Iraqi forces face their toughest test in Mosul
In the rush to dislodge IS from its largest urban stronghold, Iraq’s security forces appear to have underestimated the militants’ ability to cause carnage. Although vastly outnumbered, the jihadists have used snipers, booby traps, improvised landmines and hundreds of suicide-bombers to bog down Iraqi security forces. Elaborate tunnel networks have allowed IS to escape bombing runs from American warplanes and to ambush Iraqi forces in areas supposedly cleared.
The grinding urban combat has taken a heavy toll on Iraqi troops. Some units of the country’s Golden Division—American-trained special forces that have spearheaded the assault on the city—have seen more than half their men killed or wounded. The UN said that almost 2,000 Iraqi troops were killed across the country in November alone, triple the number in the previous month, when the battle for Mosul began. The government refuses to release casualty figures, but in December the offensive ground to a halt as commanders waited for reinforcements to arrive.
So far Iraqi security forces, backed by American-led coalition warplanes, have captured the eastern half of the city, which is split in half by the Tigris river. On February 19th, more than four months since the start of the battle, they launched the next phase of the operation: to retake the west. The fighting will be even tougher. The old city’s narrow alleyways will force Iraqi troops to dismount from their armoured Humvees, making them easier prey for IS suicide-bombers and snipers.
There is also a larger civilian population in the west, further complicating the operation. The Iraqi government has dropped leaflets urging the 750,000 or so residents to stay in their homes. But with heavy fighting and siege-like conditions taking an increasing toll on civilians, the UN believes that as many as half could flee, adding to the 160,000 who have already left the city’s east and its surrounding villages since the battle began.
Still, the jihadists are slowly losing control of their caliphate. The Pentagon believes many of the group’s senior bureaucrats are starting to leave Raqqa, IS’s capital across the border in Syria, as air strikes on that city intensify. With Kurdish-led ground forces slowly encircling Raqqa, smugglers are helping growing numbers of IS low-level fighters flee the battlefield or defect to rival jihadist groups in Syria. The group’s finances have also taken a hit, with revenue (largely from taxation, oil and ransoms) declining from up to $1.9bn in 2014 to, at most, $870m in 2016, according to a report from Kings College London.
The fall of both Mosul and Raqqa, which American commanders believe may happen within six months, will deal a huge blow to the jihadists. Even so, IS is likely to endure. It has already begun to switch to insurgent-style tactics, setting off car bombs in Baghdad and east Mosul with growing frequency. The jihadists may be down; they are far from out.