Mosuli Refugees Train to Retake Iraq’s Second Largest City

But they can’t defeat Islamic State on their own—and their allies are divided

Mosuli Refugees Train to Retake Iraq’s Second Largest City Mosuli Refugees Train to Retake Iraq’s Second Largest City
Mosuli politician Atheel Al Nujaifi is building an ethnically-mixed fighting force in Iraqi Kurdistan. He hopes the force — which includes Sunni Arab fighters... Mosuli Refugees Train to Retake Iraq’s Second Largest City

Mosuli politician Atheel Al Nujaifi is building an ethnically-mixed fighting force in Iraqi Kurdistan. He hopes the force — which includes Sunni Arab fighters — will eventually help retake Iraq’s second largest city from Islamic State when Iraqi security forces reach the city.

Al Nujaifi is the governor of Iraq’s Nineveh province — which includes Mosul — and many of his fighters are police officers and soldiers who fled to Kurdistan after the extremist group overran the city last summer.

“The force that will participate in Mosul’s liberation will be from Mosul, and they will not be strangers to Mosul’s residents,” Al Nujaifi told War Is Boring.

Retaking the city is an important step in defeating Islamic State, and a precondition for clearing the militants out of the country entirely. Mosul is the strategic linchpin of northern Iraq, and it has a direct highway connection to Raqqa — Islamic State’s capital — in Syria.

The extremist group uses its control of the city to recruit more fighters, which further helps Islamic State strengthen its hold over about a third of Iraq’s territory.

But right now, none of Iraq’s various factions can effectively coordinate to liberate the city, according to interviews with several exiled Mosuli politicians. No one seems to trust anyone. As a result, Al Nujaifi’s fighting force is struggling to find weapons, equipment and support.

There are a whole lot of reasons for that.

This is Iraq. Trust us … it gets complicated.

Above — a training camp in Kurdistan where Mosuli refugees, many of them former police, are training to fight Islamic State. Vager Saadullah photo. At top — Islamic State militants parade in a captured Humveee in Mosul, Iraq on Feb. 24, 2015. AP photo

Mosul’s dilemma

The first problem is Islamic State.

The U.S.-backed coalition needs a force that’s strong enough to clear the militants from a sprawling, dense and well-fortified urban area. It’s highly doubtful any one of Iraq’s factions could do it on their own.

The second problem is that whoever retakes the Sunni-majority city will determine who wins the peace. If Mosuli residents consider a largely Shia or Kurdish force to be alien occupiers, they might fight back with a bloody insurgency.

Al Nujaifi and other exiled Sunni politicians don’t trust the regular Iraqi army — which is largely Shia — or the numerous Shia volunteer militias. The Mosuli leaders asserted that the Iraqi army could create ethnic strife, and that Islamic State will benefit by exploiting those tensions.

For this reason, Al Nujaifi said he asked the Iraqi government to send army commanders and troops who come from the Mosul area for the attack.

But to make matters more complicated, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government seems wary of supporting a Sunni-led militia. And the Kurdistan Regional Government isn’t in any hurry to retake the city.

Then to throw another wrench into the coalition, Iranian commanders are supervising and training the Shia militias … who the Mosulis fear might start an all-out sectarian war.

To be sure, the Iraqi government has sent weapons, funds and supplies for the Mosuli training camp in Kurdistan. But it’s been slow going, and the fighting force doesn’t have nearly enough weapons to retake the city.

But support is finally trickling in, and that’s encouraged new recruits to join the training camp.

“After six months of negotiations with Baghdad, they sent the salaries of those policemen in the training camp, and also very limited weapons,” Bashar Kiki, the head of Mosul’s provincial council, said.

Demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State slogans in Mosul on July 12, 2014. AP photo

A city divided

Let’s make one thing clear — retaking Mosul would be a huge undertaking.

The city is the heartland of Sunni Arab nationalism. Iraq’s former ruling Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party recruited some of its most loyal commanders from Mosul.

