All things are ready, if our minds be so.
— Shakespeare, Henry V
Iraq’s battle for Mosul is not going well.
Hundreds of Iraq’s most elite military personnel have been killed in action and thousands more wounded. Daesh — also known as the Islamic State, or ISIS — retains control over Mosul’s center and its western and northern suburbs. Speaking Wednesday, a U.S. military spokesman acknowledged that operations are “slow going.”
That won’t change any time soon. In the coming days, as Iraqi units approach Mosul’s central Tigris River crossings, Daesh will intensify the vehicle-borne suicide attacks it has employed to deadly effect. The death cult wants to hold out as long as it can in Mosul. Doing so, it rightly believes, will hurt the Iraqi government. Of course, unless Iraqi forces withdraw, they will eventually defeat Daesh. The problem, however, is that politics is the ultimate prize here.
And the longer this fight drags on, the more damage Iraqi and U.S. strategic interests will suffer. That’s because, as casualties mount and doubts over the progress of the liberation grow, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi faces rising political pressure. And that pressure comes not only from Daesh.
Iran’s foreign strategists are the world’s bloodhounds for political weakness. And seeing the human blood in Mosul, they smell political blood in Baghdad. Despising Prime Minister Abadi for his efforts to establish some semblance of multi-sectarian stability in Iraq, Iran wants to weaken him and eventually replace him with a supplicant goon — namely, former Iraqi prime minister and now Iranian puppet Nouri al-Maliki. And Iran is making progress toward that end. Late last year, it scored a major win when the Iraqi parliament legalized the Shia-militia-dominated, Iranian-orchestrated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). PMF’s leaders, primarily Hadi al-Amiri of the Badr Organization, claim they are patriots supporting Iraqi forces in defeating Daesh. In reality, Mr. Amiri and Co. are puppets for Iranian regional hegemony.
Seeing the human blood in Mosul, Iran’s foreign stategists smell political blood in Baghdad.
To be clear: The PMF is not a national Iraqi alliance but a proxy for Iran’s Shia-revolutionary sectarian agenda. Iran wants the PMF to be for Iran in Iraq what the Lebanese Hezbollah is for Iran in Lebanon: an armed veto against sovereign democracy and a means to neutralize Iranian political adversaries. And in the last few weeks, Iran and Amiri have been upping the pressure on Abadi. They want Abadi to yield more power.
President Obama bears some responsibility here. Back in October, I explained that the U.S. had capabilities — whether effective intelligence support, accurate airstrikes, or many other enablers of military power — that Iraq needed in Mosul. These capabilities are crucial to boosting Iraqi combat effectiveness to help secure a quick victory. Unfortunately, President Obama refused to allow U.S. military advisers to enter Mosul with frontline Iraqi units. Instead, as American military spokespersons openly admit, U.S and allied ground forces are operating behind the front lines. That restriction limits their ability to support front-line Iraqi units. And on the battlefield, in mounting Iraqi casualties and slow progress, it shows.
Still, there is hope, albeit in an unlikely form. Enter Iraqi Shia-nationalist-populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Once a thorn in America’s side, Sadr has recently assumed a more constructive role in Iraqi politics. Jockeying for influence, he has decided that supporting Abadi is his best bet. And at least for the moment, Sadr is throwing his support to Abadi instead of to Maliki, Abadi’s main rival for the prime minister’s office. For months, Maliki has been working to undercut Abadi’s administration. He’s Iran’s political prong to Amiri’s sword. Don’t get me wrong: Sadr is no friend of America. But he does represent the power of democratic politics to shape positive coalitions.
#related#Ultimately, Mosul’s strategic significance is about much more than Daesh. As demonstrated by its relentless attacks on Iraqi Shia citizens, Daesh understands that its recruiting swamp would evaporate in a multi-sectarian Iraq. Iran knows the same. The key then is to maximize American support for the Iraqi armed forces, secure Mosul quickly, and thereby bolster Abadi’s government.
Let us hope President-elect Trump replaces President Obama’s calculated weakness with a ready mind.