The future of Mosul

By Jeremy Brooks

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Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced nearly one month ago the beginning of the Iraqi military’s mission to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State. Mosul, which is Iraq’s second largest city and its most diverse, has been under ISIS control since June of 2014. While the battle is expected to last for several more weeks, or even months, the eventual victory of Iraqi forces (along with the accompanying Kurdish forces, Shia militias, and U.S. airstrikes) is considered a near certainty for U.S. State Department officials. While reclaiming Mosul is certainly key to reducing the power of ISIS in the country, amidst the rising fervor to eliminate ISIS, one crucial question must be addressed: after Mosul is reclaimed, what comes next?

The Iraqi government’s effort to regain control of Mosul accompanies two significant problems that need to be addressed after the battle.

First, the aftermath of the battle for Mosul presents a critical humanitarian issues. Even ignoring humanitarian issues occurring during the battle (like ISIS using civilians as human shields), the humanitarian crisis that emerges after the battle is finished is likely to be disastrous. Evidencefrom past cities that ISIS has occupied (notably, Ramadi, Tikrit, and Fallujah) demonstrates several problems: prolonged urban warfare will leave entire neighborhoods in rubble; abandoned bombs and explosives will make the entire city inhospitable; and for those who do return, services and public works will be crippled or nonfunctional altogether. Hundreds of thousands of civilians will be in need of aid. While the international community has already pledged to provide aid in Mosul post-liberation, the end of the battle will likely present unpredictable challenges. The Iraqi-led Mosul liberation effort must recognize that the need for cooperation doesn’t stop the moment that ISIS retreats, but rather that it might be needed for years to come in responding to humanitarian crises.

Second, the reclamation of Mosul will prompt the renewed vigor of sectarian problems in Iraq. While the common struggle against ISIS has united Arab Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds in Iraq for the time being, the groups (and subgroups within each) have longstanding conflicts that will be brought back to life after ISIS is driven out. In fact, a key reason why the Islamic State was able to gain so much territory in Iraq in the first place was because their opposition was fragmented. The use of predominantly-Shia militias, called Popular Mobilization Units, in retaking Mosul has already prompted the renewal of Sunni-Shia tension, while the delicate cooperation between the Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters will not hold up if the Kurds seek to expand their autonomous territory. ISIS may just be a particularly nasty manifestation of a broader problem: a lack of unified groups in Iraq that can form stable, legitimate governments. The battle for Mosul features militarized groups with widely different backgrounds and interests that, once the common enemy is removed, have no guarantee of continuing cooperation. In light of this potential problem, the Iraqi government must be prepared for the return of complicated sectarian conflicts.

With the return of Iraqi control of Mosul on the horizon, the real hardship might not be in battle, but rather, the aftermath. In order for Mosul to successfully recover following the retreat of ISIS, planning for what comes next to alleviate humanitarian and sectarian issues is essential.

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