U.S. commanders pressing for an attack on Mosul perhaps as early as this spring may be underestimating the importance of the city to its Islamic State occupiers, who are likely to put up a huge fight to retain their control, experts who’ve studied the extremist organization say.
Iraqi officials have been resisting what a U.S. Central Command briefer said last week were plans for the assault to begin in April or May and involve an Iraqi force of about 25,000.
“The mark on the wall that we are still shooting for is the April-May time frame,” the Centcom official, who spoke only anonymously under the conditions of the briefing, said in a conference call last Thursday. “As we dialogue with our Iraqi counterparts, we want them to go in that time frame, because as you get into Ramadan and the summer and the heat, it becomes problematic if it goes much later than that.”
In televised comments that aired Tuesday night in Baghdad, Iraq’s defense minister, Khaled Obeidi, blasted the briefer, saying it was irresponsible to alert the enemy to possible plans and that the decision on the timing of such an operation would be made by Iraqi officials in Iraq, not American officials in the United States.
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“A military official should not disclose the date and time of an attack,” Obeidi said. “The timing is up to (Iraqi) military commanders. Where this American official got his information from, I don’t know.”
But another aspect of the Centcom briefing has raised concerns among analysts experienced with the Islamic State and its tactics and motivations: the briefer’s assertion that Mosul’s defense is in the hands of only 1,000 to 2,000 Islamic State fighters. That number underestimates how crucial Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is to the Islamic State’s key goal: building a caliphate that erases long-established borders and attracts the support of Muslims from throughout the world.
“The conquest of Mosul marked the beginning of the formation of major contiguous territory spanning the Iraq-Syria borders,” said Aymenn al Tamimi, an expert on the Islamic State who’s with the Middle East Forum, a U.S.-based research center. “The capture of Mosul was undoubtedly the main factor that led to the caliphate declaration.”
After Mosul fell June 10, the Islamic State moved quickly to establish itself as something other than a rogue armed group lashing out at governments it disliked. Less than three weeks after overrunning Mosul, the group announced the establishment of the caliphate and declared its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the caliph.
Baghdadi “is the imam and caliph for Muslims everywhere,” the group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, said in an online statement June 29. To reinforce the notion that international boundaries would no longer be recognized, the group released a video clip, titled “Breaking the Borders,” of its fighters dismantling the border between Iraq and Syria.
Six days later, Baghdadi himself underscored the importance of Mosul to the Islamic State by preaching from the pulpit, or minbar, of the city’s Great Nuriddin Mosque, whose history dates to 1142. It was his first – and last – public appearance.
“God gave your mujahedeen brothers victory after long years of jihad and patience . . . so they declared the caliphate and placed the caliph in charge,” Baghdadi said then. “This is a duty on Muslims that has been lost for centuries.”
With the legitimacy of the group’s cross-border claim of authority at stake, analysts said they found it unlikely that the Islamic State would easily give up control of Mosul or dedicate such a small force to protecting it. Many hundreds of Islamic State troops were committed to the failed effort to capture Kobani, a far less important city on the Syria-Turkey border, and Kurdish forces only 12 miles from Mosul report near-daily attacks by hundreds of Islamic State troops.
“The idea that ISIS will vacate Mosul without a substantial fight is almost laughable,” J.M. Berger, an expert on the Islamic State who’s affiliated with the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, said in an email. “The timing of the caliphate announcement with the capture of Mosul connects the credibility of the former to their ability to hold the latter in a pretty big way. The caliphate announcement was a clear signal they don’t intend to melt away into the hills.”
Adding to Mosul’s importance is its years-long role as the primary source of financial support for the Islamic State, dating to its predecessor group, al Qaida in Iraq. Records that U.S. forces captured from al Qaida in Iraq show that Mosul has long been the extremists’ primary source of cash.
“The loss of Mosul would readily bring into question IS’ viability as a long-term project,” said Tamimi. “Mosul is the largest city in Iraq to fall under IS control and was its main financial hub for many years. Its status for IS cannot be overstated. In contrast, places like Tikrit are largely ghost towns now.”
Still, some analysts say the Islamic State would likely survive the loss of Mosul. Despite the city’s military and economic importance, the Islamic State’s current supporters would be unlikely to lose faith if Mosul fell back into government hands, said Will McCants, a former U.S. counterterrorism official now at Johns Hopkins University.
“Losing Mosul would be a major military blow to the Islamic State, but it will not dent its claim to be the caliphate reborn in the eyes of its jihadist supporters,” McCants said. “The capital of the historical caliphate moved around from time to time, so losing a capital does not Islamically damage the group’s legitimacy.”
Tamimi and McCants doubt that the group will give up the city without a major fight, and they think the Islamic State is likely to commit much of its 30,000-man force to the fight.
“There’s no question Mosul is important to them,” said McCants.
Adding to concerns that U.S. planners are underestimating the size of the force that will be fielded to defend Mosul are worries that they’re overestimating how many Iraqi government troops will be ready for such an attack.
Kurdish military officials are openly skeptical that the Iraqi army, which was decimated by desertions in June as a much smaller Islamic State force overran Mosul and has suffered heavy casualties since, can provide the manpower that the Centcom briefer said would be available for a campaign to retake the city in a matter of weeks. They also say that an assault on Mosul primarily by Shiite Muslim militias, which are trained and equipped by Iran, would likely deepen Sunni Muslim support for the Islamic State.
All those concerns are being taken into account, the Centcom briefer said, and planners are open to the possibility that an assault on Mosul won’t happen till the fall.
“If they’re not ready, if the conditions are not set, if all the equipment they need is not physically there and they are trained to a degree to which they will be successful, we have not closed the door on continuing to slide (timing) to the right,” he said.