The long battle for Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, is reaching its dramatic conclusion as the remaining Islamic State soldiers in the city have been cut off by coalition forces and boxed into Mosul's besieged Old City. Iraqi Security Forces have been forced to seize the Old City one household at a time as the topography - which Islamic State's cobweb of local and foreign fighters are sure to have mastered since 2014 with the support of sympathisers and collaborators and the disorder catalysed by the Iraq War - has given the jihādists a narrow tactical edge in the final bloody assault.
The densely populated urban centre and zigzagging maze is perfectly suited for Islamic State's (IS) harassment tactics as small clusters of fighters (perhaps two to four) are shifting between adjacent buildings by knocking holes through walls in homes to avoid detection in the street and strike at Iraqi Security Forces in vicious close-quarter fighting. In hostile territory, this tactic will reduce the morale of Iraqi Security Forces as groups of IS soldiers will likely regain old positions within Mosul and slip through enemy lines to regroup in other areas of the city where sleeper cells opposed to the government's occupation will be operating.
As they did in Ramadi, Falluja, Tikrit and other major cities and towns which have been besieged since 2015, IS have wired Mosul with boobytraps and hurled themselves against the coalition's front-lines with suicide bombers, trucks and cars laced with explosives and not shirked from using civilians as human shields, killing any who dare to leave. Camouflaged snipers are targeting soldiers and civilians from hidden positions and homemade bombs triggered by timers, remote controls, and pressure detonators are presenting a nightmare for explosive ordnance disposal teams. Anything from furniture to doors to random objects scattered amongst the rubble of Mosul's shattered city promises army infantry units with potential death and maiming.
100,000 men, women and children are trapped inside the historic heart of Mosul without food, clean water and access to medical treatment and with the number of internal displaced persons set to surge with the fall of the city, Iraq will remain the Middle East's second largest refugee crisis. Infants and toddlers are being recovered from the ruins and outskirts of the Old City suffering from severe acute malnutrition described by Iraqi doctors as being in a state of "near famine" conditions. The brutal combination of the tight grip of Iraqi Security Forces and the special forces of various Western powers on the Old City and the brutality of the 300 jihādists fighting to the last man have created horrific conditions which thousands of civilians have been forced to endure in the narrow alleyways of Mosul. Both sides have targeted civilians indiscriminately and the tenacity of ISIL's fanatical fighters coupled with the retribution dished out by militias and Iraqi Security Forces throughout the campaign against IS fighters and Sunni civilians have ensured the final act of this particular phase of Iraq's conflict will be defined by immense savagery and violence with 50,000 - 75,000 estimated to be dead since IS captured Mosul and rolled towards Baghad's doorstep in the organisation's 2014 - 2015 military campaigns.
Like Lebanese civilians in Beirut caught between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation dug in across Lebanon's capital and the brutal Israeli bombings by air and artillery in 1982, Mosul's citizens have been sandwiched between the brutality of their occupiers and the U.S-led airstrikes. On 17 March 2017, over 150 people were reported dead in a coalition airstrike in the Jadida neighbourhood of West Mosul, an example of how coalition airstrikes "liberating" Mosul's citizens have so frequently, as with airstrikes in Syria, brought further pain and despair to Syrian and Iraqi civilians despite the humanitarian aid pouring in for refugees and IDPs. Perhaps more disturbing and less scrutinised by media outlets is the utilisation of white phosphorous against population centres under IS's control. According to Human Rights Watch:
"In both Mosul and Raqqa, the US-led forces are using US-made M825-series 155mm artillery projectiles containing 116 felt wedges impregnated with white phosphorus, which ignites and continues to burn when exposed to the air. This is the only type of 155mm white phosphorus projectile in US stocks that can be air-burst. Neither ISIS nor Syrian government forces are known to possess or have used these US-made munitions. The US-led coalition states that as a matter of policy it cannot publicly discuss the use of specific munitions, but admits to using white phosphorus in its operations in Iraq and Syria."
This incendiary weapon - conventionally used for smoke-screening - can cause death and injury by burning deep into tissue, inhalation as a smoke, and ingestion. The use of phosphorous in an urban area can have potentially catastrophic results and its use feeds the propaganda machines of IS's jihādist networks dotted across the Middle East and its cells active across the globe. Contrary to popular belief that IS is finished, the recapture of Mosul - a bad blow to IS's territorial ambitions - will not bring an end to Iraq's perpetual crisis and its enduring violence, nor will the final days of the caliphate deter jihādists from launching attacks across Europe.
The latest botched suicide bombing in Brussels (a year after the lethal bombings at the Maelbeek tube station and Zaventem international airport), three attacks in 73 days in Manchester and London, multiple massacres across France in 2015 and 2016, the truck rampage in Berlin in December, 2016, and the 2017 St. Petersburg bombing alone demonstrate that IS's lethality has only increased as its territory has shrunk. Driving IS from its territory is the equivalent of smashing a hornet's nest, a result which has scattered its fighters across the Middle East and forced foreign fighters to return home to wage terrorist campaigns against their own citizens across the region and Europe. There will continue to be a reckoning for all those who campaigned against the caliphate proclaimed in the Al-Nuri mosque by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the stifling heat of June, 2014. The Al-Nuri mosque itself now lies in ruins after IS blew it up.
