BAGHDAD — Soldiers cheered and honked the horns of their Humvees as their convoy rolled north on the highway out of Baghdad. One filmed the procession on his phone to mark the event: The Iraqi military was getting ready to return to Mosul. “I’m higher than the palm trees,” another soldier said.
The Iraqi military surrendered Mosul to ISIS in June 2014, leaving behind its US-supplied weapons and setting the stage for the declaration of ISIS’s caliphate. Now the same Iraqi military, reinforced with more than two years of US training and aid, is beginning a massive offensive to win the city back. Kurdish forces will soon initiate attacks on outlying villages as part of the offensive — and Iraqi troops, who will be the primary force in the offensive, will follow suit.
Prime Minister Haber Haider al-Abadi took to Iraqi television in the early hours of Monday morning to announce the long-awaited operation's beginning. "The time of victory has come and operations to liberate Mosul have started," he said. "Today I declare the start of these victorious operations to free you from the violence and terrorism of [ISIS]."
The stakes for all sides are high. For ISIS, Mosul is the most populous and important city it holds. ISIS was the first modern terrorist group to control its own state — and losing Mosul would set the stage for that state’s demise. For the Iraqi government, retaking Mosul is crucial to rebuilding the country. And the Mosul offensive will be the capstone of a long and expensive US effort against ISIS that has seen it arm and train local forces, launch thousands of airstrikes, and send US troops to the front lines.
The offensive is also critical for an Iraqi military still trying to bounce back from 2014’s historic collapse — and the fate of the battle will rest with its soldiers. The start of the offensive raises a pressing question: Can the same military that lost Mosul to ISIS win it back?
Iraqi and US military planners will lead with their best shot. The troops in the convoy were members of Iraq’s elite special forces units, which have been the most effective forces in battling the militants in their Sunni Arab strongholds. Known as the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) — as well as Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Forces, Iraqi Special Operations Forces, or simply the Golden Division — they were founded by the US military after its invasion of Iraq in 2003. The CTS went on to become a key US partner during the occupation, helping to fight ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, as well as Shiite militia. Many of its members were trained by US troops and are quick to recount fighting alongside them.
In the war on ISIS, the CTS has led the way with key victories across the country. Its reward will be an exhaustive deployment in the largest battle against ISIS to date. “This is the final battle. This is to be or not to be,” said Sabah Noori, a spokesman for Iraqi special forces in Baghdad. “The future of Iraq is at stake in Mosul. And we will be in the front.”
The convoy’s drive north from Baghdad this week, to a makeshift base some 30 miles outside Mosul, stretched for 300 miles through war-scorched terrain. Towns and villages along the roadside had been reduced to rubble by the grueling campaign to roll back ISIS, and many still stood empty many months after being reclaimed. Toppled electric towers, destroyed homes, and car frames twisted from airstrikes were all common sights.
Humvees in the long convoy bore signs of the long struggle too — almost all had indents from gunshots in their bulletproof glass. Gas tankers, armed personnel carriers, supply trucks, and transport buses, painted in the CTS’s trademark black, filled out the procession.
The vehicles arrived throughout the night in an abandoned village, and the troops scrambled to arrange their makeshift base. “One day I will be proud that I participated in the start of this offensive,” said one of the CTS’s top commanders, Maj. Salam Hussein, standing on a rooftop and looking out toward Mosul. “Right now we have a job to do.”
When the battle for Mosul begins, US fighter pilots will be flying over a uniquely modern field of war. On one side will be ISIS’s multinational militant army, with its squadrons of suicide bombers and fleets of armor-plated truck bombs. On the other, the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga, and Sunni Arab tribesmen will be advancing with small groups of US commandos among their ranks, as uniformed US soldiers may cover their advances with heavy artillery. Shiite militia fighters, who are sanctioned by the Iraqi government and have worked in the past with advisers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, will be working in coordination with these US-backed forces.
Spurred by the shock of Mosul’s fall and put together on the fly amid the chaos that followed, often with a reluctant White House getting in the way, the strategy US military planners have created to roll back ISIS will face its most important test in Mosul. This strategy has relied on local forces, supported by US air power and advisers, to do the bulk of the fighting, shifting the burden of executing the war from masses of conventional US soldiers to small and elite units of US commandos who act as a force multiplier. These commandos are embedded with a dizzying array of armed groups — from neo-Marxist Kurdish militia in Syria to Arab tribesmen in Iraq and the peshmerga. They help to coordinate battles as well as arm and train their local allies, while also working in the shadows on select missions to take the fight to ISIS themselves.
