Former home to many Christians attacked from all sides
The largest city in the ancestral homeland of Iraq’s Christians will be the focus of a major military campaign in the coming weeks. But the Battle for Mosul may be full of landmines, both in the fight itself and the efforts to form a coalition to retake the city from the Islamic State group.
According to the New York Times, ancient rivalries among those fighting ISIS threaten to weaken the offensive. Recent progress in retaking the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State "raises the possibility of increased cooperation among the militias, the army and Kurdish pesh merga forces, including those battling ISIS nearby around the northeastern oil hub of Kirkuk," the Times said. "But it will not be as simple as just having those two sets of forces link up and march onward."
In particular, there are mounting concerns about sectarian tension. Most of the forces around Tikrit are Shiite militiamen, who are being guided by Iranian military advisers. Their advance into heavily Sunni areas has worried some American officials, and the United States-led coalition has not yet conducted airstrikes centered directly on the Tikrit mission.
Given those concerns, as well as political and ethnic tensions and differing terrain and battle dynamics, a lineup of forces that works on one front may not work on another, analysts and officials say.
Before the Mosul offensive, however, Iraq’s army wants to secure another key area, Anbar Province, "in part to keep Islamic State fighters there from ambushing and harassing the main Iraqi force to the east."
“We will secure Anbar first, and then move on to Nineveh,” Iraq’s defense minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, told reporters recently. He added that new army troops were still training for Mosul, where Islamic State militants were constructing berms and trenches, preparing to “destroy the city to defend it.”
The Islamic State swooped into Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, last June, giving Christians and other religious minorities there a stark choice: convert, leave or die. Thousands of internally-displaced persons from Mosul and towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain have wintered in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and many of them feel that even if Mosul is retaken, it will be almost impossible to go back home, where Muslim neighbors, they say, betrayed them and took their possessions.
The Times said that Iraqi and American officials believe that ISIS is pulling back fighters from other fronts to defend Mosul, and that the jihadist group "continues to draw new recruits and move freely across the uncontrolled border with Syria."
Rafid Jaboori, the spokesman for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said recently that the government envisions the battle for Mosul being led by new army forces, Sunni residents in and around Mosul, and Kurdish pesh merga, all supported by airstrikes from the United States-led military coalition.
Elyse Bauer Anderson, s
enior advisor for the
21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, said that liberating Mosul and the surrounding areas will be a "crucial first step toward the eventual return of the displaced Christians and other religious minorities who have been forced from their ancient homeland."
"But I think it is unrealistic to assume that pushing the Islamic State out of Mosul will pave the way to a peaceful, voluntary return of the displaced Christians," Anderson said in an email to Aleteia. "The displaced communities feel betrayed and abandoned. Trust has been fractured. They are uncomfortable relying on others for their protection Not to mention that the prominent role of Iran and Shi’ite militias in the effort is sure to inflame sectarian tensions even further—and history has proven that any time the sectarian divide deepens, Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities do not fare well.”
Iraqi Christian Relief Council founder and president Juliana Taimoorazy said that before any assault on Mosul is undertaken, Iraq’s border with Syria needs to be closed to prevent any further flow of ISIS fighters into the country. She said that Iraq and other countries fighting the Islamic State need to amass a combined force of upwards of 300,000, not 30,000, to secure Mosul, and that they should expect the Islamists to hide weapons in homes, schools and hospitals.
is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.