After the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Mosul became a hotbed of Sunni insurgent attacks against U.S. troops. It’s where Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay took refuge — and where American troops killed them.

U.S. forces operated in the city from 2003 to 2011, but were never able to fully secure it. Local discontent with American forces allowed Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups to operate and recruit. Mosul is also a deeply religious city — a factor that helped strengthen the extremist presence.

Throughout the U.S. occupation, Islamic militants regularly collected taxes and extorted funds from contractors, gold merchants, businessmen and even some government departments. This continued after U.S. forces withdrew.

Then the Iraqi army took over Mosul’s security. They were hardly as welcome as the Americans. Many Mosulis viewed them as outsiders and symbols of the Shia-led central government which marginalized them.

Sunni radical groups grew stronger.

This adversarial relationship was one of the reasons why many Mosulis — even some of the city’s educated elites — welcomed Islamic State militants when they stormed the city last summer.

Shortly after the takeover, a doctor from Mosul — who did not want to give his name — told this correspondent that he was pleased to see the militants run the Iraqi army out of the city.

Now many Mosulis are actively fighting for Islamic State. According to some reports, as many as 90 percent of the fighters in the city are Iraqis disaffected with Baghdad’s government. This means that if the Mosuli exiles return, they could end up fighting their own relatives.

The Sunni politicians know that retaking the city is going to be hard. Which is why they’re turning to outside powers to provide aid and additional troops.

But that’s still just a hope.

A training camp in Kurdistan where Mosuli refugees, many of them former police, are training to fight Islamic State. Vager Saadullah photo

Refugee army

In late February, Iraqi Vice Pres. Osama Al Nujaifi — who comes from Mosul — visited Turkey. There, he asked the Turkish president and prime minister to support the Mosuli force.

The Turkish leaders expressed willingness to provide weapons, training and advisers for the Mosuli fighters, according to Kiki, the Mosul provincial council chief. He was present during one of Al Nujaifi’s meetings after the trip to Ankara.

But the Mosulis can’t expect much else from Turkey. “It is difficult for Turkey to send their troops, because until now, Turkey didn’t have any significant role in the coalition forces fighting against ISIS,” Kiki said.

Another possibility is that the city’s exiled Sunni politicians could ask U.S. troops to come back. Several politicians told War Is Boring they would like American ground troops to help them — but they don’t have the authority to make such a request.

“In my personal opinion, coalition troops should be present for all of Iraq, not only Mosul,” Kiki said. “ISIS cannot be defeated in one day, and Iraqi forces need to be well trained and prepared.”

“But we couldn’t ask U.S. troops to come to liberate Mosul because that’s the Baghdad government’s authority,” he added.

Another option is for Kurdish Peshmerga troops to fight alongside the Mosuli force. But Kurdish officials have declared many times that they don’t want the Peshmerga to go beyond Kurdistan’s borders.

Even so, Kurdish forces already control many areas that fall under Mosul’s political administration. But Kurdish officials are hesitant to send the Peshmerga into an Arab-majority city, fearing that Islamic State may rally people against them and create a race war between Kurds and Arabs.

The Mosuli fighting force coordinates with the Kurdistan Regional Government, Al Nugaifi said. But Kurdish support will likely remain in the background.

He added that the Mosuli force wants the Peshmerga to help liberate Mosul — but only as a support force outside the city. If they enter the city flying the Kurdish flag, it could spark Sunni resistance.

But Kiki told us that Kurdish participation is mutually beneficial. Plus, if the coalition asked the Kurdish troops to participate, “Then I don’t believe that the Peshmerga will reject the coalition’s request,” he said.

“In my opinion, it’s important that the Peshmerga participate in the liberation, because 30 percent of Mosul’s population is Kurdish,” Kiki added.

“As long as the security of Mosul is under terrorist control, it will be a threat to Kurdistan as well.”

But until Iraq’s coalition finds a way to work together, that threat could last for a very long time.