The day after the battle for Mosul

As battle for Mosul begins, Iraq and the US must develop a humanitarian and political strategy before the fighting ends.

Iraqi security forces advance in Qayara, south of Mosul, to attack ISIL in Mosul, Iraq [REUTERS]
Iraqi security forces advance in Qayyarah, south of Mosul, to attack ISIL in Mosul, Iraq [Reuters]

In an article I wrote after the fall of Mosul in 2014, I argued that the sentiment of the population of this city under the occupation of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had to be taken account, particularly to know their potential to rebel and resist. As of October 2016 evidence emerged from the city that the citizens of Mosul had begun to resist ISIL forces militarily. 

Apparently, weapons has been smuggled to these anti-ISIL rebels in Mosul. For the battle of Mosul to succeed, and to avoid a second battle for control of the city, the Iraqis of Mosul living under ISIL need more than weapons, but a message and a vision that there is a plan for them the day after liberation.

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A victory over ISIL in Mosul will not be the end of Iraq’s problems, but rather the beginning of an internal political battle over territory.

Daunting challenges

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will face the daunting challenges of governing a post-ISIL Iraq and post-conflict security issues: first, the reintegration of territory and populations that were under ISIL control; second, agreeing to Iraq’s internal borders with the Kurds; and third, presiding over a fragmented, sectarian state to deal with the aforementioned issues. 

This is one of the few occasions where I find myself arguing for American interference in domestic Iraqi affairs.

KRG: Mosul victory depends on ISIL fighters’ morale

This a time when the Iraqi state is most dependent on American and coalition military assets to achieve the liberation of Mosul.

People rest as they flee their homes during clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL in Mosul, Iraq [AP]
People rest as they flee their homes during clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL in Mosul, Iraq [AP]

The US should have pressured the Iraqi parliament to begin the process of reaching a consensus on Mosul and other disputed territories, such as Kirkuk, before the first shots of this battle were fired. 

Populations in former ISIL-held territory

When the battle for Mosul began, the Iraqi government had yet to articulate a strategy to manage the political end game after this battle.

It is imperative that the Iraqi government and the US develop a strategy to deal with the first paramount issue: the internally displaced peoples (IDPs), and how to reincorporate previously-held ISIL territories and those who lived under ISIL rule.

Political battles will ensue over who will secure and govern these areas, who will get to live there in the resettlement process, and how to reintegrate the IDPs.


Political battles will ensue over who will secure and govern these areas, who will get to live there in the resettlement process, and how to reintegrate the IDPs. This problem will also hinge on the pace of reconstruction of the ISIL-held areas.

The political ramification of this issue is how the central government will manage this process. ISIL’s seizure of Mosul was a symptom of the failure of the Iraqi state.

The question remains as to how Arab Sunnis will stay in this city, and whether Anbar and Salah al-Din provinces reconcile with the central government.

For a good number of Arab Sunnis, the fear will emerge that after an ISIL victory, a Shia-dominated government will rule as a conqueror of this territory, largely supported by the Shia militias.

Nowhere will this issue be more prevalent than in the city of Mosul. There is no political consensus over who will control the city after ISIL is expelled.

In theory the central government would, but it was the central government’s governance of this city that led to the conditions that allowed ISIL to find fertile ground in Mosul in the first place.

Avoiding future battles

Once the dust settles from the battle for Mosul, the question of who will control Kirkuk will inevitably emerge. There were already tense relations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) before the ISIL invasion of 2014, and these continued afterwards when the KRG seized the city to prevent it falling into ISIL hands.

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The battle for territorial sovereignty will not only involve this city and its oil reserves, but other contested areas, such as Tuz Khurmato, one half controlled by the Kurds, the other by Shia militias, ostensibly protecting the town’s Shia Turkmen.

The battle over territory will involve the complex issues of resource nationalism.  Resolving the issue over Kirkuk and the allocation of oil will determine whether Iraq survives in the most optimistic scenario as a loose Shia-Kurdish alliance. 

What the US Needs to Do Now Rather Than Later

The Iraqi parliament is notoriously slow in achieving results, such as the multi-year process of negotiating a hydro-carbon law to manage the country’s oil. The executive branch of the central government has delayed contentious issues for years, such as agreeing on the the final status of Kirkuk.

When put under pressure, however, the Iraqi state, both executive and legislative branches, can achieve compromise in a relatively short time, the best case in point being in the crisis of summer 2014.  After the elections of April 2014, Iraq had failed to form a government for months. It was only when ISIL seized Mosul that the US could pressure the Iraqi state.

American military engagement was made conditional on replacing incumbent Prime Minister Maliki with a more conciliatory candidate, Haider al-Abadi, and forming a government afterwards. Maliki was replaced and the Iraqi government was formed within the span of a few weeks under such pressure.

Similar leverage can compel the Iraqi parliament to come up with a draft document or pact on Iraq’s governance after the expulsion of Mosul. The issues of Mosul and Kirkuk, or smaller towns such as Tuz Khurmato, will involve intense political rivalries, but at least this political battle should be addressed during the actual battle for Mosul, and not saved for the end.  

As the third US presidential debate is scheduled for October 19, a good test to gauge the candidates’ strategy for dealing with ISIL will hinge on the issue of planning for the day after the liberation of Mosul.  So far Trump had focused on an ambiguous military solution to deal with this threat. It will be interesting to see if either candidate will acknowledge the need for political and humanitarian strategies to address the crisis in Iraq.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an associate professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of the forthcoming The Modern History of Iraq, 4th edition.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.