Saving Mosul from ISIL has become a never-ending story in Iraq. Conflicting reports continue emerging about the actual pace of the operations. Initial attempts have not been successful, and Iraqi forces are currently aiming to follow a gradual, step-by-step strategy. There are several hurdles to further operations in political and military terms. Despite the stated common aim of freeing Mosul, disagreements about the future of the city and military tactics is delaying the process. In addition, political turmoil in the capital Baghdad is leading Iraqis to question how serious some of their politicians are about freeing Mosul. What was meant to be a technocratic government that would eliminate corruption and end the divisive political environment has led to political chaos in the country. An increasing number of people are now questioning the unity of the country. Given these challenges, the government’s stated aim of freeing Mosul from ISIL in 2016 is looking increasingly less likely.
Just before the end of March, Iraqi military officials declared that first stage of operation for Mosul had started. The operation began in the Makhmour area to the west of the city, with the aim of capturing some villages from ISIL in order to cut its supply lines.1 Backed by the US-led air power and Peshmerga forces, Iraqi army and Hasd al-Vatani forces were able to take control of villages to the west of Mahkmour and advance in the direction of Havice. Less than a week after the operation was announced, however, came news that operations were being put temporarily on hold. Several factors prevented the operations going smoothly. It seems that current operations against ISIL were only aimed at creating a positive image of the fight against ISIL, securing the environs of the city, and cutting the group’s supply lines.
There are serious disagreements among Iraqi politicians, not only about the future of Mosul, but at the same time about the composition of forces that should free Mosul form ISIL.
As I wrote in my previous paper for Al Sharq Forum,2 there are serious disagreements among Iraqi politicians, not only about the future of Mosul, but at the same time about the composition of forces that should free Mosul form ISIL. According to the latest news, Americans are against the participation of Hasd al-Shabi forces, and want to encourage the regular Iraqi army to carry out joint operations with Peshmerga and Hasd al Vatani forces. There are differences of opinions between Americans and Hasd al-Shabi leaders regarding the fight against ISIL.3 It is said that Prime Minister Abadi also opposed the role of Hasd al-Shabi in the Mosul operation because of the fear of sectarian conflict. It should be kept in mind, however, that there are some Shia political figures in Iraq who are in favor of the participation of these forces, and Iran also wants Hasd al-Shabi to take part in the operation. Iran wants Hasd al Shabi to be effective in every part of Iraq as it continues increasing its military grip on Iraq through these military groups. Kurdish Peshmerga forces are also expected to join the operation. According to the latest information, discussions are going on between the Iraqi army and Peshmerga about the modalities of such an operation and also which territory should be controlled by which military group after the defeat of ISIL. There are also rumors that some Iraqi officials are even talking to PKK members in Iraq to persuade them to join the Mosul operations.
Iran wants Hasd al Shabi to be effective in every part of Iraq as it continues increasing its military grip on Iraq through these military groups.
According to the latest information available, the Mosul operations were delayed for some time, since early signs were not at all promising in terms of the forces’ military readiness to defeat ISIL. Later, air strikes would eliminate several high-level ISIL figures and decrease the group’s economic and military capacity. Despite the effectiveness of these strikes, ground military operations are still not at the levels to be able to complement the air strikes successfully. With the current disorganized conditions of the forces attempting to free Mosul, however, it is very unlikely that the operation will be a success at all. Many people would say that their actions up to the present day are not serious enough in devising and implementing a plan for Mosul. Some would argue that the Iraqi government and Prime Minister Abadi are not paying enough attention to this issue. The Iraqi army is demoralized and there are serious uncertainties about the political future of the country. Coordination among the different military groups is also below the level required to carry out such an operation.
The Iraqi army is demoralized and there are serious uncertainties about the political future of the country.
Besides the factors mentioned above, which are delaying operations against Mosul, the limited air bombardment support and disagreements among army commanders should also be mentioned. The pressure on the armed groups to show the public that they are acting to save Mosul has led to ill-prepared actions which in turn have discredited these groups. The gap between the rhetoric and actions on the ground has led to many of the failures seen in military operations.
Conditions inside Mosul are also important factors to be taken into account. It is generally accepted that local people in Mosul hate ISIL, given the difficulties and pressures inside the city. However, nonetheless, the disagreement among different military groups and the challenges of waging a war inside a city is delaying operations. The city of Ramadi was also freed from ISIL last year, but the nearly 80% of the city was in ruins and there were several improvised explosive devices left by ISIL that prevented many people going back to their homes. In order not to repeat the same scenario, plans for Mosul ought to be very well designed. Mosul is the country’s second largest city and ISIL is not refraining from using human shields in the fight. All of these factors represent important challenges to a positive overcome.
The city of Ramadi was also freed from ISIL last year, but the nearly 80% of the city was in ruins and there were several improvised explosive devices left by ISIL that prevented many people going back to their homes. In order not to repeat the same scenario, plans for Mosul ought to be very well designed.
It appears that for some time we will witness limited operations carried out by different military groups against ISIL to test the capacity of their armed men and the capacity of ISIL to defend their positions. Last month’s example showed that Iraqi army units are not up to defeating ISIL militarily and psychologically. Despite pressures from different fronts, ISIL is capable of carrying out hit and run tactics and inflicting unexpected damage on different military groupings in Iraq. ISIL already carries out suicide bomb attacks against military targets on the frontlines. In this way, ISIL aims to boost the morale of its members but also discourage its opponents from advancing further. In order to show its commitment to defending its positions, ISIL has even used chemical weapons. Reports show that ISIL used chlorine gas in Tuzkhurmatu and dozens of people were affected by the attack.4 Mosul is critical for ISIL and in order to defend the city, ISIL is continually re-grouping its members inside the city, moving its headquarters from one place to another to prevent air strikes on these targets. All of these developments show that both sides are getting prepared for a long battle.
