As the long anticipated battle for Mosul gets under way, Iraq faces two critical tests: whether it can deliver a major blow to the Islamic State’s “caliphate” with a cohesive military force – while also protecting citizens stuck in the middle of a fight seen as potentially transformative for the country.
Artillery fire and coalition aircraft pounded positions of the so-called Islamic State overnight. Within hours of breaking through the IS frontline at 6 a.m., Kurdish peshmerga forces advancing on three fronts seized half a dozen villages, paving the way for Iraqi Army and police units to advance to the city.
“The hour of victory has struck,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, flanked by military officers as he announced the joint Iraqi and Kurdish forces’ drive, backed by US airpower, to conquer the last jihadist stronghold in Iraq. “We will meet soon on the ground in Mosul to celebrate liberation and your salvation.”
But with shelter currently available for only 60,000 people in camps, the United Nations and aid agencies are facing a potentially monumental challenge in helping that population – from scenarios as diverse as tens of thousands of Mosul residents being trapped as human shields to an overnight exodus of more than 1 million people. Iraq already has 3.3 million displaced people, with hundreds of thousands of them hailing originally from the country’s second-largest city.
The UN is “extremely concerned” for the safety of up to 1.5 million Mosul residents during the fight, and because “funding has been insufficient to prepare fully for the worst-case scenario,” said Stephen O’Brien, the UN humanitarian chief. According to the UN, the humanitarian operation in Mosul could become the “single largest and most complex in the world” in 2016.
Food rations and construction
Construction of new sites are under way for 250,000 more people; food rations for 220,000 families are ready for distribution; and 143,000 sets of emergency household items are stockpiled, said Mr. O’Brien in a statement. Aid agencies have used available funds “as efficiently as possible,” while working “under some of the most difficult and insecure conditions in the world.”
But uncertainty reigns as much for the relief agencies as it does for Iraq’s unlikely alliance of forces – from Kurds and Shiite militias to reformed and freshly trained Army and police units that have earned a string of recent victories against IS. None know what surprises IS has readied for them on the battlefield.
“There are questions of where people are going to go, how quickly they are going to get out, and how long it’s going to take them to get to places where we can help,” says Chris Weeks, a spokesman for World Vision International, one of the most active aid agencies in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
“There is going to be some very rapid work to expand the capacity. But there is no point in building a huge facility somewhere, which isn’t the place where it is needed,” says Mr. Weeks. “We’ve got experience responding very quickly; we respond to natural disasters, and this has that kind of feel about it.”
World Vision, for example, has filled warehouses with basic supplies “because people are going to turn up with nothing,” says Weeks. The agency has operated in northern Iraq since shortly after IS first captured Mosul as part of a lightning offensive from neighboring Syria in June 2014.
One focus has been on helping children deal with the psychological impact of the war, and notes that many remain affected by fleeing the IS advance two years ago.
“I can only imagine what these children [in Mosul] will have seen over the past couple of years; they shouldn’t be seeing this type of violence,” adds Weeks. “And the liberation itself – there is going to be noise, confusion, it’s going to be a very traumatic and unsettling.”
Much will depend on how the battle for Mosul itself unfolds, and predictions run the gamut.
Senior Iraqi, Kurdish and coalition officers have prepared for a tough fight, warning the battle could last weeks or more despite the deployment of some 30,000 Iraqi and allied forces against an estimated 4,000 to 8,000 dug-in IS fighters.
“This may prove to be a long and tough battle, but the Iraqis have prepared for it and we will stand by them,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led anti-IS coalition.
And yet a mid-ranking IS commander is reported to have said that IS made a tactical decision to withdraw “human resources” to Syria, according to a Facebook interview with The Wall Street Journal.
“There will be no big great epic battle for Mosul,” the IS commander reportedly told the Journal. “The tactic now is hit-and-run.”
IS has seen recent losses in Syria as well; over the weekend, Turkish-backed rebel forces forced IS out of the northern town of Dabiq, a place important to IS as part of an ancient, apocalyptic narrative that ushers in the apocalypse.
But as important as Mosul has been to IS dreams of a caliphate, it is not yet clear how strongly the militant organization will fight. In Fallujah in June, for example, a fierce defense from IS never materialized as Iraqi forces advanced.
“I think that’s what we will see in Mosul, as well,” says Michael Knights, an Iraq specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This city is too big for them to actively defend with the amount of forces they’ve got. They will probably be able to defend parts of the city, but that’s it.”
Iraqi forces are likely to get to the edge of the city, and probe – just as US forces did in Baghdad in 2003, he says, when they arrived “expecting Stalingrad."
“If [they] feel there is just no resistance, and people inside are walking around saying, ‘Where’s ISIS?’ and trying to organize themselves and pick up guns, the temptation is going to be to just roll in,” says Mr. Knights. “So everyone’s going to get ready for Armageddon and 1.7 million refugees coming out, and in fact, 200,000 refugees are going to come out and the city is going to fall relatively quickly and easily,” suggests Knights.
That would be good news for relief agencies on the ground, which are marshaling for the worst case.
“It’s all about pre-positioning, about pre-planning different scenarios,” says Weeks from World Vision.
“Uncertainty is part of our everyday work; it’s inevitable,” he says. “We have specialist staff, we are able to get supplies quickly. And it’s just a question of doing that when the moment comes, when it becomes clear where and when people are going to be.”