Battle for Mosul will be bloody, leaving unfinished business

Battle for Mosul will be bloody, leaving unfinished business
Comment: With clear sectarian statements being issued by senior Shia political and military leaders, Mosul is destined for a future of blood, untold suffering and utter destruction, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq
5 min read
14 Oct, 2016
Pro-government forces prepare for the push to re-take Mosul [AFP]

The world is waiting with bated breath as the long-touted military campaign to dislodge the ill-named Islamic State group from Mosul is set to begin. Iraqi authorities have been understandably marketing the operation as an end to IS due to the significance of the city of Mosul itself - not only as one of Iraq’s most ancient and important cities, but also as the city from which IS announced its caliphate from. In the halls of power in Baghdad, Washington and elsewhere, "liberating" Mosul would thus signal the end of IS as a "state" and as a significant threat not only in Iraq but around the world.

The sectarian nightmare

However, such thoughts of a Return of the Jedi-esque happy ending - with the evil empire crumbling as the victors emerge victorious - can be relegated simply and swiftly to the realm of fevered fantasy. The Mosul operation can only be seen as the Iraqi authorities recapturing the city, and not liberating it, as what will happen is the city will simply change hands from one repressive regime to another. The recapture of Mosul will herald another beginning - not an end - to radicalisation, extremism and violent sectarianism.

Indeed, the beginnings of this operation already portent a grim, ominous future. During the Ashura commemorative events in Iraq over the past week, the leader of the sectarian Iran-backed Asaaib Ahl ul-Haq militia (AAH), Qais al-Khazaali, said that the Mosul operation will be an opportunity to exact "revenge and retribution against the killers of Hussein".

This statement is undoubtedly sectarian and an incitement to religious violence. It is also frightening due to the occasion where he decided to make such a statement. Ashura is marked by both Sunnis and the Shia, but in vastly different ways. The Shia use it as an opportunity to mourn the killing of Hussein bin Ali - the grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammed - who was killed at the Battle of Karbala about 1,400 years ago. Radical Shia, like Khazaali and other Iranian proxies, blame his death on historical figures they associate with Sunnis, such as Yazid and his father Muawiyya, the second and first Umayyad caliphs.

Khazaali's call for vengeance against the killers of Hussein on Ashura is chilling, to say the least, and not only because he is one of the main commanders of the virulently sectarian Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) militias. Yazid and Muawiyya have been dead for over a millennium, yet violent extremists are still calling for vengeance against them for perceived wrongs, and identify Sunnis as the descendants of those they hold responsible for the death of Hussein from the Umayyad Caliphate. Indeed, in another Ashura speech, al-Khazaali said that Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Sunni political figures were the grandsons of Yazid.

We already know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the PMF and men like Khazaali are responsible for grim atrocities and horrific war crimes. Last July, Human Rights Watch's Joe Stork urged Iraqi authorities to prevent the PMF from participating in the battle for Mosul, saying: "Militias that form part of the PMF have repeatedly carried out horrific abuses… Iraqi commanders shouldn't risk exposing Mosul civilians to serious harm by militias with a record of recent abuse." Khazaali's recent comments guarantee a tidal wave of Sunni blood that will never slake the extremist's thirst for vengeance over an incident that occurred so long ago that no one alive today has any relation to it. The PMF and Iraqi authorities are, in this and other respects, no different to IS.

Shattered unity, weakened resolve

The operation could start very soon, perhaps even in under a week's time according to Turkey's President Erdogan. However, the US-led coalition against IS, dubbed "Operation Inherent Resolve", is already appearing fractured, weak and lacking the resolve to find a long-term solution to Iraq's systemically sectarian governance that led to the birth of IS in the first place.

A little over a week ago, coalition airstrikes killed 21 members of a Sunni faction loyal to the Iraqi government and who oppose IS in an area not far from Mosul itself. Iraqi authorities were vague as to what occurred, but US Central Command (CENTCOM) later confirmed that their warplanes did strike the pro-government Sunnis, but they did not know they were there as Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were the ones that called the airstrike in, adding: "The strikes were coordinated by, with and through the Government of Iraq." This could mean that the Iraqi government and its security apparatus conspired to strike even pro-government Sunnis, perhaps in order to kill a future "threat" to Shia domination before it materialises.

Although there are other examples of anti-IS forces being made unwelcome by Baghdad, perhaps the most glaring example was the past week's diplomatic crisis between Iraq and Turkey. The Turkish military, active in the fight against IS in Syria, embroiled in a spat with the Iraqi government over Turkish troop deployments. Although it has seemingly given up, Baghdad has previously demanded, quite heatedly, that Turkish forces withdraw from Bashiqa in northern Iraq where they are currently training anti-IS, but not pro-Baghdad, Sunnis and Kurdish Peshmerga forces for participation in the upcoming battle. Iraq complained noisily about Turkey, but has yet to say anything against the dozens of other countries currently involved in Iraq, including Iran, and that is likely for obvious reasons.

I previously reported on the fears felt by Mosul's population, but with statements by sectarian Shia militia commanders, backed with the full force of the Iranian regime, it seems that these fears were sadly underestimated. The humanitarian catastrophe that will be unleashed will dwarf Tikrit, Fallujah and Ramadi - far smaller cities with far smaller populations. Mosul will soon become a by-word for a hell far worse than what the Assad regime and its Russian backers are unleashing on Aleppo right now, and nations the world over will bite their fists with regret when a threat far greater than IS emerges from the blood and ashes of Mosul from a tragedy that they could have prevented.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.