in the form of “airstrikes, advisers, and logistical support,” and not ground troops: “We can liberate our own lands.”

The Pentagon has nonetheless kept the option of more American troops on the ground open. “As the [Iraqi army] progresses toward isolating Mosul, there may be a situation where there is another base that is opened – or re-opened from years past – that would be used in the same manner as a fire support base,” Rear Adm. Andrew L. “Woody” Lewis told reporters. The death of Marine Sgt. Louis F. Cardin last month exposed a formerly secret fire support base the United States was operating in Iraq, leading many to question the true number of American soldiers deployed to Iraq. The news that the Pentagon is open to expanding its presence on the ground in Iraq follows an announcement last month by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that he would be seeking White House permission to send more troops to Iraq.

Rear Admiral Lewis appeared optimistic in his remarks to the press on Wednesday, suggesting that the Mosul operation had already begun to yield results. “Iraqi security forces have begun shaping an isolation operation for re-taking Mosul, with U.S. and coalition partner supporting them with air power and other enabling capabilities… We have seen steady progress as the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) continues to re-capture territory, to include HIT and Makhmour,” he noted.

The current delay in continuing the operation has concerned many, however, particularly in light of a similar delay in March attributed to “bad weather.” Representatives of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, which are expected to take place in the ultimate battle for Mosul, questioned the Iraqi army’s ability to fight toe-to-toe with the Islamic State shortly after Operation Fatah was announced. “With all the ammunition they [the Iraqis] have ultimately they are too weak… We would have been near Mosul by now,” Peshmerga representative Nazim Zinal said in March.

“They [the Iraqi army] are not as fast as the Peshmerga who can make advances with basic weapons. They don’t make any progress even with their modern weapons,” Peshmerga Lieutenant Farid Sabir added, expressing a common frustration with the United States’ policy of only arming the official Iraqi military, and sending weapons meant for the Peshmerga to Baghdad to be later handed over by the Iraqi government.
Adding to the potential discord in the fight for Mosul is an announcement this week by a coalition of Shiite militias that they will be participating in the liberation of Mosul. “We think the battle to liberate Mosul will be huge, complex; it will be about guerrilla warfare in built-up areas, which only [Shiite militia coalition the Popular Mobilization Forces] PMF fighters are good at… as forces may be fighting house to house, room to room,” a Shiite coalition spokesman, Jawad al-Talabawi, said Wednesday. As Reuters notes, Sunni groups in Iraq strongly object to the presence of the Iran-linked Shiite coalition, as they have been accused of ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in areas they have attacked.
Shiite militias have also directly threatened American troops. Asaib Ahl al-Haq (“The League of the Righteous”), one of the larger Shiite militias and a member of the PMF, threatened to kill any Americans should President Barack Obama announce a new deployment of troops there. Kata’ib Hezbollah, another PMF militia, warned in December that they should shift their focus away from ISIS to make any American troops on the ground a “primary target.”
The Islamic State appears to be struggling to keep the peace in Mosul, as many of its most experienced and skilled fighters have been killed in battle or abandoned the terrorist group. Reports from within Mosul suggest that child soldiers are being increasingly used to keep Mosul controlled, and adult jihadis are being heavily drugged to keep them from deserting.

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