After losing Tikrit in April 2015 and Fallujah in June 2016, the Islamic State has been left with little territory under its control in Iraq. Mosul, the country’s second largest city, is its last significant bastion. It was where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” in June 2014. And it was the ability of the IS to establish territorial control and run an administration that qualitatively separated it from other radical jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. The capture of Mosul symbolised its effectiveness in combat against a weakly organised Iraqi army and a sectarian Iraqi state, then under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. When a coalition of Iraqi armed forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Shia militia groups supported by U.S.-led air strikes and other special forces marched on Mosul on Monday, the long-planned offensive to defeat the IS decisively was finally put into action. The plan is for the Peshmerga and the militias to barricade the city from the east and south, respectively, while counter-terrorism forces and police enter the city, engage in street battles and secure it, leading to final capture. It will not be easy, even if the IS is a much weakened force compared to what it was in 2014.
The offensive to dislodge the estimated 5,000 IS fighters is expected to last many weeks. Visuals and reports filtering out from the battle zone already point to the large-scale use of suicide bombers in armoured trucks and cars taking on the coalition's tanks and advance forces. The million or so residents of Mosul — the Sunni Arabs among them in particular — who bore the excesses of the sectarian attacks led by Mr. al-Maliki’s government are ready to rebel against the IS, but are wary of the Shia militias. This suggests that a military victory over the IS will not suffice, and the Mosul operation would be a test of the Iraqi government’s capacity to mend the sectarian conflict that enabled the rise of the IS in the first place. Other complications too threaten the operation. The participation of Turkish forces in the attacks has not been welcomed by Baghdad, as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called this a “transgression of Iraqi sovereignty”. The international efforts in this operation are focused towards providing air support to the Iraqi forces beyond the planning but this must not be limited to the military battle alone. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) expects a million people to be displaced during the conflict and requires international funding to help organise shelter for them. It is necessary for the UN to look ahead to ease the humanitarian crisis that could follow after the Mosul battle and help Iraq in its reconstruction.