East Mosul Has All But Fallen
Editor's Note: The operation to recapture the key northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State is now underway. Attempts to build up the necessary forces and pave the way for the attack have taken more than a year. The operation is expected to go on for months, if all goes according to plan. What we are seeing now is the initial advance onto the city itself, which will be followed by the fight to actually penetrate the Islamic State's defenses. Arguably the most important aspect of the operation is what happens after the city falls. Mosul fits into our overall coverage of the Iraq-Syria battlespace, but because of the size and nature of the combined operation, we will track it independently in this space.
Jan. 18: East Mosul Has All But Fallen
Mosul is falling steadily into the hands of Iraqi government forces. Now, three months into the offensive, the military has pushed the Islamic State out of an estimated 95 percent of the eastern portion of the city. Progress in the east is critical. Once in control of the eastern banks of the Tigris River — which bisects Mosul — anti-Islamic State forces can turn to concentrate on the west.
The gains followed an Iraqi Ministry of Defense decision to reinforce the eastern front, with a particular focus on the southeast. On Jan. 14, Iraqi forces recaptured the University of Mosul, once one of the main Islamic State headquarters in the city. Troops now also control all five of the severed bridges that connect the two halves of the city. Because of the minimal damage to these bridges, the military can now use temporary replacements to move across the Tigris, although the Islamic State may bomb these bridges as well to disrupt travel. In fact, the Islamic State already did so when they recently bombed the oldest bridge. On Jan. 18, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and military commanders said that troops have nearly cleared the eastern districts. Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati of the counterterrorism forces even declared the mission in the east essentially accomplished. Still, skirmishes in the northeast continue.
With a firm footing, the army can remain behind to maintain control of the east. The armed forces will concentrate on rebuilding infrastructure and accommodating the return of displaced residents. The Iraqi government hopes to bring as many of these civilians back as possible to ease the burden on overflowing government camps.
Meanwhile, Iraqi special operations forces will be tasked with retaking the five neighborhoods in the west from deeply entrenched Islamic State fighters. This half of the city is the oldest section, with narrow streets and high population density. It will become increasingly hard for Iraqi forces to minimize civilian casualties. At the same time, Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces will continue their task of clearing villages further west between Mosul and Tal Afar. After they have pushed Islamic State fighters out, they do not plan to continue into the city itself.
On the regional level, Saudi Arabia announced early this week that it would establish a new subset of its anti-terrorism coalition to help with operations to retake Mosul and the de facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa. Riyadh established the coalition in December 2015 to combat regional instability (namely the Islamic State), but it has suffered from a lack of active participation by its ostensible members. The Iraqi prime minister welcomed the move, but said that Iraq does not need more military aid and instead requires assistance to rebuild infrastructure around Mosul and resettle civilians. Before it fell to the Islamic State, Mosul was home to some 2.4 million people and now only 750,000 remain. Reconstructing the city following this drain will require massive efforts and political balancing.
Jan. 10: Iraqi Troops Reach Banks of Tigris in Mosul
Three months after their offensive into Mosul began, Iraqi forces have reached the banks of the Tigris River inside the city limits. Their push into the Islamic State-held city has been aided by a reinforcement effort and the increased involvement by Iraqi federal police forces. In addition, coalition airstrikes that severed bridges over the Tigris have prevented Islamic State forces in the western half of the city from resupplying or reinforcing their fighters in the eastern portion of the city or evacuating their casualties. More than half of the city's eastern side has been cleared of Islamic State occupation.
As more neighborhoods on the city's east side are cleared, Iraqi forces will be able to set up a secure zone in preparation for the return of civilians who fled the fighting. A relative few have trickled back into the city, but of the more than 133,000 who have fled since the operation began, many remain in temporary camps for internally displaced persons.
As troops fight on in Mosul's east, Iraqi federal police in the south are holding positions about 3 kilometers from Mosul's airport. From there, they appear ready to focus more on supporting counterterrorism forces in Mosul's east than advancing further toward the facility. The forces that were designated to lead the advance toward the airport have been drawn away by other fighting. For example the Iraqi army's 15th division was pulled into a battle at Tal Afar, west of Mosul. Also to the west of Mosul, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces are working to capture villages in western Nineveh province.
Because of difficulties on the east side of Mosul, the Islamic State has intensified its campaign of terrorist attacks elsewhere in Iraq in an effort to divert resources away from the battle, including a spate of car bomb attacks in Baghdad.
