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Iraqi forces' strategy to retake Mosul from ISIS
01:26 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Iraqi forces and a U.S.-led coalition recently pushed ISIS from Iraqi city of Falluja

But Mosul, Iraq's second city, is much bigger challenge and promises a bigger humanitarian crisis

Many driven from cities occupied by ISIS wonder if they'll have a home to return to

Baghdad CNN  — 

“It is a splendid city, beautifully built,” a famous Muslim geographer once wrote.

“The climate is pleasant, the water healthy. Highly renowned, and of great antiquity, it is possessed of excellent markets and inns, and is inhabited by many personages of account, and learned men.”

The author, Mohamed Al-Maqdisi, writing in the 10th century, was waxing eloquent about the Iraqi city of Mosul.

It has been a while since anyone spoke of Mosul in such pleasant terms. Recent history – a thin slice of time for a city almost 3,000 years old – recalls it was the site of intense fighting between U.S. troops and Iraqi insurgents, followed by the June 2014 surprise ISIS take over of this and a string of other cities, followed by the near collapse of Iraq’s army.

I was in Mosul in April, 2003, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The city was in chaos, with extensive looting and lawlessness. Many people had set up makeshift barricades outside their neighborhoods to keep out potential troublemakers, and had armed themselves with sticks, shotguns and automatic rifles looted from government arsenals.

The atmosphere then was dark and threatening. As we drove down one of the main roads, a man cradling an AK-47 pointed at me, then drew his thumb across his neck.

When Mosul fell into the hands of ISIS two years ago, it entered that same twilight zone where those outside can only find out what’s happening inside from those who flee, or through the kaleidoscope of ISIS propaganda, which portrays a city prosperous and happy, basking in the sun of the so-called Islamic State’s self-declared Caliphate.

ISIS rule coming to an end?

Now the days of ISIS rule appear numbered. In just over a year, Iraq has driven ISIS out of Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah. Now Iraq’s military and the U.S.-led coalition is preparing for what’s expected to be the “mother of all battles” in the war against ISIS in Iraq: The liberation of Mosul.

Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city and the largest controlled by the extremist group.

I recently traveled with Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid Al-Ubaidi, a Mosul native, to the plains south of the city, to the village of Mahana, only liberated from ISIS two months ago. Many of the houses had been destroyed, while the inhabitants were nowhere to be seen. Thick, black columns of smoke rose from the horizon to the north, fires set by ISIS to obscure the vision of Iraqi and coalition pilots. The loud thuds of an airstrike suggested such Saddam-era tactics weren’t working.

Ubaidi confidently declared the leadership in Baghdad has determined that “2016 will be the year of the liberation of Mosul and the rest of Iraq.”

That’s the plan.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been training and preparing for the final battle. A new “Nineveh Liberation Operations Center” has been set up to coordinate the offensive, complete with dozens of U.S. and British advisers. Nineveh is the province where Mosul is located. A U.S. artillery unit is also providing cover for operations south of Mosul.

Kurdish forces, or Peshmarga, are already dug in to the east, north and west of Mosul, and Iraqi forces are moving slowly from the south. If previous experience is anything to go by, they’ll probably encircle the city, clearing ISIS from the towns and villages around it, before entering the city proper. There they can expect the usual combination of ISIS tactics – snipers, suicide bombers, suicide car bombers and thousands of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

And this week Iraqi forces, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, retook Al-Qayyara air base from ISIS near Mosul, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said. Iraqi officials say they will move the headquarters for the liberation of Mosul to Al-Qayarra, and its airstrip will bring Iraqi and coalition aircraft that much closer to the city.

Not the end of ISIS

Iraqi officials tell me the operation to liberate Mosul began in March, and will pick up pace in the coming months. One suspects U.S. President Barack Obama would also like to see mission accomplished before he leaves office.

Driving ISIS out of Mosul isn’t the end of the group, however. It’s learning the hard way that its territorial fetish comes at a very high price. Its movements are closely watched by drones, satellites and aircraft. Its communications are vulnerable to snooping. Its ability to generate income from oil is increasingly limited.

Thousands of coalition and Iraqi airstrikes have been punishing. ISIS leaders are in hiding and on the run – the trappings of independence and statehood too costly to maintain. All militate toward ISIS indulging in its other fetish: the wanton spilling of innocent blood. The attacks on Istanbul’s airport and a major shopping area in Baghdad, the latest, and probably not the last, examples of that.

Ramadan: A month of ISIS terror

That the battle for Mosul will be bloody, costly and protracted is predictable. Equally predictable will be the suffering, yet again, of the civilian population.

In better days Mosul’s population was around two million, but now it’s probably down to 700,000. The population of Mosul is predominantly Sunni Arab. Almost off of the city’s minorities – Kurds, Christians, Yezidis, Shiite – left when ISIS took over.

Why Falluja was not Shias versus Sunnis but Iraqis versus ISIS

They have been thrown to the four corners of Iraq, and beyond. A year ago I visited a school in Baghdad that now houses refugees from Mosul. There I met Iraqi army veteran Louay Shawkat. Sitting in his wheelchair, he told me the chances he would ever return home after all he had been through were, “one in a hundred, one in a million.”

He had seen ISIS up close and personal. “It’s an illness,” he said. “It’s impossible to cure. Cancer can be cured, tuberculosis can be cured, almost every illness can be cured, but not this one.” He told me he’s trying to leave Iraq once and for all.

Louay and hundreds of thousands like him fled Mosul in June 2014, but others welcomed ISIS as a replacement for the often-heavy hand of the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government. That welcome has almost certainly gone cold, but those who remain will be wary of either Kurdish forces or Iraqi soldiers or paramilitaries, a majority of whom are Shia, entering the city.

Human catastrophe

And then there’s the humanitarian dimension. The Iraqi authorities and local and international NGOs have been overwhelmed by the flood of people fleeing Falluja, a much smaller city than Mosul. We saw hundreds stranded in the desert outside the city in hastily set-up makeshifts camps. Many had been sleeping for days in the rough, in an area where daytime temperatures top 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit). Water, shelter and medical care are in short supply.

What future for Iraq’s tormented refugees?

If this is the aftermath of Falluja, I asked the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Karl Schembri in one of those camps, how will it be dealing with as many as 700,000 people escaping the fighting in Mosul?

“It’s going to be a catastrophe,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation. With all the focus on the battle, he said, those in power are ignoring the civilians caught in the middle.

“You can’t fight ISIS and then abandon these people,” he said. “These are children, the elderly, displaced with nothing. You can’t have war without providing for the civilians you are liberating. It’s just shameful.”

The long, sad future of Falluja

The “beneficiaries” of the liberation of Falluja are wondering what happened to all the pledges of help officials in Baghdad made before that battle.

“Are we criminals?” demanded a man who identified himself only as Muhammad. He and around 200 others had been huddling for days in the shade in front of a mosque in one of the camps. He regularly brushed sand from his eyes. “You,” he said, addressing the government, “couldn’t protect us from ISIS, and now you’re crushing us!”

Alas, this is the story of Iraq in recent years. Almost all attention, resources, and media focus is on the battle. The day after is an afterthought. It happened after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and it’s happening again today. War followed by chaos, followed by war, followed by chaos.

Maqdisi’s Mosul of prosperity and tranquility seems like a very old footnote.