Pyrrhic victory in Mosul

If a reconciliation cannot be achieved between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia populations, it’s almost a certainty that the country will continue to be afflicted by Daesh or some successor group.


On Wednesday, June 21st, Mosul’s Al-Nuri mosque, with its unique, leaning minaret, called “al-Habda” or “the hunchback” by locals, was destroyed. U.S. forces claimed Daesh (ISIS) had blown it up, the latter group said the destruction was the result of an American air-strike. The tower had dominated the skyline of the Iraqi city for more than 800 years.

The mosque itself became famous in the West most recently as the place where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his ‘caliphate’ on July 4th, 2014. As reported by the Boston Globe shortly after, Daesh fighters had threatened to blow up the minaret at that time but were stopped by, “residents living nearby [who] rushed to the courtyard below the minaret, sat on the ground, and linked arms to form a human chain to protect it.”

This minaret and mosque were far from the only things of historical significance demolished during Daesh’s temporary rule. On the eastern bank of the Tigris River that bisects the city are the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh, recaptured by Iraqi forces in January of this year. Oddly, while the group destroyed much of this cultural heritage and those militants that made it out likely looted many treasures, the razing of some above ground antiquities has uncovered others underneath.

A post modern battlefield

And these cultural losses pale in comparison to the massive suffering of the people of a city that once boasted almost 2 million inhabitants. At least half of these have fled, some to become refugees, some to stay with relatives in other towns and cities and many more as internally displaced people. No casualty figures have been offered to date but from what little reporting there has been in English language media we know that hundreds, if not thousands, have died in the battle for western Mosul since just February, many of them in air-strikes that can’t be blamed on Daesh, while countless others have been maimed by all parties to the conflict.

The remaining Islamic State holdouts were said to be trapped on a decreasing slice of the western bank of the city and are estimated at only about 300 fighters (along with an unknown number of civilians), but they still managed to mount a small counter-offensive in the Iman Gharbi village south of the city on Thursday, July 7th.

Although we don’t know the full number of casualties from this attack, we do know that at least two Iraqi journalists were reported killed. As usual, Daesh’s actions did the most harm to innocent civilians, forcing the International Organization for Migration (IOS) to suspend operations in two nearby camps providing aid and relief for more than 75,000 displaced people.

Many of the remaining ISIS fighters are likely foreigners who aren’t able to blend in with ordinary Mosulis escaping the battle, “They just shave their beards and walk out,” Lt. Gen. Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces, told AP, “ Just yesterday we captured two among a group of women and children.”

One of the things that made Daesh such a powerful force on the battlefield may have actually helped to hasten its demise, at least for the time being. Large numbers of unskilled foreign fighters could be sent on suicide missions using car and truck bombs for maximum carnage, striking terror into the hearts of the group’s opponents. At the same time, many of these foreigners alienated local tribes through both ignorance of their traditions, many of which predate Islam, and the foreigners’ well earned reputation for cruelty.

These were also problems that the group it grew out of, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), faced during the Anbar Awakening starting in 2005. At that time, Sunni militias, their salaries paid by the American government, hunted the group almost out of existence.

While the government in Baghdad claimed in 2012 that more than two thirds of these “Sons of Iraq” fighters had been given either civilian or security service jobs, taking them out of the equation in Sunni areas of the country certainly helped to facilitate the resurgence of AQI as Daesh. The self-proclaimed Islamic State then proceeded to assassinate 1,345 Awakening militia members from 2009 to 2013 in the lead up to temporarily achieving their dream of a caliphate.

Although it was a majority Arab, Sunni Muslim city before the U.S. invasion, Mosul was made up of many diverse communities including Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Kurds and Kurdish speaking Yazidis, Druze, Berbers, Turkmen and many others. Like Aleppo in Syria, it was in many ways a symbol of the best aspects of these historically cosmopolitan capitals of the Middle East, a long running, mostly peaceful culture of coexistence that has been obscured by the stoking of sectarian tensions throughout the region in recent years.

Even when the city is liberated, as the government in Baghdad has discovered in all of the areas formerly held by Daesh, the work is far from over. Booby traps planted by them will have to be cleared before those that want to can return, at which point they could find themselves without access to the basic necessities of modern life like drinking water and electricity.

In more mundane terms, these areas will require massive investments to rebuild, with the U.N. stating that it will require at least a billion dollars to restore Mosul alone to a semblance of its former self.

As Lisa Grande, the U.N.’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq explained to Reuters, “In western Mosul what we’re seeing is the worst damage of the entire conflict. In those neighborhoods where the fighting has been the fiercest, we’re looking at levels of damage incomparable to anything else that has happened in Iraq so far.”

What comes next?

With the liberation of Mosul in sight, it is important to learn the lessons of the recent past in order to avoid a repeat of this savage history in the future which has not left a single community in Iraq untouched.

The majority of the Iraqi army had to be built from scratch after former Pro-Consul of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, dissolved the country’s military in May of 2003. In doing so, he dismissed not only assumed Saddam loyalists above the rank of colonel with a one month severance, but also put most of the rank and file out of work creating an unemployment country that hurt the large Sunni minority that had dominated these institutions under Ba’athist rule.

This decision (which was extended to all Ba’ath Party members from teachers to high-ranking civil servants) along with local factors like the growing prevalence of Wahhabi preachers in several Sunni strongholds during the later part of the rule of Saddam Hussein, helps to explain the quick military and to a lesser extent, political, success that Daesh enjoyed during its rise.

The early strategic victories of the so-called Islamic State surely owed something to some of these former Ba’athist officers, who may have come to believe in the group’s twisted ideology in the years since the fall of of Saddam or might have simply seen the group as a vehicle for revenge against the Shia dominated government in Baghdad.

Regardless, years and many billions of dollars later, most of them provided by U.S. and U.K. taxpayers, Mosul supposedly had a large garrison of troops to protect it when a much smaller Daesh force took the city with unexpected ease. The government’s troops deserted en masse, often abandoning their uniforms and equipment in the process.

As Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi of the Middle East Forum told the Washington Post at the time, “Tactically and militarily, they [the Iraqi military] are ineffectual. It’s not a lack of manpower. But they haven’t built up local support that would enable them to fight.”

With the final battle to re-take the city underway, Iraqi special forces have been effective but have suffered heavy casualties that it will likely take years to recover from. Non-government Shia militias called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) believed to be sponsored by Iran, and to a lesser extent Kurdish Peshmerga, have borne much of the weight of the actual struggle on the ground, not without earning some infamy for themselves in the process.

In a sense, this is yet another nail in the coffin of the Iraqi state following on the heels of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, which forced out its Sunni population in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion, and the destruction over time of the major population centers in most of what U.S. officials formerly called the “Sunni Triangle”, including the wholesale destruction of Ramadi last year in the campaign against Daesh.

The major media in North America and much of Europe have failed to give the bloody fight for Mosul even the limited and one-sided coverage given to the brutal liberation of east Aleppo from different Salafist groups last year. The non-stop outrage machine around the U.S. president’s juvenile behavior is obscuring truly monumental events like the high cost of liberating traditionally Sunni areas of Iraq from the so-called Islamic State and what this will mean for them moving forward.

In the near future, if a reconciliation cannot be achieved between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia populations, it’s almost a certainty that the country will continue to be afflicted by Daesh or some successor group. The only other possibility is autonomy or even independence for the mainly Sunni areas (that would most likely be followed by a similar declaration in the Kurdish north), a loss of territory and oil revenue that it will be very difficult for the powers that be in Baghdad to accept but one that they may not have the power to prevent.


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