Role of Shiite, Kurdish forces in question as Mosul offensive kicks off
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The motley coalition of forces that launched a long-awaited offensive to retake Mosul on Monday will have to navigate a complex web of ethnic and religious rivalries if it is to succeed on the field and avoid a civilian bloodbath.
Mosul, a religious and ethnic mosaic, is the largest city in the Islamic State group's self-proclaimed caliphate. It was captured by the jihadists in 2014 when Iraqi security forces dropped their weapons and fled.
The push to retake Iraq’s second-largest city is the biggest military operation in the country since US troops left in 2011. If successful, it will also deal the strongest blow yet to the IS group.
Hours before the start of the battle, Brig. Gen Haider Fadhil told The Associated Press in an interview that more than 25,000 troops would take part in the offensive, launched from five directions around the city.
While Iraq’s regular army and the Kurdish peshmerga, backed by a US-led international coalition, are expected to form the bulk of the troops, Fadhil said paramilitary forces made up of Sunni tribal fighters and Shiite militias would also be involved.
The myriad and sometimes rival forces will have to fight their way through IS group defences to reach the city, in some cases over distances of dozens of kilometres.
Middle East expert Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, said the coalition forces face a daunting task on the field, “particularly since the Islamic State [group] plans to use civilians as human shields”.
Coordinating the coalition’s efforts and avoiding abuses against the local population, he added, “will prove just as challenging”.
Shiite militias ‘won’t enter the city’
The operation to recapture the ethnically and religiously diverse northern Iraqi city has posed major challenges to war-planners who have to decide which forces will participate in the battle and how the city will be governed once the military phase ends.
The role of the Shiite militias has been particularly sensitive, as Iraq's Nineveh is a majority Sunni province and Shiite militia forces have been accused of carrying out abuses against civilians in other operations in majority Sunni parts of Iraq.
“Ensuring there are no such abuses by Shiite militias will be a major problem for coalition forces,” said Balanche, noting that Sunni resentment at Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government was one of the factors that helped the IS group seize control of Mosul in the first place.
One such militia – the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary organisation, which is dominated by Iranian-backed groups – has made clear it plans to take part in the Mosul operation.
But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed on Monday that only Iraqi government forces would enter the city.
"The force leading liberation operations is the brave Iraqi army with the national police and they are the ones that will enter Mosul, not others," Abadi said.
Reporting for FRANCE 24 from Baghdad, Ammar Karim, said the prime minister’s statement was intended as a signal for the people of Mosul, many of whom are fearful of Shiite militias taking part in the operation.
“[Abadi] was trying to reassure the people of Mosul,” Karim said. “The plan is for Shiite militias to be just holding areas and villages around the city, not entering the city. This measure is necessary for the people to cooperate with the Iraqi army.”
Iraq’s international allies, including the US and France, have also expressed concern about the role of Shiite groups in the campaign.
Turkey alarmed by Kurdish ambitions
Meanwhile Iraq’s northern neighbour Turkey, which has offered to join the offensive on Mosul, is equally alarmed by the expansion of Kurdish influence in the area.
A Sunni-majority country, Turkey has long claimed the Mosul area – once part of the Ottoman Empire – as its own. While it maintains cordial relations with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, it is wary of Kurdish expansion in the area, fearing it may fuel aspirations for Kurdish autonomy on its own territory.
“Turkey doesn’t want to see Shiite militias move deeper into northern Iraq, nor does it want the Kurds to expand their control over the area,” said Balanche, adding that “Ankara wants to maintain a sphere of influence in northern Iraq.”
The Turkish government sent troops to the region of Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul, late last year, on a mission to train anti-IS group fighters there.
But Baghdad has seen the Turkish presence as a "blatant violation" of Iraqi sovereignty and has demanded the Turkish troops withdraw, a call Ankara has ignored.
FRANCE 24’s correspondent in the Turkish capital, Jasper Mortimer, said Ankara is determined to maintain a foothold in northern Iraq and use it as leverage once the battle for Mosul is over.
“There is a fear in this region that Iraq is falling apart and that the Kurdish regional government is going to break away and form an independent Kurdish state – Turkey does not want that,” Mortimer said.
He added: “Turkey knows that its presence in Iraq will give it influence in deciding what happens in Iraq in the future – and that’s all it wants.”