Mosul in early autumn looks peaceful from the Bashiqa ridge. The first positions of the Iraqi Kurdish army, the Peshmerga, are here, 12km from the city. The occasional mortar shell lands somewhere in the vicinity once in a while. Further off, one can sometimes hear the distant thunder of heavier ordnance. But mostly it’s quiet.
The fighters of General Bahram Yassin spend their time keeping fit, cleaning their weapons and watching the deceptively peaceful ground in front of them, from over the sandbags, for any sign of an attempt by their Islamic State enemies to move forward.
The quiet is deceptive. Preparations are advanced for the operation to reconquer the city. Zero hour may be approaching.
Bashiqa is the closest point to Mosul reached by the anti-Islamic State coalition. The city is surrounded: by the Iraqi army to the south and by the Kurds to the east, north and west.
Mosul is the jewel in the crown of Islamic State’s holdings in Iraq. The taking of the city in June 2014 was the moment when it became clear that the group was not simply another ragged Sunni jihadi operation challenging the central government in Baghdad.
Rather, for a moment it looked like a history-making phenomenon. That moment now seems distant.
The tide in the war turned long ago. Islamic State has been contracting since early last year, when it reached its furthest points of advance. Refugees who make their way across the desert in the Makhmur area tell tales of florid cruelty as the jihadis seek to repress the population of their crumbling domain.
The latest point to fall was the town of Shirqat, 100km south of the city, taken by the Iraqi army in co-operation with US-led coalition airpower after two days of fighting last month. Possession of this area enables the Iraqi army to strengthen supply lines to its main base south of the city, at Qayyarah airfield. Shirqat straddles Route 1, one of the main arteries linking Mosul and Baghdad. But something strange is going on. There are (and have been for some time) enough forces available to defeat Islamic State in Mosul. Yet the assault on the city has not so far been launched.
“Shaping” operations to prepare the final launch points are not quite complete. The Iraqi army needs to take Hawija, in Kirkuk province. The Kurds must capture the last remaining villages between Bashiqa and Mosul.
But the main reasons for the delays are political. The various forces due to take part in the liberation of Mosul have sharply differing agendas regarding what comes after the battle, and for the future of Iraq more generally.
These differences have prevented the emergence of a joint command structure for the assault on Mosul, and delayed commencement of the operation. They will also almost certainly ensure the continuation of strife and internecine violence even after the jihadis have departed Mosul.
Iraq is a broken country. The defeat of Islamic State will not put it back together.
There are two related issues severely complicating the commencement of the attack on Mosul. The first is the questionable quality of the Iraqi army. The second is the sectarian issue — the extent to which one can even talk about Iraq as a country any more and the consequent differing ambitions of the armed groups in the Mosul area.
Iraq is divided into three main communities, the Shia Arab majority, and large (mainly Sunni) Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities. All three are represented in the forces gathered around the city.
From the point of view of many Kurds and Sunni Arabs, the Baghdad government represents not a legitimately constituted authority but rather the expression of a Shia domination, which they seek to throw off.
The Western-backed Iraqi security forces of the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will form the main element of the attacking force into Mosul. These are the Iraqi state’s legally constituted armed forces.
The army’s commander in Nineveh province, in which Mosul is located, is Major General Najim al-Jubouri. Jubouri, a former general in Saddam Hussein’s army, worked closely with the US throughout the years of its occupation of Iraq. Now a resident of Washington, DC, he was invited back to take command of the forces for the Mosul operation.
“For me there are no Sunnis or Shia, or Kurds or Turkmen — only citizens,” he tells Inquirer as we meet in his office in the Makhmur area.
Maj-Gen Najim Jubouri, Makhmur area, September 2016
Admirable sentiments. And Jubouri is by all accounts a man of integrity and skill. But the Iraqi army performed badly against Islamic State in 2014. At that time, it was revealed to be riven with corruption, with the mainly Shia rank and file unwilling to fight the jihadists for Sunni parts of the country, which seemed alien to them.
The US has spent $US1.6 billion on Iraqi defence reform since 2014. Australian personnel, among others, are engaged in helping Iraqi soldiers learn new and valuable skills. Capable figures such as Jubouri have been brought back into the army. But it remains open to question whether fundamental change has taken place.
A great deal of window-dressing has happened at the top, and a few genuinely capable and non-sectarian units, such as the Counter-terrorism Service (or Golden Division”) have emerged.