On the political front, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim provided reassurances during meetings over the weekend that once the Mosul operation was over, Turkey would be open to withdrawing its forces stationed in a base in the nearby town of Bashiqa. Turkey will remain focused on the threat from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, however, which will ensure a Turkish military presence in the country even after the Mosul fight ends.
Dec. 28: Mosul Offensive Operations Set To Resume
December has brought a period of relative stagnation in the push to retake Mosul as offensive operations by Iraqi security forces and their allies went through what is being called "operational refit." After stopping the push, rethinking the battle plan and repositioning forces, U.S. commanders now say that the advance is expected to resume in the next few days. New Iraqi units have been moved to the front line in eastern Mosul and officials have said that U.S. forces will be shifting their role, partly by embedding with these front-line units. With these troops in place, the coalition hopes to force a more rapid advance through urban areas in Mosul.
But Islamic State fighters have not been waiting idly, instead mounting counterattacks against Iraqi security forces. The latest attempts took place early Dec. 28 when over 100 Islamic State fighters launched an attack in Bawizah just north of Mosul. During the attack, an Islamic State suicide car bomb reportedly destroyed a Humvee and heavy bulldozer used by the Iraqi army.
Islamic State fighters have also responded to the news of closer collaboration between U.S. forces and the Iraqi military. They are hoping the increasing presence of U.S. troops in Mosul will provide opportunities for them to target these forces within the urban terrain. U.S. commanders, however, still describe the threat to their troops as "moderate" even when operating in Mosul proper.
Officials have not released the precise details of how the role of U.S. forces will change, but statements suggest that it will involve embedding personnel in Iraqi units closer to the front line. Their role will still be advisory in nature and they will focus on synchronizing intelligence, combat arms support and the movement of forces. By locating its personnel closer to the action, the U.S. military hope to have a more direct impact on the course of battle and provide a layer of command and control that the Iraqi military may not be capable of performing as effectively.
From the air, U.S. forces have also continued their efforts to prepare the battlefield, and have struck the last operational bridge in Mosul. On Dec. 27, photographs showed that the "Old Bridge" had been struck by an airstrike, leaving the two sides of Mosul completely disconnected by road. Initially the Old Bridge had not been targeted, while the other four had. The Iraqi government had vehemently opposed striking the Old Bridge for its historical value. The shift is a testament to how serious Washington and Baghdad have become about the renewed efforts in Mosul.
Dec. 16: Anti-Islamic State Forces Concentrate On East Mosul
The Iraqi government’s offensive to retake Mosul from the Islamic State has dragged on for two months, slowed by the massive resistance put up by militants holding out in the city’s neighborhoods. Time is not on the Islamic State's side, but Baghdad’s fight to control Mosul will not be easily won. Even so, the situation is growing desperate for the Islamic State in Iraq. The militants are now completely surrounded and cut off from their core leadership in Syria. The combat will likely intensify in Mosul since Islamic State fighters now know there is little hope for victory or escape, and that they are probably facing death or capture.
Iraqi federal police representative Lt. Gen. Raed Shakir Jawdat said Dec. 12 that he sent three police brigades to join the three Iraqi counterterrorism brigades in the east of the city. These police units were initially meant to advance from the southwest toward the airport. Sending them to the east of the city will help reinforce troops already stationed there to evacuate civilians and to continue clearing the city of the Islamic State. To the south of Mosul, Iraqi federal police are about 5 kilometers (3 miles) away from the Mosul airport. It seems that they will hold their positions and turn their attention to helping Iraqi counterterrorism forces in the east.
Since the start of the operation, more than 103,000 civilians have fled the warzone for temporary internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps. However, the situation in these camps is deteriorating as the weather grows colder and the dearth of humanitarian assistance takes its toll. Even though most civilians in Mosul are reportedly hunkering down and staying put in the city, a substantial number are still leaving. This is the first time the Iraqi government has dealt with so many IDPs, making it harder for officials to formulate an effective solution. To make matters worse, Iraqi forces have been working to move more civilians out of the city safely, but the Islamic State has slowed their progress by deliberately targeting civilians and Iraqi forces with car bombs. In an unconfirmed report, the Islamic State has also ordered the transfer of local fighters off of Mosul's front lines and has replaced them with foreign fighters because some locals were allowing civilians to flee.
