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The Problem with Retaking Mosul

Washington has an ambitious plan to retake the city of Mosul with a main force of 25,000 Iraqi soldiers with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters providing support. While left unsaid, the force will also include American military advisors.

After the humiliation of the first battle of Mosul that saw the Iraqi army melt in the face of ISIS, the Obama administration is trying to provide a propaganda win for the Iraqis in order to shore up support for a united Iraq. One of the primary reasons why ISIS has been able to cement its control in Sunni areas while struggling in Shia areas is because ISIS is seen as a protector of Sunnis.

Although Sunnis chafe under ISIS imposed Sharia law they fear the return of Iraq’s central government. Under the control of the Shiite dominated central government they were ruthlessly persecuted and marginalized. In the revenge orientated culture of the Middle East these past grievances are never forgotten.

The composition of Iraq’s military is very troubling because Iranian backed Shiite militias support it. Shiite militias like the Badr Organization have pledged allegiance to Tehran and espouse a pro-sectarian and anti-American ideology.

The Shiite militias were the only force that was able to halt ISIS’ advance toward Baghdad and now command more prestige and power than the Iraqi military.

Additionally, they are trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In some instances, they have beheaded prisoners, shot civilians and have stumbled upon an interesting tactic of sectarian cleansing where the militias burn and loot the homes of Sunnis to ensure that the area is either a ghost town or inhabited only by Shiites. They were responsible for the majority of American deaths during the occupation.

If the Shiite forces make up the majority or even a large minority of the task force sent to take Mosul this will be seen in Arab capitals as an Iranian victory. The US in order to take Mosul in the rushed time-span that politics dictates must use the effective Shiite militias but in order to avoid an Iranian victory or sectarian friction the Shiite miltias cannot be used. The reality is that the Obama administration is damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Iraq’s military must retake Mosul, a strategic area within Iraq that would do wonders at undercutting ISIS’ ability to continue to menace the region. Iraq’s leaders are understandably upset at the release of this information as they feel the Obama administration is trying to score domestic political points. However, whether the Obama administration released the plans to attack Mosul to give ISIS fighters time to flee remains to be seen.

Iran is calculating that an all-Sunni force will fail to take Mosul and/or the battle will be so arduous that success will become a Pyrrhic victory for the Iraqi government making it even more reliant on Iran. Iran also calculates that if the Shiite militias are used Iran can claim victory. Iran might be the victor in the upcoming operation on Mosul. The Kurds meanwhile are being basically forced into any operation on Mosul against their will as they doubt the effectiveness of Sunni forces and also doubt the loyalty of the Shiite forces that currently exist in Iraq. This second battle for Mosul may turn out to be an even bigger debacle than the first one.