On November 26th, the Iraqi parliament passed a bill recognising the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), as part of the Iraqi security forces. The PMF is an umbrella organisation composed of around 40 militia groups. The law does not stipulate how many forces will be incorporated under the legalised Popular Mobilisation corps, which currently claims to have more than 110,000 fighters. The Iraqi government says there are between 25,000 and 30,000 PMF members from Sunni tribal fighters and nearly all the rest are Shi’ite, with a few Yazidi and Christian units. The bill was passed with 208 votes out of 327, with no votes against due to a boycott by Sunni politicians who disagree with giving power to Shia militants. Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni MP, said: ‘I don’t understand why we need to have an alternate force to the army and the police.’ The law specifies that the PMF has a right to preserve their identity if they do not pose a threat to Iraq’s national security. The law allows the PMF and their formations to assume their military and security duties and activities, upon a request from Iraq’s armed forces commander when they are needed to provide support. They are also allowed to take any measures required to deter terrorist groups and security threats facing Iraq.
PMF militias rose to prominence due to their battlefield successes against IS after the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014. More than 100,000 fighters mobilised to fill the security vacuum and prevented IS from taking Samarra and western Baghdad. The problem is that these militia groups cannot be militarily defeated, not when this would bring greater costs than benefits to a war-ravaged society and weak Iraqi state. Therefore, the institutionalisation of the PMF could help bring some order to Iraq’s atomised security structures and help to establish limits to their powers.
One of the major problems with the inclusion of the PMF, and one of the major fears from critics is that the PMF contains some of the most dangerous militia groups in Iraq. Groups like Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have killed hundreds of US and British soldiers. They have also murdered thousands of Iraqi Sunni and Shia civilians, particularly in Baghdad, where Asaib Ahl al-Haq committed mass sectarian cleansing of Sunnis. There are also fears over the groups links with Iran.
After their hard work and success fighting IS in Iraq many believe it is right and fair that the PMF fighters get medical and logistical support plus salaries and pensions equivalent to other Iraqi soldiers. Supporters of the law believe it provides a controlled way for the fighters to receive support. It would be dangerous if the PMF starts to build up a set of parallel institutions like Iran’s Islamic revolutionary Guard Corps or Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In Iran and Lebanon these forces are powerful political, voting and intimidation machines, and they can threaten even elected ministers. However, Prime Minister Abadi has welcomed the law saying PMF is now under direct orders of the Armed Forces, which sets its regulations and represents all Iraqi people and defends them wherever they may be.
On Thursday 20 October, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi disclosed that the offensive to seize back Mosul from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group was going faster than planned, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched a new military operation to clear villages around the city.
Speaking via a video conference call to senior officials who met in Paris in order to discuss the future of Iraq’s second-largest city, the Prime Minister disclosed “the forces are pushing towards the town more quickly than we though and more quickly than we had programmed.” Four days into the assault on Mosul, Iraqi government forces and allied Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are steadily recovering outlying territory before the main push into the city begins.
According to Kurdish and Iraqi military statements, on Thursday, an Iraqi army elite unit and Kurdish fighters started trying to take back villages north and east of Mosul. Sources on the ground have disclosed that howitzer and mortar fire started at 6:00 AM (0300 GMT), hitting a group of villages held by IS about 20 km (13 miles) north and east of Mosul, while helicopters flew overhead. In a statement announcing the launch of Thursday’s operations, the Kurdish general military disclosed that “the objectives are to clear a number of nearby villages and secure control of strategic areas to further restrict ISIL’s (IS) movements.”
Sources have disclosed that dozens of black Humvees of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) mounted with machine guns, headed towards Bartella, which is a Christian village whose population fled after IS took over the region. The town is the main attack target on the eastern front. A CTS spokesman at a nearby location has reported that the militants are fighting back, using suicide car-bombs, roadside bombs and snipers in a bid to push the attack back, adding that they are pounding surrounding areas with mortar. Over the past year, the US-trained CTS has spearheaded most of the offensive against IS, including the capture of Ramadi and Falluja, west of the capital Baghdad. The force is deployed on a Kurdish frontline, marking the first joint military operation between the government of Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.
