Taking back Tikrit and Mosul from Islamic State could make life worse for residents

March 4, 2015
Shi'ite fighters fire a rocket during clashes with Islamic State militants in Salahuddin province

Shi’ite fighters fire a rocket during clashes with Islamic State militants in Salahuddin province March 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmed Al-Hussaini

Islamic State will lose the Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Mosul.

Victory won’t come quickly or easily for the combined forces of the Iraqi government, Shi’ite militias, Kurdish fighters and Sunnis who have learned to loath Islamic State. But sheer weight of numbers, as well as Iranian and American military assistance, should do the trick.

Unfortunately, none of the parties involved in the fighting like each other very much. In Mosul in particular, beating Islamic State looks likely to set the situation back to April 2003, when an entire Iraqi army corps surrendered the city to a small American force. Fighting officially came to an end, but chaos ensued as the Kurds and Sunnis battled one another alongside Sunni and Shi’ite clashes. Crowds ransacked the central bank and pillaged the university library. During the subsequent U.S. occupation under General David Petraeus, a 21,000-strong force from the 101st Airborne pushed Kurdish militias out of Mosul and created an uneasy peace with the Sunnis.

After Petraeus left, however, multisided fighting resumed in Mosul, as the fundamental issue of which group truly controlled the city — a question that still haunts the country as a whole — was left unresolved. Islamic State was able to violently exploit that power vacuum to take the city last year.

The unfolding assault on Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, is also a byproduct of the Sunni-Shi’ite struggle. The Sunnis held the city until 2003, then the Shi’ites until 2014, and now, of course, Sunni-aligned Islamic State. But unlike what is planned for Mosul, the force advancing on Tikrit is largely made up of Shi’ite militias, led by Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who successfully directed militia campaigns against American forces in Iraq War 2.0. Unlike in Mosul, there will be no power vacuum once Islamic State is routed, but there will be blood.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has set the stage for ethnic cleansing of the city, warning, “There is no neutrality in the battle against [Islamic State]. If someone is being neutral with [Islamic State], then he is one of them.” Many fear Shi’ite militias will begin a slaughter inside Tikrit, as happened in once-Sunni Jurf al-Sakhar following a Shi’ite victory there over Islamic State.

A victory over Islamic State in Tikrit would empower Shi’ite militias and increase the Iraqi government’s reliance on them versus the American-trained army. It would solidify Iran’s influence over Abadi and further peel back the curtain to reveal the American war against Islamic State as little more than a stage for the greater Sunni-Shi’ite struggle.

In Mosul in particular, the Americans have painted themselves into a corner. They have  promoted the fight as a set-piece battle that must be fought by all Iraqi sides, as if organizing the Allies ahead of D-Day.

According to one Pentagon briefing, the United States hopes by the end of the year to piece together 25,000 Iraqi troops, including three Kurdish brigades, an unspecified number of Shi’ite militiamen, as well as a currently nonexistent Sunni force made up of former Mosul police who would enter the city once Islamic State fighters are cleared out. The hope – and it is little more than a hope – is that that small Sunni police force would prevent bloodletting. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter now says unspecified parts of the briefing were inaccurate.

American ground forces will almost certainly be required to make the assault on Mosul work, as Iranian leadership is required for Tikrit. But in addition to calling in close air support, the United States will have to take on the additional task of coordinating the many disparate elements on the Iraq side.

Two questions about the upcoming battle of Mosul emerge.

Will U.S. forces have to destroy Mosul in order to save it? Urban warfare is one of the most devastating forms of combat. Look at the devastating toll in the fight to regain control of the Syrian city of Kobani from Islamic State. The United States led more than 700 air strikes on the town. Some 230,000 residents were forced to flee. The civilian death toll has never been calculated, and no plans to rebuild the city have been announced. As an anti-Islamic State activist in the militant group’s self-declared capital of Raqqa wrote: “People don’t look at Kobani and see a defeat because everyone had to leave and the Americans bombed it to rubble to win.” In Mosul, similar destruction is expected; the United Nations predicts that throughout the area, there will be some 1.5 million displaced persons in the aftermath of the fighting.

And then we return to the key question of who will control whatever is left of Mosul. American help against Islamic State will be welcomed by all sides. Reaction to American power-brokering afterward among the Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish communities is far less certain.

It seems highly unlikely that the Kurds, especially after shedding blood to retake Mosul, would simply walk away as a small police force of Sunnis moves into the coveted city. The Sunnis would be hard-pressed as well to give up easily, especially in the face of potential ethnic cleansing and score-settling. The Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government would press the United States hard for control of the city as the legitimate rulers of Iraq. No one knows what card the Iranians might play, especially since the road to Mosul leads through Tikrit.

This is a slow-motion car wreck. In preparing to win its second battle for Mosul, the United States appears to be readying itself, once again, to fight the wrong kind of war in Iraq by focusing on military action while paying little attention to the complex underlying political, ethnic and religious factors that will surely, once again, snatch defeat from any victory.

10 comments

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“Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has set the stage for ethnic cleansing of the city”

More unsubstantiated and cherry-picked “prophet of doom” intellectually dishonest garbage, blatantly omitting the Iraqi PM calls and reassurances toward the Sunni minority, etc, and obviously all along the Saudi Arabia propaganda of the poor oppressed Sunnis, the ones behind 99% of the Islamist fundamentalism and terrorism worldwide, including in Iraq, and who have no problem actually oppressing minorities (Bahrain, etc) if not majorities like in Iraq under Saddam.

“American help against Islamic State will be welcomed by all sides”
I don’t think the people supporting the Islamic State and among them their Sunni dictatorships of the Persian Gulf and local pals would agree to this nonsense.

Posted by sensi | Report as abusive

Moreover the coordinating will be made by the I.S.F. not the US, I wonder why the author is entertaining that idea…

Posted by sensi | Report as abusive

@Sensi, spot on!

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

It is very unlikely the Kurds will commit major resources beyond artillery to help take a city that is largely Arab and which will not be on their side of the border when (not if) they declare their independence.

Masoud Barzani has bagged Kirkuk (which is never *ever* going to be handed back to Baghdad), and the KRG are well on their way to taking all the parts of Sinjar District they want, and thus have already largely achieved their war aims.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

So Iraqi army is leading this effort to reclaim a lost city to foreign marauders. Iraqi & Kurdish fighters are so far parts of a same country. Iran & US are simply in the background and have no interest in raiding Mousel banks. The author seems to have a certain lamentation for the passing of the IS. Lies manufactured about religious conflict in Iraq dissolves if one visits any Iraq city where religious sects have lived together for eons, having pre & post Islamic beliefs.

Posted by julianzr | Report as abusive

When are the next US elections again? Obama should take a page out of his Syria policy. Try and delay completely unrealistic policies that are not resourced anyway, so that obvious failure will be apparent after the elections under the new administration. Better than trying to cover previous policy failures with new ones. Anyway now is the best time to drive a bargain over Iran’s nuclear programs, when getting ready to hand them Iraq (again)

Posted by SaigonQ2 | Report as abusive

A large fraction of those residents would have reaped where they sowed should conditions get worse for them.

Posted by branchltd | Report as abusive

Shock and Awe.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

War is not a solution

Posted by Giftidea | Report as abusive

As of now Mosul is a dead shell of a city. Tragically ISIS has already destroyed anything and everything of value or interest therein. Even worse, that which has been destroyed would be utterly impossible to faithfully reconstruct even with unlimited resources and the absence of turmoil. Prerequisites that are unlikely to occur in any of our lifetimes in any event.

Let ISIS keep the dung heap.

Posted by Greg_Edwards | Report as abusive