In Iraq, which is situated at the heart of IS's violent insurgency, the geo-political situation and rampant instability produced by the Middle East's Thirty Years War suits the terror group. As the Old City of Mosul burns, new battle-lines are being drawn by regional and local actors. An intra-Shiite conflict is imminent. The powerful Shiite paramilitary units and militias, collectively identified as the Popular Mobilisation Units, including Munathamat Badr (Badr Brigades or Badr Organization), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), Kataâib Hizbullah (Hizbullah Brigades) and the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), have a chilling reputation for perpetrating human rights abuses including torture, extra-judicial executions, and summary executions.
Without a common enemy, unified by their hatred of IS and fearful of the resurgence of Sunni insurgents and tribal rebellion, these various militias and paramilitary factions will do politics in a war zone as the fragile coalition will devolve into a squabble for territory between different Kurdish factions, Shiite militias, gangs, death-squads and Sunni groups with criss-crossing loyalties, conflicting agendas, and complex allegiances adding to the complexity of the Iraq crisis. Many of these local actors will seek outside support as regional powers from Iran to Turkey to the Gulf States will seek to secure their geo-political interests in Iraq.
Shiites living in northern Iraq will not necessarily be driven to join the Shiite dominated government in Baghdad and many Iraqi nationalists will oppose a government seen as an Iranian client. Without a regional or international transitional program for Iraq, the state may become a patchwork of modern fiefdoms divided between jihadist, warlord, militia, gang member, corrupt kleptocrat or oligarch which will catalyse the fires of popular dissatisfaction which IS exploited so successfully in 2013 and 2014. Suppressing IS will not provide Iraqis with basic needs ranging from water to electricity to food and nutrition to jobs to medical supplies, nor will it return the infrastructure obliterated by years of fighting.
The predictions that the Kurds will benefit from Iraq's social fragmentation are premature. The city of Kirkuk is already becoming the next inflammatory point in Iraq's crisis and protracted fighting has not benefited the Kurdish people as economic collapse sparked by financial insolvency and a major banking crisis will create major short-term issues for fledgling Kurdistan including poverty, a collapse in employment opportunities and little prospects for thousands of young people. In some cases, young Kurdish fighters are abandoning the peshmerga to join Shiite militias for the promise of better pay and in Sunni districts patronage and tribal divisions, fed by distrust and fear of Baghdad's agendas, have paved open the space for violent sectarian and puritanical objectives which IS have exploited to the maximum since the Iraq War (2003-2011) and the Iraqi Civil War (2005 - current).
Mosul is strategically important but it clearly remains a single piece in the Iraq's complex jigsaw puzzle with Sunni-dominated areas to the south remaining highly unstable. Reintegrating the Sunni tribes and factions into a national framework will require patience and rebuilding trust between Iraqis, whether Sunni, Shiite and Kurd, and eliminating the sectarian narrative which has gripped the country since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Without securing the loyalty of the Sunni tribes in Anbar (a feat the American military found difficult to accomplish), the Shiite-dominated government will face perpetual insurgency and conflict and minorities such as the Yezidis living in Iraq will continue to face persecution.
Furthermore, the country is a weapons depot and for the Americans and security contractors to operate effectively in the fight against IS they knew that various factions have to be paid off to secure short-term military and political support. General Petraeus understood this during the 2007 U.S 'Surge' and it still wasn't enough to secure the country in the long-term. 34 different countries have supplied Iraq with weapons and the mountainous stockpile of weaponry has only been worsened by recent U.S military admissions that they failed to monitor over $1 billion worth of arms transfers across the country. Gripped by corruption, trafficking of armaments, drugs and people, and the black market flourishing in the disorder, monitoring where these weapons end up will be extremely difficult. Now that numerous sides are well-armed, it will come as little surprise that these factions will use force to secure their political and economic interests.
Election season, with IDPs and refugees scattered across Iraq and the wider region, will occur in a Middle East battered by multiple, overlapping wars and revolutions and under a local context which is militarised. As the Syrian War rages, Iraq's stability will inevitably be tied to its neighbours civil war and with President Bashar al-Asad, Russia, Hizbullah and Iran mopping up the remaining rebels opposed to the Syrian regime and U.S-supported allies launching escalating waves of attacks on IS's citadel in Raqqa, prospects for a stable Iraq be slim and peace will remain elusive for the Iraqi state whose porous borders have been so easy to penetrate. This is the product and consequence of the four catastrophic Gulf Wars which have been fought since 1980, a result which has broken the heart of the Middle East.
Future elections (provincial and national), political gatherings, activists, journalists and politicians will be targeted by Islamic State to foment sectarian warfare and civil conflict and the terrorist organisation, who were capable of mounting a devastating bombing campaign across Iraq as it fought on multiple fronts across the country, will continue to be a threat to the Iraqi people. With less territory to defend, Islamic State, an umbrella for several Salafi jihādist cells, will regroup and return to its most devastating yet effective form of fighting; ultra-violent, indiscriminate asymmetrical urban warfare. The jihādist revolt in Iraq and the Greater Middle East is far from over.
Matthew C.K Williams