The Iraqi military announced Thursday it was launching an offensive to retake Mosul, one of the republic’s largest cities, from Islamic State (IS) militants who have occupied it since 2014.
Iraqi forces have been building up for weeks in the town of Makhmur, about 60 miles southeast of Mosul, joined by Kurdish peshmerga and US troops. The peshmerga, from the Iraqi Kurdistan region that makes up much of northern Iraq, have been moving in on Mosul and have already cut off the city on three sides, according to Reuters.
The Kurds and US forces have been readying for the offensive for weeks. US officials announced it was beginning cyber attacks against IS installations earlier this month, and at a US Department of Defense briefing in late February, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford said that “operations against Mosul have already started.”
The US has also provided training to the forces aligned against IS in the region, and will back them with air support during the operation.
Iraq’s military head into Mosul still celebrating the recapture of Ramadi in December. That operation showed the positives of patience and planning rather than the use of overwhelming force, which some in the US have suggested are necessary to take out the Islamic State, known variously as IS, ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh.
“It’s not so much a lesson for the military, but for the American public in the offensive against ISIS, to let ability drive the time table,” former Army officer and Center for a New American Security senior fellow Paul Scharre told The Christian Science Monitor in January following the Ramadi liberation. “There is a political cost for that patience, but it was definitely a success, a positive sign.”
Officials advise that Mosul could be a different kind of effort from that needed to retake Ramadi. Mosul is by far the largest city in the jurisdiction of the self-declared IS caliphate, including the militant group's headquarters in al-Raqqah in Syria, and it is surrounded by tens of miles of territory under IS control.
“Mosul is different than Ramadi. It’s a big, big, big city and it is going to take a lot of effort,” said US Baghdad military command spokesman Col. Steve Warren. “It’s going to take more training. It’s going to take more equipment. And it’s going to take more patience.”
During the recapture of Ramadi, the US-backed forces incorporated Sunni tribal fighters in their operations. An alliance with the Kurdish peshmerga could signal a similar local angle in Mosul.
While the Mosul offensive, called “Operation Conquest” by Iraq’s military, is just getting started, some are concerned over the probability of its success. The Associated Press reported that US Defense Intelligence Agency head Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart told Congress in February that he was “not as optimistic” as Iraqi officials that the Mosul “liberation” would go as planned.
Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has repeatedly stated that Mosul would be recaptured within the year. He announced that the liberation of areas surrounding Mosul began Thursday, saying via Twitter that the offensive’s primary phase “has been swift and decisive. Daesh is in retreat.”
Some have estimated that 24,000 to 36,000 troops would be needed to retake Mosul, but the forces amassed in Makhmur only totaled 2,000 to 3,000, reports the AP.
“We are all trained, qualified, and ready for battle. But this force is not enough to retake Mosul,” Iraqi Lt. Col Mohammed al-Wagaa told the AP from the Makhmur base earlier this month. “The battle for Mosul is going to take a long time.”