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Mosul may be free, but Iraq’s complex war continues

By Scott Taylor      

Nearly every building in West Mosul has been destroyed. So who will oversee reconstruction? And what about neighbouring cities still under Daesh control?

Burnt-out cars sit on the side of the road in November 2016 on the outskirts of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city recently reclaimed by Iraqi forces from Daesh. Photograph courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov
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OTTAWA—Earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi officially declared that the brutal nine-month battle to retake the city of Mosul was finally over. However, just four days later, explosions were still rocking the shattered rubble in the city’s downtown core as the last of the Daesh fighters continued their fanatical resistance.

If one can be dispassionate about Daesh’s (the militant group also known as ISIS, Islamic State, and ISIL) evil ideology, then from a purely military perspective the group’s prolonged defence against overwhelming odds was one hell of a martial feat. It was estimated at the outset of the siege that Daesh defenders numbered fewer than 4,500. On the attacking side, the United States-led alliance numbered more than 100,000 ground troops plus airpower. This loose-knit coalition of disparate militias included Iraqi government troops, Shiite militias, and Kurdish peshmerga members.

The professional “stiffening” of these forces was provided by a large number of U.S. and Iranian military advisers. Canada also contributed to the mix with approximately 200 special forces soldiers in an advise-and-assist role. The Canadian troops are attached to the Kurdish militia, which is loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s leader, Masoud Barzani.

Although Canadians have repeatedly been told that our soldiers are not involved in combat operations, the commanders on the ground have taken extreme liberties with the word “assist” in their advise-and-assist mandate.

Such assistance to the Kurds has taken the form of using anti-tank missiles to destroy Daesh vehicles, and a world-record sniper shot that killed a Daesh fighter at the incredible range of 3,540 metres.

I believe that Canadian soldiers are not among the best in the world; they are the best in the world. That said, this means that the Daesh defenders of Mosul were not only up against a staggering number of attackers, they were also pitted against warriors of impressive quality.

In addition, allied forces could call upon the unchallenged might of the U.S.-led aerial armada that included a fleet of unmanned drones capable of around-the-clock observation and missile strikes.

The fighting may finally be over, but the devastation is nearly complete, particularly in the western area of the city, which was Daesh’s last bastion of resistance. Nearly every building in West Mosul has been destroyed.

To protect the ground troops from possible Daesh vehicle-borne suicide attacks, the allied air force deliberately cratered intersections in the city with precision bomb strikes. The bridges spanning the Tigris River, which connected East and West Mosul, were all destroyed in the fighting, either by allied aircraft or Daesh demolition.

The pile of rubble is reminiscent of the Second World War’s aftermath of the Battle of Stalingrad. The devastation in Mosul is so complete that it makes Haider al-Abadi’s claim of victory akin to U.S. General William Westmoreland’s famous Vietnam War quip that in order to save the village, they needed to destroy the village. Only this time the village was Iraq’s second-largest city and the damage is estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars.

The question now is: who will oversee the reconstruction of Mosul? It was the deliberate exclusion of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority by al-Abadi’s Shiite regime in Baghdad that led some of Mosul’s Sunni residents to welcome Daesh as liberators in the summer of 2014. That was when Mosul was an undamaged metropolis, not a heap of broken bricks and destroyed infrastructure.

If history repeats itself, as it so often does in the Middle East, the Sunni minority will be further punished by the victorious Shiite militias, many of whom are woefully ill-disciplined and fighting an ideological war of revenge against the Sunnis.

To the west of Mosul, Daesh retains control of the city of Tal Afar, which is a Turkmen enclave. Shiite militias have besieged the city, assisted by Iranian advisers. Neighbouring Turkey has warned that it will take military action if the Shia militia members are allowed to enter Tal Afar and exact revenge upon the Turkmen.

As each domino falls, it seems this conflict only gets more complex and any notion of a victory remains undefined. Canada has no say in resolving any of these major issues, yet we have just committed our military to at least two more years in Iraq. We will very soon need to choose which Iraq we support, because it is very unlikely to continue to exist in its present form.

Scott Taylor is editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine.

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