How Not to Retake Mosul

by Wayne White

To revive a united Iraq, it’s not so important when Mosul and other Sunni Arab urban areas are retaken from the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Rather, it’s how they are recovered. The nature of the Iraqi government’s effort to retake Tikrit casts doubt on whether it understands this distinction. In fact, Baghdad’s Tikrit offensive since March 2 suggests that it is opting for ruthless, divisive practices typical of discredited ex-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Despite their zeal to crush IS, the US and its anti-IS allies must not ignore the grave dangers posed by ramped-up Iranian and Shi’a militia involvement.

First of all, few military endeavors are more challenging than urban warfare. History has left a tragic trail of cities “liberated” but shattered by combat: Stalingrad 1942-1943, the core of Manila 1945, Seoul 1950-1951, and so on.

In Iraq, veteran US forces “liberated” Fallujah from fewer than 2,000 Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) fanatics in late 2004. Yet, even crack US troops required so many air strikes, heavy artillery barrages, and tank attacks that much of Fallujah was destroyed or badly damaged. Most recently in Kobani, intense and lengthy urban combat backed by heavy firepower reduced to rubble this lovely city of 50,000 in northern Syria.

How NOT to “Liberate” Mosul

A premature campaign that fields a force without a substantial edge over defenders guarantees a prolonged, grinding battle—street by street—resulting in maximum damage. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said on March 3 that the US Central Command’s earlier announcement about Iraqi forces moving against Mosul as early as April or May had been neither accurate nor wise. These US comments about what it might do and when naturally angered Baghdad, with its army still struggling to pull itself back together.

The old saying “you want it bad, you get it bad” applies here. The more Baghdad rushes its efforts to retake large urban areas regardless of the means, the more prolonged, costly, and damaging the fighting is likely to be. Although assaulting Tikrit—a city that lies between Baghdad and Mosul—will test and prepare Iraqi forces for tackling Mosul, the two cities are hardly comparable. Tikrit encompasses fewer than 20 square kilometers while Mosul’s urban sprawl covers almost 400, and many buildings in Mosul are far larger than those in Tikrit. Moreover, Mosul is divided in half by a major river obstacle, the Upper Tigris.

The best way of setting the stage for less grueling campaigns against either city would be to surround or largely isolate them prior to a major assault. This tactic would prevent IS from reinforcing or supplying defenders during the fighting.

Iraqi Government Strays Dangerously

The manner in which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government has gone about its offensive to retake Tikrit is deeply disturbing. Perhaps two-thirds of the troops engaged are Shi’a militiamen. Iran has assisted and armed many of them, and Iranian Quds Force advisors, including their commander General Qasem Soleimani, are on the scene. Instead of gradually replacing Shi’a militiamen with Iraqi Army combatants to reduce sectarian cleansing and atrocities occurring in liberated areas, Abadi seems to have embraced the militias. Moreover, Iraq didn’t tell the US of the attack or ask Washington to provide air support.

This smacks of Maliki’s decision, when US forces pulled back to their bases in 2009, to keep them there in order to gain a free hand for himself. Despite several instances in which US troops could have reduced tensions and casualties, Maliki shunned their assistance. Instead, he chose a hard-edged Shi’a sectarian approach that produced a large number of abuses against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs.

Another core component of Maliki’s one-sided Shi’a approach to Arab Iraqi politics has been a close alignment with Tehran.

Many responsible American observers—even US officials—have encouraged Iranian assistance against IS. Even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, guardedly said early last week that Iran’s involvement could be “positive in…the anti-ISIL campaign.” This attitude reflects a profound lack of knowledge concerning the Iraqi Sunni Arab psyche.

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have regarded revolutionary Iran as the ultimate nemesis since 1979. One driver behind Saddam Hussein’s tragic assault on Iran in 1980 was a deep-seated fear that Tehran would radicalize Iraq’s Shi’a majority and overthrow Sunni Arab primacy in Iraq for the first time in generations. Years later, during the US occupation and after most of Iraq’s war-weary Sunni Arab community decided to make a deal in 2007-2009 to end the insurgency and join the “Sunni Arab Awakening,” Maliki’s government set about wrecking that arrangement, making it clear that Sunni Arabs would have no meaningful role (or even safety) in a post-occupation Iraq. This re-validated long-held Sunni Arab fears of an existential Iranian/Shi’a threat and set the stage for IS’s easy sweep across Sunni Arab Iraq last year.

