Mosul: A fate worse than Daesh?

As an array of forces descend on Mosul in the fight to defeat ISIS, attention is starting to turn to the post-conflict scenario in this place

Daniel Brett

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As an array of forces descend on Mosul in the fight to defeat ISIS, attention is starting to turn to the post-conflict scenario in this place - one of Iraq’s biggest and most strategically important cities.

Several competing interests are at play in the battle for the city, where Abubakr al-Baghdadi declared himself Caliph in June 2014. Their alliances are temporary and liberation of the residents is not their first priority. This is a battle for the future of Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Shiite terrorists mobilised

The Shiite dominated Iraqi government needs to take control of Mosul in order to rehabilitate itself as capable of exerting national authority. This will require a change of mind-set from the one that prevailed before ISIS took control, but there are signs that in the heat of war the attitudes have hardened.

The Shiite militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are heading into Mosul flying the banners of the Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization, the largest militia groups. Although there are Sunni and Christian militias within the PMF, most answer directly to Tehran and several groups are considered close to Iraq’s Marjaiyah, the Shiite religious leadership. Checkpoints have been set up with pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, the late Iranian Supreme Leader who led the Iranian Islamic revolution, indicating the highly ideological nature of their intervention.

On the frontlines, the ominous figure of Abu Azrael looms, a Shiite war criminal who has matched the brutality of ISIS executioners by barbequing his victims and slicing them like kebabs. He was recently photographed with Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the PMF operational commander who was designated by the US Treasury in 2009 as a terrorist. Al Muhandis is deputy to Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force (IRGC-QF) who is arguably now the most powerful man in Iraq. Abu Azrael has returned from Iran where he met with the IRGC’s Basij paramilitary chief Mohammad Naghdi.

The PMF, supported by a regime in Baghdad with its own Shiite chauvinist leanings, is fighting a pan-Shiite cause. For Iran, the more territory the Shiite militias control, the more power the IRGC will have over Iraq. In turn, this influences the balance of power inside Iran, between the civilian government and the military-theocracy complex, as President ‘Rowhani prepares to bid for a second term in office.

The Iraqi military has kept the PMF to the margins, principally to the west of the Mosul, but as drawn-out fight will force it to rely on the militias for support.

The situation does not bode well for the majority Sunni population of Mosul. ISIS grew out of the Maliki administration’s violent repression of Sunni Arab tribes which drove many Sunnis to join with a militant insurgency that had previously fought in the 2007 US-led “surge”. The Shiite militias are unlikely to be in a forgiving mood, nor are the conventional Iraqi forces who were forced into a humiliating retreat from the city.

Mosul will look in horror at the defeat of ISIS in Falluja in June, where the PMF’s siege caused significant material damage to an already war-torn city. Amnesty has accused the militias of carrying out war crimes and has urged Iraqi authorities to “take concrete steps to ensure there is no repeat of the gross violations witnessed in Falluja and other parts of Iraq during confrontations between government forces and the Islamic State armed group.”

The PMF are accused of abducting more than 640 Sunni Muslim men and boys in Falluja and summarily executing or torturing to death around 50 others following the battle to take the city.

Sabah Karhut, head of the Anbar Provincial Council, remarked “No liberation took place there, rather the killing and torture of civilians who fled to armed forces in the hopes of being rescued only to meet such a fate.”

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein also highlighted “extremely distressing, credible reports” that Iraqis fleeing Fallujah are facing torture, beatings and summary executions.

The Kurdish dimension

The Sunni Arabs of Mosul appear to have no allies strong enough on the ground to prevent a similar situation happening in the battle to take their city. The Turkish government is positioning itself as the defender of the Sunni Arabs of Mosul by supporting Turkmen militias, although as yet they are having little role on the ground. This may be a bid to fend off potential attacks on Sunnis by Shiite extremists, but Ankara’s main preoccupation is the rise of Kurdish nationalism which it regards as an existential threat.

The Iraqi army’s retreat in 2014 enabled the Peshmurga to expand the territory under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) by 40 percent. Turkey has already mobilised a large force along the border, poised to intervene without Baghdad’s approval to take Mosul should the Kurds look to expand into the city. Such a scenario would turn a local battle into an international war.

Although Tehran has good relations with Kurdish strongman Masoud Barzani, Iran may also be alarmed at the presence of Iranian Kurds among the Kurdish groups camped around Bashiqa, near Mosul. These groups have skirmished with Iranian forces inside Iran over recent months and are involved to secure alliances with the KRG’s powerful Peshmurga. This creates a probable three-way flashpoint between Baghdad, Ankara and the Kurds.

Both Ankara and Baghdad are mindful that once Kurds occupy a territory, they will only withdraw on their own terms. Kirkuk was “temporarily” taken over by Peshmurga during the Iraq War. Kurdish forces continue to remain in the city, recently accused of ethnically cleansing Arabs from the multi-ethnic city.

The Kurds are heavily reliant on the support of US Special Forces and US airpower, but once the operation is complete President Trump is likely to waste no time in withdrawing from Iraq. This will leave the Kurds relying on their own resources. They may resist a retreat unless there is a permanent constitutional settlement on autonomy - particularly sovereignty over oil fields around Kirkuk.

The Battle for Mosul is about much more than the control of a city. But for residents, it will just mean more hardship, bloodshed and terror than they experienced under ISIS. With redundant democratic structures that have failed to address grievances or provide communal representation and the possibility of violent Shiite reprisals, the Sunni Arabs will feel they have no option but to entrench their identity and defend themselves. This could come in many forms, but history tells us that they will take up arms, exacerbating and extending Iraq’s instability with repercussions throughout the region. Mosul faces a fate worse than Daesh.


Daniel Brett is a British journalist specializing in the politics and economics of Africa and the Middle East. He can be contacted via his LinkedIn profile.