But the slow pace of the army’s progress over the past 1½ years suggests that below the most senior levels and apart from a few specific units, not much has really changed.
Has the phenomenon of “ghost soldiers”, whereby commanders pay non-existent soldiers in order to pocket their salaries, disappeared? Has the practice of promoting unsuitable officers because of nepotism or financial corruption been overcome? Has the existence of corruption in the provision of equipment to front-line units been addressed?
There is little or no evidence to suggest these deep structural/cultural issues have been dealt with. Until they are, the main part of the Iraqi army is likely to remain substandard.
And the reason not much has changed may not be simple laxity and corruption, though neither is in short supply.
Here, the second, more complex question of sectarianism enters the picture.
In alliance with and co-operating with the Iraqi army are Shia militias. These non-governmental military groups number about 100,000 fighters. Many of the main groups among them — such as the Badr Organisation and Kata’ib Hezbollah — are aligned with Iran and are effectively controlled by Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
A fighter of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia in action east of Ramadi, July 2015.
Thus the militias constitute Iran’s main political and military instrument within Iraq. The governing Islamic Dawa Party is pro-Iranian in orientation and the influence, seen and unseen, of Iran runs deep in Iraq today.
Kurds and Sunnis claim that the militias have made deep inroads into the army. They suspect these groups of pursuing a sectarian agenda of their own, which contrasts with the separate agendas that the Kurds and Sunnis are themselves clearly pursuing.
The vexed question of the relations between the Iraqi security forces, led of course by a government dominated by the Dawa Party, and the Shia militias, is important. The notion of widespread co-operation between government forces and the Shia militias is widely shared among Kurdish and Sunni Arab members of the coalition facing Islamic State in Mosul.
There are allegations of militiamen deployed among the government forces wearing Iraqi army uniforms, and of elements of the army who co-operate directly with, and take orders from, the militia leadership. There are also those who claim that powerful elements in the governing party prefer to keep the army weak, while building up the Shia militias as a replacement for it.
The army’s 5th division, which took part in the successful battle for Tikrit last year and is now deployed in Diyala Governorate east of Baghdad, has been among those facing accusations in this regard. The division, critics say, is specifically under the influence of the Badr Organisation, one of the two or three most powerful pro-Iranian political-military groups in the country.
Kurdish commanders make little effort even to pay lip service to the idea of unity of purpose. The autonomous Kurdish area in northern Iraq, with its capital, Erbil, already has many of the elements of an independent state. The Kurds, with the help of US air power, successfully defended it from Islamic State in 2014.
The Kurdistan Regional Government area stretches from the Iraq-Iran border all the way to the Tigris River and the border with Syria. It is contiguous with Rojava, the area of northern Syria controlled by the Kurds of that neighbouring, equally fragmented country.
Unfortunately, and in the way of Kurdish politics, the authorities in each area are at loggerheads with one another and there is little contact between them.
The lack of unity in the anti-Islamic State coalition was on full display when I travelled in the region last month. Major General Aziz Waisi, commander of the powerful, 56,000-strong Kurdish Zerevani Special Forces, responded dismissively to a statement by Abadi instructing Kurdish forces to move no further towards Mosul.
The author with Maj-Gen Aziz Waisi, Erbil area, September 2016
“Are we together against IS or not?” asked the general. “Are we separate from Iraq, that we can’t advance further?
“Is there some line indicating Kurdistan’s border that we can’t cross? They should answer these questions, and then we can make our choice.”
The choice in question for the Kurds, quite simply, is whether to remain in Iraq at all.
Waisi’s colleague, General Sirwan Barzani, commander of Sector 6 between Makhmur and Gwer, is far more blunt.
“As important as the military side is the political side,” he tells Inquirer, “and the only solution is to divide the country. There is no Iraq.”
On the calls from Abadi for the Kurds not to move forward from their current positions, Barzani is also dismissive: “We are not a force under Abadi’s control. He can’t force us not to push Islamic State back. If we decide we want to go, we go. We don’t wait for permission from Abadi.”
From Barzani’s point of view, Islamic State is a symptom of a larger problem. This problem is the continued existence of a unitary state of Iraq.
“Islamic State are weaker now, but even before they came, Mosul was under the control of similar forces. There will never be a stable solution until the country is divided.”