In Mosul, all of the bridges that connect the eastern and western edges of the city have long since been destroyed by coalition airstrikes, severing Islamic State supply lines and reducing the militant group’s ability to reinforce the eastern side of the city. Coalition forces issued a statement earlier this week saying that although the U.S.-led coalition had carried out the airstrikes, the Iraqi government had requested them.
From the west, Shiite-led Popular Mobilization Forces are still working to retake villages in western Nineveh province. A few days ago they captured Tel Abth district, home to almost 50,000 people and one of the main districts the Islamic State uses in transiting supplies and reinforcements from Syria.
Several diplomatic developments have occurred in Iraq as well with regard to Turkey, a key power in the region. Earlier this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi spoke on the phone to Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim about bilateral cooperation and the Turkish military presence at camp Bashiqa, near Mosul. Though Yildirim assured al-Abadi that Turkish forces have no interest in staying in camp Bashiqa after the Mosul operation is over, this could simply be rhetoric that shifts once the circumstances on the battlefield change.
Nov. 22: Anti-Islamic State Forces Build on Mosul Gains
Five weeks into the offensive to retake Mosul, anti-Islamic State forces inside the city are advancing slowly from their recently established footholds. Since the start of the operation, over 68,000 civilians have fled the fighting for temporary camps. In the east of Mosul, Iraqi special operations forces are pushing further into the city while trying to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage. Reports indicate that coalition airstrikes destroyed the bridge known locally as Fourth Bridge, leaving the city with only two working bridges. According to the commander of Iraqi counterterrorism forces, the next stage of fighting should be easier as troops move into neighborhoods with wider roads and larger houses with support from the areas they have captured.
To the south, Iraqi federal police are still in place about 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) from the Mosul Airport, waiting for approval to mount an assault. According to the police commander, the units in place have focused on repairing infrastructure in the Hammam al-Alil district.
Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces are still fighting toward the town of Tal Afar in the west. On Nov. 22, they managed to take control of over 25 kilometers and four villages. They are now about 2 kilometers away from the main road between Tal Afar and Sinjar — a key Islamic State supply line into Syria. This weekend, Popular Mobilization Forces announced that Tal Afar airport is under their control and said that the airport will serve as their headquarters as they move into the town.
However, the Islamic State has also been retaliating. Over the weekend, militants attacked three different towns in Anbar province shortly after the Popular Mobilization Forces announced they had captured Tal Afar airport. The Islamic State failed to retake the towns it attacked but they were able to inflict casualties on Iraqi forces.
Nov. 16: Inching Ever Closer in Mosul
It has now been a month since the start of the offensive to retake Mosul from the Islamic State. After weeks of rapid gains, Iraqi forces have slowed to a crawl as they try to take parts of the city without causing massive civilian casualties or unacceptable collateral damage.
In the east of Mosul, Iraqi special operations forces have taken at least six neighborhoods. However, their foothold has been expanding slowly in the face of intense resistance by remaining Islamic State militants. Much of the combat has required security forces to proceed house by house while being harried by militant snipers and car bombs. The Islamic State has also deliberately allowed troops into certain neighborhoods as a way of trapping them.
Outside the city, Iraqi troops have pushed forward from the northeast and are now only 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) from the edge of the city. In this same area, Iraqi forces supported by Nineveh guards have surrounded Telkaif district. According to the commander of the Iraqi army's 16th division, troops should enter the district in a couple of days.
From the south, Iraqi federal police have been pushing ever closer to Mosul Airport and are now only 3 kilometers away. These units are waiting for approval to begin the assault on the airport, which will begin in the next few days according to the police commander.
From the west, Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU) have also made major gains around Tal Afar, which is 63 kilometers to the west of Mosul. In the last 48 hours they have captured over 27 square kilometers of territory and six villages. And, on Nov. 16, they closed in on Tal Afar's airport just south of the city after several days of battle.
Seizing the airport would be of great strategic importance — it is one of Iraq's main military air bases, will help safeguard the Syrian border and support the Mosul offensive. However, even if the airport is successfully taken, it will not be able to be a staging point for air operations without significant repairs to undo Islamic State sabotage of the runway and infrastructure. In the interim, the airport's position just 9 kilometers from Tal Afar will enable the PMUs to use it as a point from which to conduct the offensive to retake the town.
