National Security & Defense

The Impending Battle of Mosul Will Define Iraq’s Future

Iraqi soldiers in Makhmur, Iraq, February 11, 2016. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty)

Iraq’s government is preparing to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS. In part, the decision to move soon is a function of seasonal necessity: By early May, temperatures in Mosul will be pushing above 90 degrees. Fighting ISIS fanatics in Mosul’s dense urban landscape will be near impossible during the city’s oven-like summer months, and it would be especially risky for the Iraqi military, which remains effectively untested. Iraq’s recent operation to retake Ramadi from ISIS was far easier, owing to Ramadi’s comparative smallness and ISIS’s far weaker force disposition there.

Yet the real impetus for the impending Mosul operation is political: Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, needs a big victory, and soon. The reason: Iran. As I explained on NRO in December, Iran is aggressively seeking to marginalize Abadi into impotence or to displace him from power. Having funneled money into proxy militias and political patrons, and employing their standard playbook of violently intimidating all who do not yield, Iran is strangling Iraq.

If Mosul remains in ISIS hands for much longer, Iranian puppets will seize greater power.

More specifically, Iran wants the prime minister to believe that it holds inevitable mastery over Iraq. To his great credit, however, Abadi continues to show independence against these sectarian thugs. For two examples, Abadi has recently pushed for mild but important political reforms, and he has promoted the Iraqi army’s growing independence from Shiite militias. These steps matter. If Iraq is ever to escape the chaos of politicized sectarianism that fuels the violence of ISIS and Iranian malevolence, it must embrace cross-sectarian compromise. Abadi recognizes this necessity and its opportunity – the opportunity is real, a fact now best reflected by Muqtada al-Sadr’s rebranding himself into an Iraqi nationalist rather than an Iranian stooge — and he is pursuing it vigorously. But if Mosul remains in ISIS hands for much longer, or Abadi suffers a humiliating stalemate, Iranian puppets such as the Badr Organization’s Hadi al-Amiri will seize greater power. At that point, Iraq will drift farther into Iran’s sectarian orbit and its Sunni population will gravitate toward Sunni fanatics like ISIS. Hopes for peace will evaporate.

#share#Liberating Mosul will be militarily complicated. First, ISIS perceives Mosul as a key capital in its Caliphate, second only to Raqqa. This understanding was evidenced back in July 2014, when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi chose Mosul for his first open sermon. ISIS will fight hard to retain Mosul, for its loss would cut deeply at its theological-propaganda image as an ordained empire invulnerable to its enemies (this perception has been central to ISIS’s remarkable ability to win fealty from other terrorist groups across the world). ISIS will therefore seek to turn Mosul into a maze of death traps — disorienting, detaching. and then destroying increasingly demoralized Iraqi units. As writers such as Kyle Orton have explained, ISIS leaders in Mosul have the benefit of the assistance of experienced military professionals and they will use the expertise of these military men to try to suck Iraqi units into a slow and bloody stalemate — a stalemate that forces Abadi to make concessions to Iran in return for ground-force assistance from its militias. Still, Iraqi national success is possible. Preparations for the offensive have been meticulous. Led by a highly experienced U.S. Army general, Sean McFarland, the U.S. military and its allies — especially the Canadians — have trained a combination of Iraqi-army units and Kurdish peshmerga forces for the assault. In recent weeks, they have also cut ISIS supply lines and facilitation nodes that surround the city. In addition, with the Tigris River cutting through Mosul’s center, the Iraqi army has a terrain feature against which ISIS forces can be compressed. If Western leaders are willing to embed their air -attack controllers with Iraqi units, success will be far more likely.

#related#The urgency is real. Ultimately, the stakes don’t end with Abadi and Iran. For one, even if Mosul is retaken, the Iraqi government will have to prove that it can restore the city to its historical character as a beacon for Iraqi cross-sectarian stability. Second, the Mosul Dam is in critical condition. If it breaches – either independently or through a last-gasp ISIS attack — Mosul will face a flood wave and more than 500,000 Iraqis might lose their lives. As one source put it to me, this risk is “why any operation to retake Mosul has to make further securing the dam the priority” — the first priority.

For Iraq’s future — and to end the threat ISIS poses to the West — the battle for Mosul will be of critical importance.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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