On the eve of his current visit to Iraq, General Dempsey subsequently emphasized that attacking Tikrit is “less about how the military aspect of it goes and more about what follows.” He mentioned allowing Sunni Arabs to return to their homes as well as receiving government humanitarian and reconstruction assistance. Failing that, Dempsey said, there would be problems. Unfortunately, the composition of Iraqi forces—it remains majority Shi’a—makes abuses inevitable and a positive scenario highly unlikely. Human Rights Watch last week warned of “numerous atrocities” in past operations by militias including “summary executions, revenge killings,” and so on.

Meanwhile, IS has been hurting. Over the past week alone, two senior IS leaders were killed in western Syria, and anti-IS resistance fighters continue to ambush IS combatants operating between the IS capital Raqqa and the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iraqi troops retook the town of al-Baghdadi near al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq. And the coalition’s economic squeeze and airstrikes have driven a cash-starved IS to resort more aggressively to taxation of and blatant extortion from its “subjects.”

IS’s shocking orgy of destruction of ancient sites may be in part a way for frustrated IS leaders and followers alike to lash out vindictively at their foreign tormentors in a way it can no longer manage militarily. With so much of this activity in the Mosul area, it could also reflect fears that the area may fall. Nonetheless, the more Shi’a militias and Iran are involved against IS, the easier it will be for even a beleaguered IS to rally support among terrified Sunni Arabs still under its sway.

Decisive Coalition Action Needed

The US and its European and regional allies must make clear that Baghdad’s current military approach is unacceptable. Neither Washington nor the rest of the coalition should be a party to a resumption of bare-knuckled sectarian conflict in Iraq.

Despite accusations that the Obama administration did not stay in Iraq long enough, there was no point in remaining any longer. Restricted under the terms of the Bush administration’s 2008 US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, US troops stood by and watched Maliki and company turn the country into a sectarian war zone. That must not happen again.

If Baghdad, despite empty rhetoric about Sunni Arab outreach, turns to notoriously ruthless Shi’a militia elements and Iran to spearhead its fight against IS, Washington should tell Abadi that the focus of US (and hopefully other) coalition advisors and airstrikes will shift elsewhere. This will be an agonizing decision. But the US cannot be a party to another anti-Sunni rampage with its attendant abuses and war crimes. Confronted with this grim choice and aware of the difficulty of retaking so much territory without heavy air support in particular, Baghdad may well make the right choice. With enough outside pressure, the Abadi government can still be persuaded to back away from what appears to be its emerging hard-edged strategy of reconquest, not liberation.

Photo: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi meets with Secretary of State John Kerry

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. US and its European and regional allies! that is funny very funny. all are NOT willing to bleed & die fro Iraqis.

  2. It seems Mr. White was the State Dept’s leading Iraq intelligence in the lead up to the Iraq war back in 2002/03 and appears to have been quite skeptical of those claims that Iraq had WMD’s -as were many others in the intelligence community- but were ignored by the gang surrounding VP Dick Cheney.

    I was also reading about a leading Shia cleric in Iraq issuing a statement not too long ago condemning many of these Shia militia groups as being nothing more than violent gangs of organized thugs who are fueling the Suni-Shia conflict.

    I was also reading reports that within ISIS-controlled areas there are many “fighters” who appear to be “moderate” and have taken on a role of civic organizers.

    And what about those reports that within the ranks of “ISIS” are members of the Bath party, Saddam’s old organization which ran Iraq as a secular state back in the day and was hated by such well-known Islamic entities such as al Quaeda.

    And one more thing. Iran seems to be taking a leading role in Iraq in the war against ISIS, according to some yet more reports.

    Where am I going with this? Just this. Are we seeing a replay of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s?

  3. Why everyone is eager to portray this as sectarian war? IS has attacked anyone and everyone including Christians, Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, Yzadis, etc who doesn’t fit in their view. Many Sunnis in Iraq and Iran actually appreciate Iran’s efforts in Iraq.

    Chances of a swift victory without Iran involvement aren’t that high. Air strikes doesn’t help much in urban warfare.

    Iran Quds forces are a well-trained and professional unit that certainly doesn’t want to push more Sunnis to IS by committing atrocities against them.

  4. What was the thing about “you break it, you own it?” Thank the Bush/Cheney and all the supporting cast that brought us mess. Yes, “O” is involved too, as are the military brass who went along and added to it.

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