Nov. 7: Closing in on Mosul From All Sides
Three weeks after the operation to retake Mosul from the Islamic State began, Iraqi forces have seized significant swaths of territory from the jihadist group. So far, however, only forces advancing from the east have reached the outer districts of the city. In a glimpse of the heavy fighting to come, those troops encountered mounting resistance from the Islamic State, which has made good use of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices to hinder further progress. The Iraqi forces have been slowed by the need to painstakingly clear houses and routes of bombs and traps, and also by the increased risk to civilians as forward elements approach more populated areas of the city.
Meanwhile, Kurdish peshmerga fighters advancing from the northeast launched an offensive against the district of Bashiqa early on Nov. 7. After several hours of fighting they gained control of the district and are now working to clear Bashiqa's houses and streets of any explosives the Islamic State may have left behind.
To the south, Iraqi federal police and Popular Mobilization Forces reclaimed Hammam al-Ali on Nov. 6. According to the federal police commander, Iraqi troops have built a floating bridge to help move reinforcements and supplies from Qayyarah air base to the front lines around Mosul. As of now, the federal police are only 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) away from the city's airport and are preparing to assault it. However, overrunning this fortified position will be not be easy, thanks to the defensive line the Islamic State has set up there.
The Popular Mobilization Forces are making notable progress from the west as well. In just 10 days, they succeeded in clearing over 2,000 square kilometers of terrain and seized over 65 villages near Tal Afar. The fighters are now only 10 kilometers from the district and are poised to strike at it and its airport.
The Islamic State, however, will not go down without a fight. On Nov. 6, a raiding party conducted a suicide attack against a group of Iranian pilgrims in Samarra, killing 24 people and wounding over 130 more. In response, the chief of Iran's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization announced that Tehran has banned its citizens from traveling to Samarra, despite the city's religious significance to Shiite pilgrims and its economy's reliance on religious tourism.
Nov. 2: Digging In on Mosul's Outskirts
The advance on Mosul is now 17 days in and Iraqi forces have reached the outskirts of the city. After fierce fighting through the district of Godjali, Iraqi military units entered the eastern edge of Mosul on Nov. 1. For the past day, they have dug in and secured the area, taking control of the city's TV station in the Karama neighborhood. They have also largely cleared nearby al-Kadra, though skirmishes are ongoing with Islamic State holdouts.
Iraqi armed forces backed by Kurdish peshmerga are still advancing toward the city from the northeast and are now around 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the city after having cleared Shalalat district and the village of Tal Aliabis. To the south of Mosul, Iraqi federal police and Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces managed to liberate 18 villages in the past 48 hours. In a statement, the head of the federal police said that his units are now only 6 kilometers away from the town center of Hammam al-Alil — the last major Islamic State stronghold south of the city — and that they would likely take the town in the coming days. This puts them 16 kilometers from Mosul airport, which is located on the southwestern outskirts of the city. If Hammam al-Alil falls, the Iraqi military will be able to bring in more reinforcements. It would also provide easier access to Qayyarah air base, where U.S. special operations forces are stationed.
Other Popular Mobilization Forces are moving in from the southwest. These units captured over 100 square kilometers of territory and five villages Nov. 2. Most important, they managed to take the main road between Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. This will make it more difficult for the Islamic State to bring in supplies and fighters from this portion of its territory. The destination for these Popular Mobilization Forces is the town of Tal Afar. Taking Tal Afar from the Islamic State will be a challenge. But the occupation will be equally risky, especially if the Shiite militias clash with local ethnic Turkmen, who have strong ties to Ankara. Turkey has been pushing to get involved in the Mosul offensive and has threatened to jump in if Turkmens come under threat.
Ankara is still squaring off with Baghdad in the diplomatic realm as it seeks a way to enter the fray in Mosul alongside other forces. The Turkish military sent more tanks to the Turkish side of the border Nov. 1, reinforcing the 28th Mechanized Infantry Brigade. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned Turkey not to enter Iraqi territory in his weekly press conference on Nov. 1. He added that although Iraq does not want war, a Turkish intervention would provoke an Iraqi response. For now, Turkey is out of the advance on Mosul but its Sunni tribal forces, the Nineveh Guard, are stationed east of the city under the auspices of the peshmerga and Iraqi military.
Oct. 31: Iraqi Forces Are on Mosul's Doorstep
On Oct. 31, the 15th day of their campaign to reclaim Mosul from its Islamic State occupiers, Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters continue to press forward. Troops advancing from the east are expected to enter the city's limits within the next couple of days. Since Oct. 28, the combined forces, with help from the U.S.-led coalition, have captured 12 additional villages east of Mosul, bringing Iraqi troops less than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the city. In all, the forces say they have reclaimed up to 1,400 square kilometers (about 540 square miles) of territory since the offensive began.
