Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution
I visited Mosul on the day it fell to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and a small detachment of US Special Forces on 11 April 2003. As we drove into the city, we passed lines of pick-up trucks piled high with loot returning to the Kurdish-controlled enclave in northern Iraq. US soldiers at a checkpoint, over which waved the Stars and Stripes, were shooting at a man in the distance who kept bobbing up from behind a wall and waving the Iraqi flag.
If there had ever been any sympathy between liberators and liberated in Mosul, it was disappearing fast. Inside the city, every government building, including the university, was being systematically looted by Kurds and Arabs alike. I saw one man who had stolen an enormous and very ugly red and gold sofa from the governor’s office dragging it slowly down the street. He would push one end of the sofa a few feet forward and then go to the other end and repeat the same process. The mosques were soon calling on the Sunni Arab majority to build barricades to defend their neighbourhoods from marauders.
We parked our vehicle near a medieval quarter of ancient stone buildings while we went to see a Christian ecclesiastic. When we got back, we found that our driver was very frightened and wanted to get out of Mosul as fast as possible. He explained that soon after we left a crowd had gathered, recognised our number plates as Kurdish and debated lynching him and setting fire to his car before being restrained by a local religious leader moments before they took action.
The oil city of Kirkuk was captured at about the same time by the Peshmerga, despite having promised the Americans and Turks that they would do no such thing. Again, there was looting everywhere and I saw two Peshmerga stand in the middle of the road to stop an enormous yellow bulldozer that was being driven off. Instead of slowing down, the driver put his foot on the accelerator so the Peshmerga had to jump aside to avoid being crushed.
Inside the newly established Peshmerga headquarters, I ran into Pavel Talabani, whose father Jalal Talabani headed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party whose militia now held the city. He stressed the temporary nature of the Kurdish occupation of the city. “We came to control the situation,” he said. “We expect to withdraw some of our men in 45 minutes.”
Some Peshmerga, but not all: 13 years later the Kurds still hold Kirkuk, whose population is Kurdish, Arab and Turkoman, and to which the Kurds claim an historic right saying they have only reversed anti-Kurdish ethnic cleansing by Saddam Hussein.
By now the rest of the world has forgotten that there was a time when the Kurds did not hold the city. The Kurdish leaders had understood that the US-led invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein had created conditions of unprecedented political fluidity and it was an ideal moment to create facts on the map, which would become permanent whatever the protestations of other players.
The current multi-pronged offensive aimed at taking Mosul is producing a similar situation as different countries, parties and communities vie to fill the vacuum they expect to be created by the fall of Isis, just as in 2003 the vacuum was the result of the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The different segments of the anti-Isis forces potentially involved in seizing Mosul – the Iraqi army, Kurds, Shia and Sunni paramilitaries, Turks – may be temporary allies, but they are also rivals. They all have their own very different and conflicting agendas. Presiding over this ramshackle and disputatious alliance is the US, which is orchestrating the Mosul offensive and without whose air power and Special Forces there would be no attack.
The Shia-dominated Iraqi government needs to take and hold Mosul, Iraq’s main Sunni Arab city, if it is to be convincing as the national government of Iraq. To achieve this, Baghdad’s rule must be acceptable to the Sunni majority in the city in a way that was not true when Isis took it in 2014. It needs to establish its rule while it still has full military and political support from the US.
The Kurds, for their part, want to solidify their control of the so-called “disputed territories” claimed by both the central government and the Kurdish regional authorities. The Kurds opportunistically used the defeat of the Iraqi Army in northern Iraq by Isis two years ago to take these territories inhabited by both Kurds and Arabs, thereby expanding by 40 per cent the area of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). They know that once Isis is defeated, the Kurds will no longer get international and, above all, American backing to hold this expanded version of the KRG.
These problems have only begun to surface because Mosul is still a long way from being besieged or even encircled.
The Shia militia forces are surprisingly calm about being excluded from a military role in the siege. They may calculate that the Iraqi army, if it gets sucked into street fighting, will not be able to take Mosul on its own and will have to look to them for support. The Shia paramilitaries are making up for their lack of participation in the battle for Mosul by sending reinforcements – some 5,000 men, according to reports – to join the Syrian Army in the siege of East Aleppo.
Turkey wants to be a player and, as a great Sunni power, the defender of the Sunnis of Mosul. To this end, it has soldiers based at Bashiqa, north east of Mosul, and claims to be taking part in the attack. But so far at least, Turkish ambitions and rhetoric in Iraq and Syria have exceeded its performance. Both interventions may be designed to impress a domestic audience which is deluged with exaggerated accounts of Turkish achievements in the government-controlled Turkish media.
These participants in the struggle for Mosul may be dividing the tiger’s skin before the tiger is properly dead. Isis showed that it still has sharp claws when it responded to the assault on Mosul with raids on Kirkuk and Rutbah on the main Iraq-Jordan road. It is fighting hard to slow down the anti-Isis advance towards Mosul with a mix of suicide bombers, IEDs, booby-traps, snipers and mortar teams. But it is unclear if it will make a last stand in Mosul where, at the end of the day, it must go down to defeat in the face of superior numbers backed by the massive firepower of the US-led air forces.
The likelihood is that Isis will fight for Mosul, the site of its first great victory, in order to prolong the battle, cause casualties and to let divisions emerge among its enemies. But its strategy over the last 12 months has been not to stage heroic but doomed last stands in any of the cities it has lost in Iraq and Syria.
At Ramadi, Fallujah, Sinjar, Palmyra and Manbij it has staged a fighting withdrawal at the last moment. The same may now happen in Mosul.