Dohuk, Iraq – On one side of a small mountain bordering Dohuk and Nineveh provinces in northern Iraq, rows of soldiers march in green fatigues and red berets, rifles slung across their shoulders.
On the other side is Mosul, the de facto Iraqi capital for fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who seized the territory one year ago today.
The fighters in Dohuk are preparing to take Mosul back, although there is no timeline for the offensive, which is being coordinated by Iraqi forces and a global anti-ISIL coalition.
“We are under major pressure daily from families and relatives inside Mosul to liberate Mosul,” said Mahmoud el-Surchi, a spokesperson for the Dohuk training camp, whose soldiers have been dubbed the National Crowd for Liberating Nineveh.
The group is primarily Sunni, but also includes fighters and commanders of various religious and ethnic backgrounds. “We believe the cards are stacked against Daesh [ISIL],” Nineveh told Al Jazeera. “Everyone agrees Daesh should be defeated. We are just waiting for the right time.”
The operation to retake Mosul, which fell into ISIL’s hands in June 2014 after Iraqi security forces fled from the group’s rapid advance, was initially expected to begin in April or May. But Surchi, who says the National Crowd has been closely coordinating with Iraqi and coalition forces, noted that the timeline was pushed back after ISIL seized Ramadi in Anbar province last month, prompting a major counteroffensive.
In the lead-up to the battle to retake Mosul, US forces have been training Iraqi soldiers at four sites in the country, Pentagon spokesperson Commander Elissa Smith told Al Jazeera.
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“The Iraqi Security Forces have been isolating Mosul by cutting the lines of communication. We’ve been building combat power through the [training] sites, through the coalition air campaign, helping with planning, and synchronising all of these elements to set the conditions for a future offensive,” Smith said.
“We remain focused on getting the forces adequately trained and equipped and the plan synchronised, [but] the start of any Mosul operations is a decision for the Iraqis, and any new offensive will not begin until the Iraqis are ready,” she added.
Iraqi politician Amar Taama, who sits on the parliamentary security and defence committee, acknowledged that Mosul is strategically important due to its proximity to the Syrian border, its oil fields and its large population base.
“The longer Daesh stays, the worse the result, because … people growing up under the extreme rules of Daesh will follow them and will become extreme.”
However, Taama maintains it is “too early” to launch an operation to retake Mosul, noting the stabilisation of Anbar and the surrounding area should be the country’s first priority. Additionally, he said, the camp leaders in northern Iraq need to be better organised and develop “better relations” with Baghdad to help facilitate their mission.
The long-standing tensions between the central government and Iraqis in the Mosul region, who feel they have been treated unfairly for years, was part of the reason for ISIL’s quick rise, Surchi acknowledged.
But Commander Mohammed Yahya al-Talib, the head of trainers at the National Crowd camp, says Baghdad has continued to fail the region’s people in their quest to defeat ISIL: “We got nothing from Baghdad. No funding, no weapons, nothing.”
The camp, which has already graduated 3,500 soldiers since December, could have more than 25,000 fighters quickly trained and ready for battle if the central government would provide the necessary funding and equipment, Surchi added.
Residents living in Mosul have denounced ISIL’s draconian rule, which reportedly entails severe restrictions on telecommunications, a ban on shaving, a distorted version of religious studies in school, and the ever-present threat of forced conscription.
In addition to weapons and tactical training, soldiers at the National Crowd camp are also prepared psychologically for dealing with the politics and the social consequences of ISIL’s takeover, while many lectures focus on the difference between fighting in cities versus open areas.
Talib estimates there are about 1,500 ISIL fighters in the city of Mosul, and up to 10,000 in Nineveh, although it is difficult to keep precise tabs due to the group’s continuing movements.
Surchi believes that Mosul will be the “breaking point” for ISIL – that when it falls, the group will be effectively defeated in Iraq.
Commanders at the camp say their soldiers, whose own homes in Mosul have been destroyed and their families displaced, are determined to liberate Mosul “to get their lives back”. Talib is confident they will win the fight.
“Daesh is not frightening. The media makes them seem like that. Daesh are cowards… They are not immortal,” he said. “The problem is they have armoured cars, heavy weapons, snipers – so they seem strong, unbreakable – but this is not true. Our fighters are brave and strong.”
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