The siege of Mosul

Print edition : April 28, 2017

Relatives mourn over the body of a child who was killed in the March 17 air strike on a residential complex in Mosul blamed on U.S. forces. More than 200 people are said to have died in the attack. Photo: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP

Rescue teams work on the debris of a destroyed building complex to recover bodies of people killed in the March 17 air strike in New Mosul district. Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

At the Hammam al-Alil camp south of Mosul, internally displaced Iraqis receive aid rations on March 16. Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP

The inevitable fall of Mosul may not signal the end of the Daesh as a threat. Many of its fighters have already fled Mosul to areas in northern and western Iraq, where the Daesh still has considerable support, to regroup and fight another day.

IF things had gone according to the blueprint announced by American military planners, the city of Mosul should have been liberated by late last year. Instead, the Iraqi military, backed by the full power of the United States Air Force and allied militias, is still struggling to liberate completely Iraq’s second biggest city from the clutches of the Daesh, as the so-called Islamic State (I.S.) is known in the region. Iraqi forces have had to fight block by block to liberate eastern Mosul in the face of fierce resistance and hordes of suicide bombers. The more thickly populated western part is still being held by the Daesh even after the U.S. Air Force started carpet-bombing the city for months. Mosul, as well as Raqqa, the “capital” of the so-called Islamic State, will no doubt be liberated soon, but it will be at great human cost, dwarfing the scale of bloodshed witnessed in the liberation of Aleppo.

A blockade was imposed on Mosul, a city of over 1.8 million citizens, three months before the full-scale military assault on it began in October last year. Food, medicines and other essentials have all but disappeared from the besieged city. According to human rights groups, more than 2,400 civilians have been killed as a result of strikes by the U.S.-led military coalition in the month of March itself. Between August 2014 and February 2017, the U.S. admitted to carrying out 18,645 air strikes against Daesh targets in Iraq and Syria. The Daesh is, of course, happy that U.S. strikes kill more civilians than its fighters. It only buttresses its propaganda that the U.S. cares little for Muslim lives.

The aerial attacks intensified after President Donald Trump assumed office. On the campaign trail, he had promised to use U.S. firepower indiscriminately in Iraq and Syria. As President, he had once said that he would just bomb Iraq and “take the oil”. According to reports in the U.S. media, the use of air power and targeted killings has escalated since Trump took over the presidency. During the previous Obama presidency, too, U.S. war planes and special forces had been active over Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, and drone and missile attacks had also registered an alarming increase. But the former President at least used to personally sanction the targeting of high-value and sensitive targets. Since Trump took over, there have been more air strikes in Yemen than in the whole of last year. Military commanders on the ground have been given powers by the Trump administration to order major air strikes.

Recent attacks, which have been blamed on the U.S., have led to the loss of thousands of civilian lives in the Iraq/Syria theatre. As a result of the intensive fighting and increased assaults from the air, hundreds of bodies are said to be buried under the rubble in Mosul. Iraqi forces directly involved in the fighting call for U.S. air support to advance in the fiercely contested city. With Daesh fighters ensconced in the densely populated urban settlements and willing to fight to death, the progress of the Iraqi army has been slow despite the use of U.S. firepower to reduce entire neighborhoods to rubble.

Deadly attacks

In March, two attacks, one on a mosque in Syria and the other in eastern Mosul, have been blamed on U.S. forces. The air strike on a residential complex on March 17 killed more than 200 people, according to eyewitnesses on the ground in Mosul. The Pentagon initially denied any involvement in the attack, but given the evidence, it reluctantly ordered a probe into the circumstances leading to the strike. Lt Gen. Peter Townsend, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, conceded that the U.S. “probably had a role” in the incident. He said the U.S. military had returned to “its standard military doctrine” in the region in contrast to the very “centralised approach” that the previous Obama administration had adopted.

The U.S. military under the Trump administration wants to fast-track the liberation of Mosul and declare victory over the Daesh. Evidently, it does not matter much if the ancient city is reduced to rubble. Already the depredations of the Daesh have wrought immeasurable havoc to the cultural fabric of the city, including the destruction of priceless ancient artefacts.

The Iraqi general in command of the Mosul offensive, Maj. Gen. Man al-Saadi, demanded that the U.S.-led military coalition should temporarily halt its aerial attacks on Mosul until the results of the inquiry into the March 17 attack are out. He urged the U.S. military planners to be more cautious while picking targets. Both the Iraqi army and the Pentagon claimed that the Daesh was using civilians as “human shields”. At the same time, the Iraqi army and the government told the residents of Mosul to stay put, pledging that they would not be targeted. Around 400,000 civilians remain trapped in areas still controlled by the Daesh in Mosul. Many starving and scared citizens fled the city at great risk, escaping fire from many directions.

