Q&A: Why is Mosul under attack and who is involved?

Iraq’s second largest city has been under the control of Islamic State since June 2014

A girl displaced by the fighting near Mosul at a checkpoint in Qayyara on Wednesday. Humanitarian agencies fear a catastrophic outflow of civilians from Mosul if there is heavy bombardment and urban warfare. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

A girl displaced by the fighting near Mosul at a checkpoint in Qayyara on Wednesday. Humanitarian agencies fear a catastrophic outflow of civilians from Mosul if there is heavy bombardment and urban warfare. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

 

Why is Mosul under attack?

Mosul is under attack because in June 2014 the city was seized by Islamic State during an offensive which gave the terror group control of 40 per cent of Iraqi territory. Since Mosul was Iraq’s second largest city, a provincial capital and an oil hub, it became Islamic State’s most valuable asset. The group, also known as Isis, has benefited politically from the prestige of ruling a major regional city and financially by extracting taxes from residents and selling crude oil pumped from Mosul’s fields. Thousands of foreign fundamentalists flocked to Mosul to join Islamic State’s drive to capture more territory, convert Muslims to its cause, and overthrow the regional order. Consequently, the Iraqi government and its allies cannot allow the group to retain power in Mosul.

Who is in charge of the assault on the city and who else is involved?

The Iraqi authorities are formally in charge of the campaign to retrieve Mosul but the US is, in fact, in command as co-ordinator-in-chief of the attacking forces, comprising primarily 30,000 troops from the Iraqi army and Shia and Kurdish militias. There are also 4,700 US special forces personnel, and advisers from Iran, Britain, Germany, France and other members of the US-led coalition that provides air cover for Iraqi army operations. Turkey, which has deployed troops and tanks in northern Iraq, is demanding a role in the offensive. The Iraqi government rejects this demand and accuses Turkey of violating Iraq’s sovereignty.

How many people live in Mosul and what do we know about conditions there?

Before Islamic State occupied Mosul the city had a population of two million; this has shrunk to an estimated 1-1.2 million. Most of the city’s minorities – Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and Turkomen – have fled Islamic State persecution and brutality. It established a religious dictatorship and imposed its version of Muslim canon law (Sharia). Women are compelled to remain at home and to cover completely when going out in the company of a male relative. Men are forced to grow beards and attend all five daily prayers at mosques. Economic and social conditions have deteriorated. Dissent and resistance are punished with torture and execution.

How long do coalition forces think it will take before they retake the city?

Coalition commanders predict it could take months to recapture the city where Islamic State is holding the populace hostage, using civilians as human shields and murdering former policemen, civil servants and anyone suspected of disloyalty.

What will likely happen to civilians there during the fighting? Are many expected to flee?

Islamic State has dug trenches, bulldozed berms, blown up bridges and mined the approaches to Mosul to slow the advance of attacking forces and to prevent civilians from fleeing. Nevertheless, more than 5,000 have left and reached a camp across the border in Syria, while 10,000 residents of villages and towns near Mosul have sought shelter in refugee camps. Many Sunni civilians could remain in Mosul, fearing death or abuse by mainly Shia Iraqi forces accusing them of collaboration or seeking revenge for Islamic State atrocities.

Might this assault trigger a new refugee crisis? What arrangements are in place to help those fleeing?

Humanitarian agencies fear a catastrophic outflow of civilians from Mosul if there is heavy bombardment and urban warfare. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs predicts up to one million civilians could be displaced, of whom 700,000 would be in need of shelter, food and medical care. Tents and supplies have been stockpiled in the Mosul area by UN and international humanitarian agencies. Eleven camps are being prepared to house 120,000 people. Funding falls far short of needs. Some 3.5 million Iraqis, more than 10 per cent of the population, have been displaced by the conflict with Islamic State.

If Mosul is successfully retaken, is that the end of Islamic State?

The recapture of Mosul is unlikely to eliminate Islamic State, which would continue to hold some territory in Iraq and large tracts of land in central and eastern Syria. If driven from Mosul, Islamic State fighters are likely to go to Syria, to Raqqa, the group’s headquarters and capital, and to Deir al-Zor province, which is held by Islamic State. Even if defeated and expelled from Syria, the group has bases in Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and north and sub-Saharan Africa. An idea as well as a movement, Islamic State has global social media recruits who have been and can be ordered or inspired to carry out violent operations across the world.

Are there any plans for a similar assault on Raqqa?

Both the US and France understand the importance of preventing Islamic State fighters from retreating to Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, and Washington has said the Mosul and Raqqa campaigns should overlap. However, the US-led coalition has not announced a plan or identified coalition forces for an offensive against Islamic State in Raqqa. The US has recruited, trained and armed Syrian Kurds and Arabs in the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition with the aim of retaking Raqqa, but this formation is neither large enough nor strong enough to carry out this task. If it is serious about Raqqa the US may be compelled to join forces with the Syrian army, Russian air force, Iranian troops, Lebanese Hizbullah fighters and Iraqi Shia militiamen allied to the Syrian army in Damascus’s battle against Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other insurgents. This could necessitate dealing with the Syrian government which Washington has said has lost legitimacy. Having sent Turkish troops and tanks into Syria along with anti-government Free Syrian Army fighters and taken territory from Islamic State, Ankara is also demanding a role in an offensive against Raqqa, although the Turkish army has been shelling and bombing US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces units on the pretext they are allied to Turkish Kurds fighting Ankara.

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