On the northern front, Kurdish Peshmerga shot down with machine guns an unmanned drone aircraft that came from IS lines in the village of Nawaran, which is located a few kilometres away. It was not clear if the drone, which was 1 – 2 metres (3 – 6 feet) wide, was carrying explosives or just on reconnaissance. According to Halgurd Hasan, one of the Kurdish fighters deployed in a position overlooking the plain north of Mosul, “there have ben times when they dropped explosives.”
The Iraqi Prime Minister announced the start of the offensive to retake Mosul on 17 October, two years after th city fell to the militants, who declared from its Grand Mosque a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. Mosul is the last big city stronghold held by IS in Iraq. Raqqa is the capital of the group in Syria. A US-led coalition, which includes Britain, Canada, France, Italy and other Western nations, is providing air and ground support to the forces who are closing in on the city. The battle for Mosul is expected to be the biggest battle in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, which toppled Saddam Hussein. Around 1.5 million people still live in Mosul and the battle is expected to last weeks, if not months.
The warring sides are not making public their casualty tolls or the number of casualties amongst civilians. Iraqi officials and residents of Mosul however have reported that IS is preventing people from leaving the city, in effect using them as shields to complicate air strikes and the ground progress of the attacking forces. The administration of Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province is now one of the main topics of discussion for world leaders. There are growing concerns that the defeat of the ultra-hardline Sunni group would cause new sectarian and ethnic violence, fuelled by a desire to avenge atrocities that were inflicted on minority groups.
On Monday 17 October, an Iraqi operation to recapture the city of Mosul, which is the last stronghold of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the country, began, with official reporting that pro-government forces have already made gains.
The start of the operation was announced by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a televised address in the early hours of Monday (local time). Shortly afterwards, artillery began firing on the city in what is a long-awaited assault from Kurdish peshmerga, Iraqi government and allied forces. On the ground sources reported tanks moving towards the city, which has been held by IS since 2014, with one source disclosing that Kurdish tanks have closed the gap with IS position on about 300m. Kurdish forces have also disclosed that they have retaken a number of villages in their advance while pro-government forces are attacking an airbase in Qayyarah, located about 60 km (37 miles) to the south, which was recaptured in August. The US-led coalition that is fighting IS is backing the assault with air strikes. Analysts have warning that the operation is complex, adding that it could last for weeks, if not months.
Who is Fighting?
About 30,000 pro-government troops are involved in the operation, with the main assault being led by Iraqi army troops who are based south of Mosul. About 4,000 Kurdish peshmerga milita have begun clearing villages in the east. Sunni tribal fighters and Shia-led paramilitary forces are also due to take part, while planes from the US-led coalition against IS are providing air support. US Special Operations personnel are advising forces on the ground and elite Iraq counterterrorism forces are expected to join in th coming days. It is estimated that between 4,000 – 8000 IS fighters are defending the city.
Importance of Mosul
Mosul, which is the oil-rich capital of Nineveh province, was Iraq’s second-largest city before IS militants overran it in June 2014. Its capture became a symbol of the group’s rise as a major force and its ability to capture and hold territory. It was there that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. The city was one of the country’s most diverse, and comprised of ethnic Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmens as well as a number of religious minorities. While members of those minorities largely fled the onslaught by IS, many local Sunni Arabs initially welcomed the militants as they were angered by the sectarian politics of the previous Shia Arab-led central government. However after two years of brutal IS rule, opposition has grown inside the city.
According to a military statement in Baghdad, before dawn on Sunday 16 October the Iraqi army dropped thousands of leaflets over Mosul, warning residents that an offensive to recapture the city from the so-called Islamic State (IS) was in its final stages of preparation.