In the case of the latest incident in the Mosul suburb of Jadida, Iraqi forces reportedly called for U.S. air strikes to take out a few Daesh snipers firing from the rooftops of residential buildings. In other Iraqi cities, such as Fallujah and Ramadi, most of the civilians had fled before the battle for the liberation of those cities began. The U.S. military also opened investigations into the attack on a mosque in Syria’s Aleppo province, which killed more than 50 people. The Pentagon initially denied that the U.S. Air Force was involved in the attack, though it admitted that a site adjacent to the mosque, described as a meeting place for Daesh fighters and new recruits, was attacked.

Gen. Joseph Votel, a senior U.S. Army officer, told the U.S. congressional committee in late March that it would be difficult to “maintain the extraordinary high standards” to limit civilian casualties in the narrow, crowded streets of old Mosul. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein called on the U.S. to reconsider its tactics in Mosul and the region. Amnesty International pointed out that the U.S. should have taken into consideration the fact that Iraqi authorities had all the while urged the residents of Mosul to stay indoors instead of fleeing from the areas under siege. The U.S.-led forces should have known that aerial strikes would cause widespread collateral damage to the civilian populace. Amnesty described the U.S. bombing of residential areas as “disproportionate and indiscriminate”. Iraqi Vice President Osama al Nujaifi, who hails from Mosul, called the bombings a “humanitarian catastrophe” that had resulted in “the martyrdom of hundreds of civilians”. He blamed the deaths on the changed rules of conflict for the U.S. forces authorised by the Trump administration.

Liberation vs massacre

The Western media has been noticeably silent in its coverage of the ongoing attack on Mosul in comparison with its over-the-top reportage of the siege of Aleppo. In the lexicon of the Western governments and the mainstream media, what is happening in Mosul is “liberation”, while the ouster of the jehadist forces from Aleppo was predominantly a “massacre” perpetrated by Syrian forces and its main ally, Russia. President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin were painted as the “destroyers” of Aleppo. Many of the rebel fighters in Eastern Aleppo were armed, trained and financed by the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf kingdoms. Despite these fighters working hand in glove with jehadi groups such as the Jabhat al Nusra and the Daesh, they were hailed as freedom fighters by the West.

For that matter, the Daesh fighters holed up in Mosul and Raqqa also got their initial training and military expertise under U.S. tutelage. The “military surge” of 2006 ordered by the Bush administration in Iraq brought a large number of Sunni fighters and militias into the payroll of the Americans. A senior official in the Trump administration, James Shea, admitted that many of the Daesh fighters were initially trained by the U.S. in the last decade. Most of their sophisticated weaponry was also of U.S. origin, with a significant amount captured from the Iraqi army during the capture of Mosul. The Iraqi army, which was armed and trained by the U.S., had fled, leaving all its arsenal behind. This was immediately put to good use by the Daesh in its military campaign in other parts of Iraq and Syria. Many of the Daesh commanders were also senior officers in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein.

It was the U.S. that encouraged the emergence of the sectarian divide in Iraq and the wider region. The initial impetus to Sunni extremism was given by Washington. Other important developments, such as the Arab Spring and foolhardy moves by the Gulf emirates to play a big role in the destabilisation of Syria, were factors that led to the dramatic rise of the Daesh and the dissolution, albeit temporary, of the colonial Sykes-Picot boundary that had artificially carved out states in the region.

Not the end

The inevitable fall of Mosul may not signal the end of the Daesh as a threat. Many military strategists are of the view that the attack on Mosul should have commenced only after the other areas in northern and western Iraq where the Daesh has considerable support were first pacified. According to reports, many Daesh fighters have already fled from besieged Mosul to these parts to recuperate and fight another day. Though the Daesh may no longer be able to control large swathes of territory or be able to masquerade as an emirate, it will retain the capacity to wage guerrilla warfare and suicide attacks. It could find willing recruits among the displaced Sunni populations that have been uprooted from major Iraqi cities, including Mosul, Ramadi and Kirkuk. They are living in miserable conditions in refugee camps. The displaced people are not allowed to return to their homes in cities like Kirkuk, which have been taken over by the Kurds. The fall of Mosul does not, at least in the short run, herald a reconciliation of hearts and minds in Iraq and the wider region.

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