Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution
The Iraqi Army has entered Mosul for the first time in over two years at the start of a battle which is likely to end in a decisive defeat for ISIS. The significance of the fight for Mosul will be all the greater for Isis because its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is believed to be still inside the city, a senior Kurdish official told The Independent.
Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, said in an exclusive interview that his government had information from multiple sources that “Baghdadi is there and, if he is killed, it will mean the collapse of the whole [Isis] system.” Isis would have to choose a new caliph in the middle of a battle, but no successor would have the authority and prestige of Baghdadi, the leader who surprised the world by establishing the caliphate after capturing Mosul in June 2014.
Baghdadi has kept himself concealed for the last eight or nine months according to Mr Hussein, who added that the caliph had become very dependent on Isis commanders from Mosul and Tal Afar, a city just to the west of Mosul. Other senior and better known figures in Isis, particularly those from Syria and other countries, have been killed since their initial triumphs in the summer of 2014 when they took over much of northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
The presence of Baghdadi in Mosul may complicate and prolong the battle for Mosul as his surviving adherents fight to the death to defend him. Mr Hussein said that “it is obvious that they will lose, but not how long this will take to happen.” He said that Kurdish Peshmerga forces had been impressed by the extraordinary number of tunnels that Isis had dug in order to provide hiding places in the villages around Mosul.
Iraqi Special Forces advanced into Mosul, which once had a population of two million, on Tuesday seizing the state television on the east bank of the Tigris River that divides the city in half. Mr Hussein said that the speed of the fall of Mosul would depend on many factors especially whether or not Isis “is going to destroy the five bridges over the river.”
Iraqi army units backed by US-led air strikes have been attacking across the Nineveh Plain to the east of Mosul, capturing empty towns and villages from which the inhabitants have almost entirely fled. Where Christians and other minorities have tried to return to their old homes in towns like Bartella and Qaraqosh, they have found them looted and often burned by retreating Isis fighters.
Iraqi troops entered Gogjali, a district inside Mosul’s city limits, and later the borders of the more built-up Karama district, according to Major General Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces. Under an agreement reached before the offensive began on 17 October, Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia-militia paramilitaries known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, will not join the attack into Mosul, which is a largely Sunni Arab city.
As night fell, a sandstorm blew up cutting visibility to only 100 yards making air support for Iraqi forces more difficult and bringing the fighting to an end. “Daesh (Isis) is fighting back and have set up concrete blast walls to block off the Karama neighbourhood and [stop] our troops’ advance,” General Aridi said. He added later that the troops had taken the nearby state television building, the only one in Nineveh province, but there had been heavy fighting when they tried to move further into built-up areas. They are still some six miles from the city centre.
The anti-Isis offensive is dependent on US-led air strikes and the presence of US special forces. “I assure you that the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga do not move one millimetre forward without American permission and coordination,” said one Kurdish observer. He did not think that the battle for Mosul would necessarily go on a long time. But it is increasingly difficult for the 3,000 to 5,000 Isis fighters in Mosul and the 1,500 to 2,500 on the outskirts to escape, even if they wanted to. The Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga encircle the city to the north, east and west and the Hashd are moving in from the west, cutting the last routes to Syria.
US spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said that the US-led airpowers had noticed that Isis forces could no longer move in large numbers. “And when we see them come together where there are significant numbers we will strike them and kill them,” he said during a televised press conference. Some 1,792 Iraqis of whom 1,120 were civilians were killed in October according to the UN, though the total probably does not include Isis fighters.
Eyewitnesses inside Mosul, where Isis is reported to have killed 40 Iraqi prisoners at the weekend and thrown their bodies into the Tigris, say there are few fighters to be seen in the streets. “There are mostly just teenagers with guns,” said one Mosul resident reached by telephone. Part of the city is shrouded in smoke because of air strikes and artillery fire, but also because Isis fighters are lighting fires to produce a smokescreen which will make observation from the air more difficult.
It has been reported that Isis commanders were divided on whether or not it was better for them to make a last stand in Mosul or withdraw, after inflicting the maximum number of casualties on its enemies, and revert to guerrilla warfare. Last month 100 Isis fighters staged a spectacular raid on the Kurdish-held oil city of Kirkuk. An advantage for Isis in fighting in Mosul is that it would be more difficult for the US and its allies to carry out air strikes because there may be up to 1.5 million civilians still in the city. Isis has been preventing them leaving though the number is increasing as the anti-Isis forces move forward and it becomes clear that they intend to assault the city.
Isis has never been popular in Mosul according to local residents who detest its extreme violence, religious bigotry and subjugation of women. But it found more support in Sunni Arab villages around the city and among the Sunni Turkman of the nearby city of Tal Afar, who have always been notorious for their religious extremism and hatred for Shia and Kurds. Some observers believe that Isis might want to fight here against the Shia paramilitaries of the Hashd, because the US-led air coalition has not been providing air cover for the Hashd on the grounds that they are sectarian and under Iranian influence.
The fighting is so far on the eastern side of Mosul that traditionally had a Kurdish and Christian population while, if Isis has local support, it will be in the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab west of the city. Life here is said to be still relatively normal with markets open and people in the streets. In addition to the indigenous population of Mosul, there are believed to be several hundred thousand Sunni Arabs, many of them Isis supporters, who fled there from Iraqi provinces such as Anbar, Diyala and Salahudin where Isis has already been defeated.