Beside the differences above, political problems in Baghdad also create problems in carrying out military operations. Over the last few months, the formation of a new government composed of bureaucrats is on the agenda. Delays in the formation of a new government and the implementation of reform programs are decreasing the credibility of the Prime Minister Abadi.5 The latest developments have showed once again that the political groups in Baghdad are politically distant from one another and the political elites do not seem aware of the size of the problems that Iraq faces today. The credibility of Abadi as a unifying political figure is also increasingly coming into question since he has failed to deliver on his promises of reform.
In addition to the problems related to the formation of a government, protests led by Muqtada Sadr and his movement in Baghdad are creating additional pressure on the Abadi government. The Sadr movement, which is demanding reforms and the elimination of corruption, is becoming increasingly effective on the Iraqi political scene. The actions of the Sadr movement have put some pressure on the Abadi government, but at the same time, this helps the Prime Minister in some of his initiatives. These protests have made obvious that ordinary people are fed up with the corruption and lack of services in the country. If the government manages these protests and embarks upon a strategy of the elimination of corruption, this will save the country. On the other hand, these protests have showed that the government very fragile and that unifying different political groups under a joint umbrella is difficult. Parliamentarians sitting in the parliament and legal cases in the courts concerning issues relating to the members of parliament have delinked political processes from the actual problems of the country. The storming of the parliament by the angry protestors and attacks on the cars of the members of the cabinet show the level of the desperation of people in the capital.
Prime Minister Abadi is being challenged from within his own party by Nouri Maliki. Former Prime Minister Maliki aims to weaken Abadi to retain his powerful position in Baghdad and even to replace Abadi, if possible. Beside the personal rivalry between Abadi and Maliki, the rivalry between Sadr and Maliki also has to be taken into account in analyzing the current atmosphere in Baghdad. The Sadr group’s military and political power was curtailed by Maliki in 2007-2008 and Sadr’s current actions work against the political aims of Maliki in Baghdad. As Prime Minister, Maliki ended the military control of Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra in 2007 and created an image of a political figure eliminating militia groups that threatened the unity of the military forces. Although Sadr’s political representatives worked with Maliki in the big Shiite political coalition afterwards, the personal relationship between these figures has never recovered. The Sadr group’s current active stance within the political environment of Iraq decreases Maliki’s will to replace Abadi as the Prime Minister. The infighting between different political figures and parties in Baghdad is delaying the formation of a new government and shifting its focus from the most daunting challenges facing Iraq, including operations to take back Mosul. The main problem is that many of the political figures do not even seem aware of the challenges that Iraq is facing.
Amid these political problems, economic difficulties are also becoming harder to tackle. The decline in oil prices, corruption and unemployment are increasingly dominating the agenda of many people in Iraq. The Iraqi budget for 2016 is based on the assumption that oil prices would be 45 dollars on average. The price of oil, however, remained below this level until the beginning of May. Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi consequently declared that Iraqi aims to secure a 7 billion loan from the IMF.6 The conditions for obtaining IMF loans will be difficult to implement given the number of people on state salaries. Last year, Iraq witnessed street protests demanding a regular supply of electricity. With the onset of summer and increasing temperatures, similar protests will likely emerge in different parts of Iraq. As opposed to last year, hopes for an effective government to provide services is waning in Iraq. Bogged down in personal rivalries, many political figures do not seem aware of the size of the challenges ahead of Iraq in economic terms. Delays in payment of the salaries of state officials and the armed forces prevent pursuing long term planning for the country, especially in the KRG.
The latest developments have shown once again that there will not be a successful military operation against ISIL in Mosul before a political settlement is reached among different political figures and parties in Iraq. Divisions across ethnic and sectarian lines and a lack of competent political actors have prevented the emergence of a unified political structure in Iraq. This shows that the problems in Iraq are more political than military. Differences within the parliament and the government are wearying the people of Iraq and representatives of the anti-ISIL coalition. Instead of dealing with the real problems of the country, Iraq’s political elites are busy with intra- and inter-party fighting. Many people question the existing political structure in Iraq and expect a complete overhaul of the political environment in the country. Under these conditions, it is very unlikely that members of the anti-ISIL coalition will be particularly enthusiastic about providing much-needed military help. Thus, this situation delays operations in Mosul further.
1. Coles and Hameed. “Iraq Launches Offensive Against Islamic State South of Mosul.” Reuters. 24 March 2016.
2. Mesut Ozcan. “Saving Mosul From ISIL.” Al Sharq Forum. 09 March 2016.
3. Hamza Mustafa. “After the Defeat of ISIS, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi is Under Pressure.” Asharq Al-Awsat. 2 January 2016
4. “Daesh Attacks Iraqi Turkmen Town With Chemical Weapons.” Anadolu Agency. 10 March 2013
5. Salah Nasrawi. “Iraq’s New Government: Not Exactly A Breakthrough.” Al Jazeera. 3 April 2016 <>
6. Barker & Bradley. “Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Says Iraq Hopes to Secure IMF Loans.” The Wall Street Journal. 22 Jan 2016.