Al Jazeera speaks to a resident trapped with his young family as battle to retake the city enters its fifth day.
When the news emerged months ago that the offensive to retake Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) would start in autumn, many analysts argued that the operation will be timed for the US presidential election, due in November, to help democratic nominee Hillary Clinton win and boost President Barack Obama’s standing before the end of his term in January.
Analysts have warned that Iraq may not be fully prepared for the liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Some suggested that Baghdad should first recapture other smaller towns still under ISIL control, especially the predominantly Arab Sunni town of Hawija, a stronghold of ISIL fighters south of Mosul and close to the strategic oil-rich Kirkuk province.
More importantly, Baghdad’s government has not formalised a long-awaited national strategy for stabilising the Sunni provinces that have been liberated from ISIL which should help to end Sunni exclusion, neutralise the radicals and ultimately defeat the group.
Given ISIL’s shock incursion into Kirkuk, big questions have been raised about what exactly went wrong in Iraq’s efforts to ensure security and stability as the country is trying to close the jihadist group’s chapter.
While the battle for Mosul, which started on October 15, is believed to be making headway to oust ISIL from the city and dismantle its self-declared caliphate, a dazzling assault on Kirkuk has highlighted the kind of attacks ISIL fighters are likely to mount after they are driven from Mosul.
The incursion into Kirkuk, which has been under Kurdish Peshmerga control for more than two years, was rattling. On Friday, ISIL fighters fought street battles with the US-trained and equipped Peshmerga and seized neighbourhoods, government buildings, power plants, mosques, police stations and political parties’ offices.
Thousands of horrified residents fled to nearby mountains, fearing that ISIL fighters would take control of the sprawling city as they did in Mosul and several other Iraqi cities during their lightning advances in summer 2014.
Fighting in Kirkuk continued in the following days but died away later as reinforcements came from the Kurdistan Region Government and Baghdad.
Dozens of people, many of them security forces, were either killed or wounded in the onslaught, another reminder that Iraq is still in the grip of war with a ferocious enemy that is not taking losses of towns as a defeat.
Given ISIL’s shock incursion into Kirkuk, big questions have been raised about what exactly went wrong in Iraq’s efforts to ensure security and stability as the country is trying to close ISIL’s chapter and opening a new one of reconciliation and peace.
Recriminations and blame exchange are abounding to the point of creating uncertainty and confusion as the parties involved try to dodge responsibility, exactly as they did with the fall of Mosul to ISIL more than two years ago.
For Kurdish officials, the Baghdad government is to blame for failing to provide the Peshmerga with weapons and equipment needed to fight ISIL. Kurds also accused displaced Iraqi Sunnis who sought shelter in Kirkuk of working closely with ISIL sleeper cells in the city.
Iraqi officials, meanwhile, charge that having seized Kirkuk during the chaos created by ISIL’s rise in 2014, Kurdish parties were enmeshed in a power struggle over control of the city’s oil riches instead of securing it against ISIL fighters.
Yet, a manual of sorts for what went wrong could indicate serious shortfalls in Iraq’s strategy behind the setback in Kirkuk and that in Rutba, in Anbar province, two days later when ISIL’s fighters recaptured chunks of the desert town on the border with Jordan which they had lost to the Iraqi security forces in June.
ISIL’s fighters have also carried out several other attacks on smaller targets in recent days in Anbar, Samarra, Diyala and Baghdad, another indication of the mismanagement of the stabilisation of the transition to a post-ISIL era. There are several reasons behind the failure of the Iraqi authorities to curb ISIL’s insurgency nationwide while moving forward to dislodge the group from the main towns.
Militarily, the Iraqi security forces are stretched too thin and strained by the asymmetrical warfare they have been waging against ISIL to the point where they have failed to anticipate and plan to fight a guerrilla warfare of the kind ISIL put up in Kirkuk and Rutba.
One fundamental shortcoming is the lack of careful planning for the Mosul offensive, which takes into consideration the complicated operations theatre and the diversity of the state and non-state actors involved and their conflicting interests and political agendas.
From the United States and its Western allies, to Turkey, Iran to rival Iraqi Kurdish Peshmergas, to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party and their Syrian Kurdish comrades to Shia militias, there is a strange condominium around Mosul that shows a sentential drama of cloak and dagger.
But a major criticism remains that the rush to begin the offensive in Mosul under pressure from the Obama administration may have put the US presidential election calculus above long-term Iraqi national interests. A new Iraq strategy by the next American president may take an entirely different direction which could squander all the successes in the war against ISIL.
Politically, Baghdad has so far failed to put together a direly needed concrete national reconciliation and rebuilding plan that establishes a more durable framework to stabilise the country in a post-ISIL era. Such a strategy is fundamental in breaking the so-called incubators, or the society-based support ISIL receives in Sunni areas and propelling its strategic defeat.
Iraq will win the battle of Mosul. But as the intrusions in Kirkuk and Rutba have shown, post-ISIL will be difficult and dangerous. The lesson from this week’s fiasco is that a similar scenario could take place in Mosul or other Sunni-dominated cities after they have been taken back from ISIL.
But if there is something good about the two dazzling attacks is that they could serve as a reminder of the need to encourage political solutions for Iraq’s lingering ethnic and sectarian conflicts and a greater deal of national integration- two concepts which have not been considered seriously by Iraq’s existing leaderships.