Similar sentiments were heard from a variety of senior officers of the Peshmerga and officials of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party. The Peshmerga, which emerged from the irregular Kurdish guerilla groups that fought Saddam and his predecessors and which today constitutes the official armed forces of the autonomous KRG, also performed poorly against Islamic State in the summer of 2014. But they have clearly recovered their step. The talk is of an upcoming independence referendum.
It is this, rather than the prospect of a peaceful, post-Islamic State Iraq, that animates the Kurdish fighters surrounding Mosul from three directions.
As Sasan Awny, a senior KDP official, sums it up: “Independence is a need for Kurdistan which must be done sooner, not later.”
A Peshmerga fighter, Bashiqa, September 2016.
It is not only the Kurds who are approaching the Mosul issue with their own agenda.
Sunni Arabs are also mobilising outside the city and their agenda, too, is far from that of Baghdad. In Bashiqa, a Sunni Arab force called the Hashd al-Watani is being trained by the Turkish army, which has its own carefully guarded presence in the area.
Mosul is a largely Sunni Arab city. Its residents did not reject the presence of Islamic State when the group arrived in 2014, as they felt themselves to be severely discriminated against by the Shia-dominated Baghdad government.
It may be presumed that the Sunnis of Mosul and Nineveh province have since recovered from the notion that Islamic State offers them anything other than barbaric repression. But this does not mean they will now welcome back the Baghdad government. As with the Kurds, the underlying problems remain, and the defeat of Islamic State will not solve them.
Atheel al-Nujaifi, a former governor of Nineveh province, is the initiator of the Hashd al-Watani. Nujaifi fled to Erbil from Mosul when the latter city fell to Islamic State in 2014. He wants a federalised Iraq after the defeat of Islamic State, with power sharply devolved from Baghdad to the regions of the country.
And if Baghdad refuses to grant this?
“If the Kurds split and become independent, then Iraq will split. The Sunnis can’t go back to the situation before 2014. But we hope this can be avoided,” Nujaifi says.
“And if no solution is reached, there will be greater Turkish involvement.”
As if to further complicate matters, the Turks, for their part, have insisted that their army, too, will have a role in the liberation of Mosul. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presiding over an increasingly Islamist and repressive Turkey, announced on October 1: “We will play a role in the Mosul liberation operation and no one can prevent us from participating.”
The mainly Sunni Turks find natural allies among the Iraqi Sunni Arabs.
But it is also worth noting that the Turks in Iraq have good relations with the KRG and co-operate closely with it. This relates to the labyrinth of Kurdish internal politics. The KDP, the ruling group in Iraqi Kurdistan, is a bitter rival of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been engaged in a long insurgency against the Turkish state.
Hence the KDP and the government of Turkey have close and cordial relations.
So there are the Shia militias and the Iraqi government, with which they are aligned; the Kurds, who are already eyeing the exit door and who are not shy of making this clear; and the Sunni Arabs, aligned with Turkey, who want a radical devolution of power, or will be thinking about their own exit.
From all this swirl of competing interests, the US administration is seeking to put together a force to take Mosul.
Last Saturday, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said neither Peshmerga forces nor the Shia militias would enter Mosul during the operation.
It is possible that such agreement has been secured, and that the Mosul operation will, indeed, commence in the coming weeks. But even if the Iraqi army can eventually secure the city, this will not solve the underlying issues facing Iraq.
Islamic State is a barbaric and murderous enterprise, and it is entirely right that it be taken out of existence. But the war against Islamic State has become a kind of shadow play behind which other, perhaps more consequential, rivalries are being played out.
The US and the West remain committed to the maintenance of a unitary Iraqi state governed by an elected authority based in Baghdad. The reality, however, appears to be that a variety of rival forces are already competing over the ruins of this edifice. The disappearance of one of these forces — Islamic State — will not end the contest.
Meanwhile, the refugees continue to make their way across the desert from Islamic State-controlled areas, with the black smoke of the burning oilfields in Qayyarah behind them. And the fighters, each under a different banner — Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Kurdistan, Islamic State — clean their weapons under the sweltering sun, and wait.
There is a fight coming in Mosul. It will cost many lives. When it is over, the irreconcilable issues that are the underlying cause of conflict in Iraq (as well as in Syria) are likely to emerge largely unchanged as the smoke of battle clears.
Originally appeared in The Australian, 8/10 (under the title ‘A Malaise that’s Destroying Iraq’)