It has taken months of preparation, but finally the battle has started to retake Mosul from Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which has controlled Iraq’s second city for more than two years. If Iraq had the capability, the counter attack should have happened a few months after Daesh first took Mosul, and the political consequences of this inordinate delay have seriously damaged Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi’s credibility as the leader of a government able to manage an inclusive Iraq dedicated to the service of all its citizens.
Iraqi forces and their allies have had special forces in the city for many months, and a large number of Daesh fighters have already pulled out but the Iraqis are still likely to find it very hard to advance quickly to retake the city. Daesh has had all the time it needed to dig in and prepare for this assault and it will have filled the city with booby traps and defensive positions. The struggle is likely to continue for many weeks, even months, as has happened in Tikrit and Fallujah, and there will be terrible consequences for civilians caught in the fighting. The United Nations has already expressed its “extreme concern” for the safety of up to 1.5 million people in the city and its suburbs. Iraqis forces should make every effort to try and avoid harming the civilian population, but they will find it hard especially when Daesh fighters will know this to be the case and will be masquerading as civilians.
What is important is that the Iraqi government avoid using Shiite militias in Mosul despite their close alliance. The problem is that the Iraqi armed forces have proved weak and have caused a series of spectacular military failures, forcing the government to use the militias despite their being trained and backed by the Iranian government. But almost certainly there would be disastrous political consequences if the Shiites were deployed in the northern city of Mosul, which is predominantly Sunni.
Such a decision would make it harder to achieve the eventual reunification of Iraq, and would be self-defeating. The territorial defeat of Daesh is looking increasingly possible in the foreseeable future, so Al Abadi needs to make a much clearer statement of his political strategy for afterwards, and he needs to be very obvious that he is seeking an inclusive reunification.