It could be the battle of all battles, killing thousands and disgorging a million refugees into the desert — or it could be a quick withdrawal, allowing ISIS to live and fight another day.
Military observers aren’t sure what will happen in the closing months of Iraq’s last big military operation to dislodge ISIS from Mosul. Two Kurdish brigades on Sunday reclaimed 11 villages east of Mosul as speculation mounted that ISIS might give up the city without a fight.
“I think ISIS will simply escape from the city,” former Nineveh Governor Atheel Nujaifi told American Media Institute Newswire by telephone. Nujaifi commands a defense force of 3,000 soldiers called the National Mobilization force as well as an underground network of fighters inside Mosul.
The coalition campaign in Nineveh Province ramped up over the weekend with a flurry of 10 coalition airstrikes in Mosul and surrounding towns
“The Peshmerga are occupying the Khazer checkpoint 40 kilometers [25 miles] southeast of Mosul and encountering light resistance,” Nujaifi said. “They are meeting only one or two fighters in each village. “The forces are on the outskirts of Hamdaniya, also known as the Assyrian Christian town of Qaraqosh [20 miles southeast of Mosul].”
Other accounts report bloody resistance. “ISIS fought back with mortars and suicide vehicles that left three Peshmerga killed and 10 injured,” according to Dr. Ali Akram Bayati, head of the Turkmen Rescue Foundation in Baghdad. One Kurdish reporter, Mustafa Saeed of Kurdistan TV, was killed in the fighting.
“Liberation of these villages will give way to liberation of more villages in the Nineveh Plain,” Bayati wrote in an email. “There will be a big operation with participation of thousands of Peshmerga, federal police, Iraqi army, Sunni tribesmen as well as thousands of Turkmen fighters who are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces.”
“Most of the villages liberated by Peshmerga today are Turkmen villages and are rich in oil and other resources,” Bayati wrote. “The problem is that Turkmen are not involved in the liberation of such lands although we have 11,000 fighters from the district of Tal Afar alone serving in different military units.”
The objection of Bayati to the lack of participation of Turkmen in the military operation raises the familiar, thorny issue of how to administer the occupation of the multiethnic city that once hosted Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrian Christians and Yezidi tribesmen for centuries. All of the ethnic minorities want a place at the table when maps are redrawn in the near future. For months, the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have vowed that they will participate in the liberation, just as Sunni lawmakers have demanded that the PMFs be held back lest they provoke the city’s Sunni residents to side with ISIS.
“The slow pace of the military operation is due to problems in Baghdad,” Nujaifi said. “They don’t know what to do after the liberation.”
Whereas some have estimated that the population of Mosul has gone down to 700,000 in recent months, Nujaifi believes that the population of Iraq’s second-largest city is at 2 million. “In the last two months as many as 100,000 people have fled from the city of Qayara [a large city on the Tigris River 40 miles south of Mosul],” he said.
United Nations officials have said they expect that a full-scale attack on the sprawling city would cause more than a million displaced persons to seek shelter in the Kurdish Regional government area or in camps for internally displaced persons yet to be built.
Approximately 2,000 men are part of the underground resistance network inside Mosul, twice the number it had in late May, Nujaifi said by telephone.
“They are ready to deal with the situation and to secure the city,” he said, adding that he now estimates that no more than 5,000 ISIS soldiers remain to defend the city, half the number he cited in May.
Grisly executions of citizens suspected of rebellion have continued in Mosul for months. Late last week, six young men were executed for the crime of painting the letter “M” on buildings occupied by an ISIS cadre.
ISIS issued a video Friday of the execution in Mosul. Three of them were shot in the head from a close range and the other three were beheaded. “Daesh [a slang word for ISIS] accused the young men of supporting the opposition and writing the Arabic letter "M" which symbolizes resistance against Daesh,” according to Ali Sada, the editor of Daesh Daily, the leading digest of Arabic news on the war.
“The activists, in their own way, were responding to Daesh’s “Noon” campaign two years ago, when Daesh wrote that letter on the houses belonging to Christian Iraqis in Mosul in order to loot them,” Sada said.