Mosul: Between war and sectarian violence

Published on Middle East Monitor here 
9 March 2017

The Iraqi Armed Forces are closing in on the Islamic State group in Mosul, the group’s last stronghold in Iraq.

After recapturing its eastern districts in January after 100 days of fighting, the armed forces are now pushing west of the river Tigris, where IS continues to maintain a lethal defence. The group’s defeat appears imminent, but what is less clear is whether Haider al-Abadi’s government will succeed in bringing Sunni factions into the political fold and address the country’s deep sectarian divisions.

The civilians trapped in the city are currently facing unimaginable horrors. The United Nations warns that the estimated 750,000 inhabitants are at extreme risk of being caught in the crossfire, killed by booby-traps or used as human-shields by the jihadis.

With aid agencies unable to enter to provide relief, those stuck in the city are facing severe shortages of food, water and electricity. The scene on the ground is one of chaos, desperation and immense danger, with around 60,000 civilians reportedly trying to flee the city in recent days.

But those trying to escape from the Islamic State group will not find total safety east of the river; although ostensibly under control of the Iraqi Armed Forces, they are still within firing range of IS mortars. Last week a chemical agent was reportedly used in an attack against civilians in the east.

Twelve patients, including women and children, were brought into a hospital in Erbil for treatment of blistering and respiratory problems; four among them said to be displaying “severe” symptoms associated with “exposure to a blister agent“. It was a first in the battle for Mosul, with the United Nations calling for an immediate investigation, stating that there can be “no justification” for the use of chemical weapons.

The situation on the ground will likely get worse as the battle moves towards street fighting in the densely populated western districts, with tanks unable to enter the narrow thoroughfares of the ancient city. Although Iraqi Armed Forces are thought to outnumber Islamic State group fighters by around 10 to 1, the jihadis are well adapted to this environment, and are equipped with precision-guided munitions, using suicide car bombers, grenades and drones to carry out deadly attacks against both civilians and military targets.

But the armed forces are making considerable ground, having already captured key positions, including the international airport and a military base. According to a media spokesperson, the army’s elite Rapid Response units are now only “a few hundred metres” of Mosul’s main government buildings.

The Iraqi forces are now succeeding where they previously failed: the ground gained in Mosul stands in strong contrast with the botched collapse of 2014. The military is arguably far better prepared, disciplined and trained than before, with the elite Rapid Response and Counter-Terrorism Services units in particular praised for their highly effective operations against the jihadist group.

Military support from the United States, chiefly in the form of airstrikes and training, has also undoubtedly played a huge part. Since operations began in August 2014, the Pentagon has estimated a total cost around $11.4 billion, averaging out at a daily cost of $12.7 million for American taxpayers.

But the Trump administration wants to see the US start “winning wars” again and sees Iraq as “an important ally in the fight to defeat ISIS”.

In acknowledgement, Iraq was removed from the revised executive order on restricting travel for citizens from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

But while Haidar al-Abadi’s government may be enjoying a renewed sense of favour among Western allies with its efforts to defeat IS, there is a far more mixed picture back at home. There is still a feeling of deep distrust in Mosul over the Shia-dominated security apparatus, considering many among the troops to be heavy-handed, sectarian and deeply corrupt.

Such sentiments played a significant part in the rise of the Islamic State group in the first place, as many among the majority Sunni population came to see the state authorities as an occupying force.

In many regards, Abadi seems to be far more committed to improving the Sunni-Shia relationship than his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, who heightened sectarian tensions and ordered the arrest of a number of high profile Sunni politicians, including Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi.

Under Abadi, by contrast, Sunni and Shia political blocs are coming together to work on a “National Settlement” initiative which seeks to bring about national reconciliation between the different factions once the Islamic State group is defeated.

Supported by the United Nations Assistance mission to Iraq, it outlines key areas of tension that the government hopes to address, including the distribution of power between political blocs as well as ensuring the equitable sharing of the wealth derived from oil and gas sources among provinces.

Although the ideas may be well placed, in reality there is still a long way to go before national reconciliation can be achieved. One key setback was the passing of a law on November 26 to turn the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), dominated by Shia militias, into an official security force.

Created in 2014, the government-backed PMU came into force to counter the rapid advances of IS. There are concerns, however, over their involvement in human rights abuses against Sunni civilians; in 2015 Human Rights Watch published a report accusing the PMU of “abducting 200 Sunni residents”, the majority of whom remain unaccounted for, and “destroying several hundred civilian buildings with no apparent military reason”.

Yet despite the Sunni bloc’s serious concerns over the PMU, the Shia majority-led parliament pushed through the law, resulting in a walkout from several of their Sunni counterparts.

Defeating the Islamic State group in Iraq will not guarantee long term stability, unless these existing sectarian tensions are addressed. If the armed forces are successful in recovering Mosul from Islamic State group, as it appears increasingly likely they will be, then the Iraqi government needs to make a concerted effort to realise the goals of the National Settlement proposal.

Until then, it is the civilians who will be caught in the crossfire, trapped between the everyday horrors of war and an uncertain future that is already stumbling on its path towards peace and reconciliation.

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