By Patrick BAHZAD
Chatter is getting louder these days about the Mosul offensive against IS nearing its end. Considering the significant territorial gains achieved by Iraqi forces, this is obviously a positive development. The coming victory however will come at a cost, and in the long run, this cost may very well outweigh the short term benefits of this offensive. For now, it is too early to talk about victory. Actually, victory has not even been achieved yet, as the fighting is heading towards the six months mark. But a look into the rear view mirror might already give a few pointers as to where all this is heading…
Initially, when plans to retake Mosul were first drawn up, the city was supposed to fall into Iraqi hands by mid-2016 at the latest. Logistical issues, battefield shaping manoeuvers, as well as Iraqi and international politics however delayed the offensive, which finally got under way by mid-October of last year. By that time, a huge "Mexican army" – Iraqi style – lay siege to the big city in Northern Iraq. The mood among the troops (and the many embedded reporters) was positive, the outlook for quick victory was good. Five and a half months into the battle, and despite major gains against the Jihadis, there isn't much left of that optimism.
Mosul Battle nearing its end
Day after day, news are trickling in about further advances of the Iraqi forces, luring the US public into a false sense of "mission being accomplished". The countdown to full control over Mosul is on, there is no doubt about that, but what will be left of the city at that point is not yet clear. Eastern Mosul was freed by early January, and progression in the old city in central Western Mosul is ongoing. Various Iraqi forces are grinding their way through the last areas held by IS fighters and armoured units are edging closer to the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, from which Abubakr al-Baghdadi, then newly anointed "Caliph" of the so-called Islamic State, made his first and only public appearance, on July 4th 2014.
Contrary to what is stated in most media accounts, he never actually declared the establishment of a new Caliphate during his sermon. That was done a few days earlier via an audio message of his spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was killed by a US drone in August 2016. The symbolic value of the Nuri mosque however is huge and its recapture by Iraqi troops would be something like the Red Army raising its flag over the Reichstag of Berlin, in 1945. No wonder, Baghdadi's troops aren't keen on such a prospect and consider blowing up the old historic place of worship rather than relinquishing control over it. Again, the attitude seems like a distant echo of SS "die hards" fighting to the bitter end in the ruins of their "Reich" that was supposed to last a thousand years.
And just like in Berlin in 1945, the last line of defence is made up of foreign fighters, who know there is only one way out for them… The comparison with the assault on Berlin stops there however, because the war in Iraq will not end with IS losing its Iraqi capital. Instead, the Mosul battlefield is likely to turn into the birth place of the next insurgency. Too many mistakes have been made, are still being made, and too many factors are playing into the hands of those insurgents who prepare for the "day after".