By Arhama Siddiqa.
In South-West Mosul, plumes of smoke are seen rising into the sky as coalition aircrafts bomb militant positions. After months of conflict the Iraqi military and its allies have begun a major ground offensive to drive ISIL out of , the operation to push ISIL out of Western Mosul has already started.
Iraqi Prime Minister, Haiser Al- Abadi announced the start of the operation on state television aggressive new operation saying the mission is twofold: to first liberate civilian and reclaim territory from the Islamic state. He said that the government forces were moving to liberate the people of Mosul from Daesh oppression forever: “Our first priority is to free human beings before freeing the land”.
Mosul is symbolic to ISIL whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed his so-called caliphate across Iraq and Syria from here in June 2014. The operation to free Mosul began in October 2016, and by January 2017, the Iraqi government had declared Eastern Mosul liberated. All bridges linking the east and west of the city, across the Tigris River, have already been destroyed by strikes in an effort to contain the militants in the west.
The Islamic State (ISIL) chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is reported to have deserted Mosul, leaving local commanders behind to lead the battle against Iraqi forces advancing in the city. This is the latest sign that ISIS is feeling the pressure from twin US-backed offensives that have seen it lose much of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. Day by day, the Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF) are closing in on ISIL in Mosul, the group’s last bastion in Iraq. After reclaiming the eastern districts in January after 100 days of fighting, the armed forces are now pushing west of the river Tigris where ISIL continues to maintain a noxious defence. The group’s defeat appears imminent. However, the main question that arises is that whether Iraq’s government can redress the country’s deep sectarian divisions and succeed in bringing Sunni factions into the political fold post ISIL defeat.
People in Western Mosul are very worried about residents being used as human shields.
According to the United Nations, the battle for Mosul has the potential to become one of the largest humanitarian disasters in history. A researcher for Human Rights Watch states, “When it comes to the old city, which is densely populated, people are very worried about residents being used as human shields”. The government and humanitarian agencies are already constructing emergency sites south of the city and stockpiling key supplies.
Food and fuel supplies are dwindling in the west, markets and shops have closed, running water is scarce and electricity in many neighbourhoods is either irregular or completely cut off. Aid organisations are racing against the clock to prepare for what is expected to be a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians. “The greatest concern is the fact that we might have a massive surge of civilians being displaced,” a spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) states 12 Civilians have already started to flee. Hundreds have escaped into the surrounding desert, but an estimated 700,000 remained trapped inside their homes.
However, putting the battle aside, back home there is a far more mixed picture back at home. In Mosul, there is still a feeling of deep doubts about over the Shia-dominated security apparatus who are considered to be heavily sectarian and intensely corrupt. Such sentiments played a significant part in the rise of Daesh, as the majority Sunni population came to see the state authorities as an occupying force.
However, this time around Al-Abadi seems to be far more dedicated to recuperating the Sunni-Shia relationship than his predecessor. By contrast, Sunni and Shia political blocs are coming together to work on a “National Settlement” initiative which seeks to bring about national reconciliation between the different factions once Daesh is defeated.
But it should be noted that in reality there is still a long way to go before any semblance of national reconciliation can be achieved. Defeating ISIL will not guarantee long term stability unless existing sectarian tensions are addressed. The Iraqi government needs to make a concerted otherwise it is the civilians who will be caught in the crossfire, trapped in between the everyday horrors of war and an uncertain future. Baghdad needs to be aware that there will be an absence of order in the newly liberated areas – not to mention the psychological impacts of drone attacks, something which cannot be discounted. Many blame a dysfunctional government for the ease with which ISIL captured Mosul in the first place. Hence, all parties involved in the battle need to move beyond their internal differences and be on the same page because it is impertinent that a proper rehabilitation process take place. Unless politics can be got right, the liberation of Mosul could mark the end of one horror and the beginning of something almost as bad.
Arhama Siddiqa is a LUMS and University of Warwick Alumnus. She is currently a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. Her prime area of interest is World Politics and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org