The leaflets carried several messages, in which one of them assured the population that advancing army units and air strikes “will not target civilians.” Another told civilians to avoid known locations of IS militants.
According to Iraqi government and military officials, the assault on Mosul, which is the last city that remains under the control of IS in Iraq, could begin this month with the support of a US-led coalition. IS fighters are dug in it is expected that they will fight hard for control of the city. Furthermore, in previous battles to defend territory, IS fighters have forced civilians to remain in harms’ way, often preventing them from escaping.
On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that he hoped that the United States and its allies would do their best in order to avoid civilian causalities in an attack on Mosul. Reflecting the growing concerns of authorities over a mass exodus that would complicate the offensive, the leaflets told residents “to stay at home and not to believe rumours spread by Daesh (IS)” to cause panic. Earlier this month, Iraqi officials launched a radio station in order to help Mosul residents stay safe during the offensive. The radio is broadcasting from Qayyara, a town located 60 km (about 40 miles) south of Mosul, where the army is massing forces ahead of the offensive.
Mosul, which had a pre-war population of around 2 million, is around 4 – 5 times th size of any other city captured by the militants so far. Last week, the United Nations stated that it was bracing for the world’s biggest and most complex humanitarian effort in the battle for the city, which could make up to 1 million people homeless and see civilians used as human shields or even gassed.
In recent weeks, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group has suffered a series of setbacks in Syria, including the loss of access to the Syria-Turkey border and the killing of a number of top leaders. Analysts however warn that the terrorist group remains a potent force – a fact that has been demonstrated by a series of deadly attacks.
The growing pressure on IS, which includes Turkey’s decision to launch an operation against it in northern Syria, has seen the militant group lose ground at an unprecedented pace. IS however continues to maintain the capacity to obtain weapons, attract recruits and deploy fighters to carry out devastating attacks abroad.
On 4 September, the Turkish operation reclaimed the last stretch of the Syria-Turkey border from IS, effectively sealing off its self-styled “caliphate” in Syria and neighbouring Iraq and forcing the group to rely on smuggling networks instead. For IS, this was just the latest setback as the group is now under attack from Syrian and Iraqi troops, as well as Kurdish fighters, Syrian rebels, Turkish Forces, Russian warplanes and a US-led coalition. Experts believe that IS now controls just 20 percent of Iraq and 35 percent of Syria. At the height of its expansion, after it seized Syria’s Palmyra in May 2015, IS controlled around 240,000 square kilometres (more than 92,000 square miles) in both countries – an area roughly the size of Britain. Today however experts indicate that this number has fallen by more than a third to around 150,000 square kilometres, adding that the population it now controls has also declined from some eight million people in mid-2015 to 4.5 million people today. In another major blow to the group’s mobility, in August, IS lost Jazirat al-Khaldiyeh, an area in Iraq’s western Anbar province that was a key crossroads. Meanwhile in Libya, IS is on the verge of losing its stronghold of Sirte. Along with the territorial losses, IS has been affected by a number of high-profile assassinations of its key leaders, which include senior commander Omar al-Shishani and spokesman and top strategist Abu Mohamed al-Adnani.
While these setbacks paint a picture that IS is on the decline, analysts are increasingly warning that the group is far from finished, noting that its focus may simply be shifting from territorial expansion to consolidation of population centres, such as Syria’s Raqa and Iraq’s Mosul, and to launching new attacks against civilians in the region and the West. IS has proven capable of adapting to the changing territory, and it likely that it will do the same this time around. The loss of the border with Turkey will hamper the group’s abilities to import new weapons and recruits, as well as to export resources such as oil. However this challenge is hardly a new one as pressure from Kurdish forces coupled with a Turkish crackdown on the border had already forced IS to mainly rely on smuggling networks. In regards to attaining weapons, IS has always relied to some degree on purchasing from corrupt individuals among its enemies, or capturing arms from defeated opponents.