To the northeast of Mosul, peshmerga and U.S. coalition forces have been shelling the fully encircled city of Bashiqa ahead of entering it. In the north, the 15th Iraqi army division, backed by the Nineveh guard, is still trying to take Telkaif. The forces have surrounded the town, captured its gas plant and freed three villages in the area.
South of Mosul, Iraqi federal police are on the outskirts of Hammam al-Alil on the Tigris River. Iraqi news outlets have reported that Islamic State fighters have been taking civilians from Hammam al-Alil to Mosul for use as human shields. According to the International Organization for Migration and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, since the start of the operation to recapture Mosul, about 17,500 people have escaped from Islamic State-controlled areas and are now in camps for displaced persons. The number of people fleeing areas held by the militant group is increasing as Iraqi forces get closer to Mosul.
About 80 kilometers west of the city, Iraq Popular Mobilization Forces are working to surround the strategically important town of Tal Afar. So far, they have focused on cutting off the road that the Islamic State uses as a supply route from Raqqa to Mosul. Because Tal Afar has a substantial Turkmen population, and because Turkey would like to block the advance of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, Ankara has said it will be sending forces to the town. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also said on Oct. 31 that additional Turkish troops would be sent to reinforce the Iraq-Turkey border. His announcement came a day after Turkey declared its intention to intervene in the battle — despite the continuing lack of an agreement to do so with the forces fighting it — if there are any reports of violence or discrimination against Iraq's ethnic Turkmen population by the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Away from Mosul, the Islamic State continues to pursue its strategy of launching attacks as distractions. On Oct. 29, Iraqi security forces foiled the group's assault on the city of Ramadi, about 100 kilometers west of Baghdad. According to an Iraqi security official, 11 Islamic State fighters were arrested in the operation.
Oct. 27: Homing in on Mosul
On the 11th day of the operation to retake Mosul, Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga units continued their advance. To date, anti-Islamic State forces have recaptured 1,200 square kilometers (746 square miles) and around 80 villages. U.N. agencies indicate that over 10,000 people have escaped to internally displaced persons camps from Islamic State-controlled areas, and this number will rapidly increase as Iraqi forces close in on Mosul and enter the city.
The advance is proceeding apace. Iraqi special operations forces are now 5 kilometers east of the city, the closest they have been since 2014. From the west, Iraqi federal police and Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces are pushing to retake the strategically important town of Tal Afar to cut the Islamic State's supply line from Syria. The 15th Iraqi army division and Nineveh Guard are still engaged in their push to recapture the town of Telkaif, about 6 kilometers north of Mosul. Peshmerga units have surrounded the town of Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul, have cleared Islamic State militants from most of the nearby villages, and are currently advancing. They have taken control of the Telkaif natural gas plant and surrounded the entire district but are waiting to enter. Southwest of Mosul, the runway at Qayyarah military base, which Iraqi forces recaptured July 9, has been repaired by U.S. and Iraqi military engineering units. Repairs are also in progress on the rest of the base's infrastructure, which the Islamic State destroyed while retreating from Iraqi forces.
But the Islamic State has been hitting back. On Oct. 23, Islamic State forces launched a counteroffensive in the town of Rutba in western Anbar province. According to an Iraqi security commander, about 30 militants launched a surprise attack on the town from three sides, and the mayor of Rutba district has requested more military reinforcements in case of further action. The attack came on the heels of a strike on Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk. Both attacks are meant to divert the attention of the Iraqi forces advancing on Mosul.
At the political level, Baghdad and Ankara are still engaged in a back-and-forth over Turkey's potential role in the Mosul offensive. Though Turkish military personnel have been stationed in Bashiqa since March 2015 and were reinforced in December 2015, their deployment has been controversial. On Oct. 26, Ankara said that it may send more troops to Bashiqa camp despite Baghdad's opposition, a move that could inflame tensions between the two governments. At the same time, Turkey threatened to impose security measures if Popular Mobilization Forces enter the town of Tal Afar, which is dominated by ethnic Turkmen with ties to Turkey. The push by Popular Mobilization Forces to take the town is made even more controversial by the fact that the Iran-aligned Asaib Ahl al-Haq will lead it. Given Turkey's already fraught relationship with the Iraqi government and its stakes in the battle, further political tensions are likely.