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The Politics of the Battle for Mosul

The battle for Mosul is as much a political endeavor as its post-conflict status will be. The entire venture pivots on the trust between the allied factions: the Kurds, the Christians, the Yazidis, and the Iraqi army which has its own Shia-Sunni divisions—not to mention the Turks hovering on the horizon threatening to join the hunt. For the ground war to work the factions need to believe that they share a common goal for the long-term future of Mosul. That's a tall order because the major players have divergent, even opposing, agendas.

I was in Iraq five times for various stretches, up to and beyond the Surge, reporting mostly for the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages. At first, I spent a good deal of time with the Turkmen in the north and on the Syria border and then often with Ahmad Chalabi around Baghdad.

Though it wasn’t altogether clear that coalition forces recognized the danger, it seemed readily apparent from the outset that ethnic-sectarian rivalry and disunity could upset things completely. Early on, the Kurds took Kirkuk, which the Turkmen revered as their own historical capital in Iraq. Then they went after Mosul, a largely Sunni Arab city, and occupied it for several months, continuously patrolling the streets in armored vehicles. Eventually the Sunni Arabs threw them out violently and let in Al Qaeda elements.

No surprise then that almost a decade later ISIS found a home in Mosul. But as I wrote at the time, the 30,000-plus Iraqi army's collapse in the face of some 7,000 ISIS forces (an overestimate in my view) seemed thoroughly odd. In the column, I noted the dubious circumstances such as highly premature orders of withdrawal from Iraqi army Brigade HQ. I cited the 'Chechnya' scenario in which extreme jihadis were allowed in with a view to justifying Grozny's total obliteration and purging. In effect, the Iraqi Shiite government executed in Mosul a comparable ruse de guerre intending always to go back with redoubled savagery to rid itself of the city's resistance for good. To do that, Baghdad will have to drive out a large chunk of the inhabitants and selectively repopulate it over time. Already, Iraqi heavy artillery is obliterating villages and towns on Mosul's outskirts.

Two things to note here. Firstly, in the coming weeks we should expect a massive refugee outflow toward Turkey and beyond. Erdogan isn't fundamentally opposed to swelling Turkey's population with devout Sunnis from Syria and Iraq in order to bolster his own support domestically. He has already offered citizenship to the three-million-plus Syrian refugees in Turkey. Nor is he opposed to using refugees as a lever against the EU. But he would like to keep Mosul largely Sunni as a pawn against Baghdad and the Kurds.

Secondly, Iraqis are familiar (from the Saddam decades) with large chunks of the population being resettled for political reasons. In fact, the Kurds argue that Mosul province was largely Kurdish before Saddam moved Sunni Arabs into the area beginning in the 1970s to inundate the strategic oil zone with loyalists. The question is, what plans have the allies made for Mosul's displaced inhabitants? No one is saying—an ominous sign in itself.

The ground war presents problems aplenty but the post-conflict scenario promises to be a nightmare. Ultimately, the Kurds and Shia forces will meet and confront each other somewhere in Mosul, depending on which side the Sunnis choose to resist the most. I suspect they will feel marginally more positive towards the Kurds, knowing the horrors that the Shiite militias can wreak. Whoever controls Mosul controls the north's rich oil zone. The Kurds want it to economically undergird their fledgling state. Baghdad knows that de facto secession will ensue and dismember its national territory. Baghdad wants control of Mosul. The Turks want neither side to win outright. They may choose to intervene. Result: a mini-regional war.

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