If the US-led effort is successful, it will signal the end of ISIS as a land-holding force in Iraq, setting the stage for the isolation and eventual loss of its remaining territory in the country. At the peak of its military surge in the summer of 2014, ISIS controlled as much as 40% of Iraq. That number has shrunk to 10% today, with the bulk of people living under ISIS control concentrated in Mosul, which the Iraqi government estimates to contain at least 1 million civilians. ISIS’s Syrian capital of Raqqa, far smaller with some 200,000 residents, could be won more easily once its supply routes from Iraq are cut.
A defeat in Mosul would also be a defeat for the revolutionary core of the ISIS ideology — the idea of creating a caliphate across the borders of established countries, the promise to let its members live its hardline vision in the here and now, and the call for recruits to create a new world order as they destroy the old. Mosul has been crucial to ISIS’s identity from the start: While in Syria it won its territory from weaker rebel groups, in Mosul it defeated the US-backed Iraqi army. It then paraded the captured US tanks and weapons for its TV cameras and bulldozed the border with Syria. It was at central Mosul’s Grand Mosque that ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself the new global caliph, delivering a call to arms: “Do jihad in the cause of God, incite the believers, and be patient in the face of this hardship.”
Because of the importance of Mosul to ISIS, soldiers and analysts alike expect the militants there to put up a bitter fight. They have been preparing their defenses for more than two years — digging tunnels, planting IEDs, and, recently, filling trenches with oil to burn for cover from airstrikes. “I lean toward a heavy fight,” said Omar Lamrani, a military specialist at the intelligence firm Stratfor, who said that at least 5,000 ISIS fighters remained in the city. “And we’ve seen so much planning — tunnels, mines. I think it will be a significant stand.”
There were two Iraqi military divisions, numbering some 20,000 soldiers, posted in Mosul when ISIS invaded the city with an estimated 1,500 fighters. Most simply panicked and fled — and soldiers who were part of the rout later recounted that phone calls alerting them that the feared militants were coming were enough to get entire units to desert their posts.
The US government suffered a black eye in the defeat too: When the Obama administration decided, in the face of heated domestic objections, to pull US troops from the country in 2011, it argued that the US-trained and -equipped Iraqi military could manage Iraq’s tenuous security situation on its own.
Mosul provides a chance for both sides to right the wrong. And though Iraqi special forces have proven their merit in battling the militants, it is the still-reeling Iraqi military that will have to provide the bulk of the soldiers for the offensive — and hold the ground once it is won.
Key to that mission is the Iraqi army’s 15th Division, which was built from scratch with the help of the US military and its allies in the aftermath of Mosul. Many of its soldiers and officers were part of the divisions that collapsed in Mosul — and eager for redemption, said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has embedded with local forces around the country. “Their story was we want to get back there and we’re feeling a bit of shame,” he said. “The guys who ran away are coming back.”
Shaping operations to set the stage for the offensive has been underway for months. From here, the offensive will likely play out in two stages. First, anti-ISIS forces are expected to advance toward the city and attempt to encircle it. Next would be the push into the city itself. “The main assault [of the first phase] is to happen west of the Tigris heading up north toward the mountains overlooking Mosul,” Lamrani said. “This will be the main thrust and spearheaded by 25,000 Iraqi military and CTS and supported by tribal militia. And peshmerga would attack at the same time. At the end of that we’ll get to the point where Mosul is surrounded on all sides.”
US planners would likely seek to leave a small opening toward Syria “in the hope that ISIS fighters take that gap and flee because they would rather fight them in the open rather than in the city, especially in Mosul, where they have high-density civilian areas,” Lamrani said.
As CTS troops readied for the offensive at their base 3o miles outside Mosul, a senior officer with a long history of fighting ISIS cautioned against trying to predict how the battle with the extremists would play out. “You’re operating in an environment where your enemy is ready to do anything. Not just die — when I say ready to do anything, I mean he is ready to put civilians in danger to the furthest extent that he can.”
An official with the Kurdistan Regional Government likewise cautioned that it could be a difficult and unpredictable fight. “We are expecting up to six months of house-to-house fighting,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t permitted to share this internal assessment. “It’s going to be a long, long battle.”
Just as crucial to winning the battle for Mosul will be the way that it is carried out.
Aid groups have been sounding the alarm about a looming humanitarian disaster due to the civilians packed into the city. Shiite militia, which have faced accusations of committing crimes against Sunni civilians, have also vowed to push into Sunni-dominated Mosul, despite US objections, as part of the assault. The way those civilians are treated — and the way the assault on their home city plays out — will have a big effect on how they see the government that comes next. “This is probably the one time that Mosul will greet Americans with flowers and candy as they had predicted back in 2003,” said Rasha Al Aqeedi, a Mosul native and analyst at the Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai. “I do believe that at this point that [Mosul residents] are so desperate they just want anyone to liberate them. They just don’t want the city to be completely ruined, and they want to survive it.”