The U.S.-led operation to oust Islamic State militants from Mosul will not eliminate the organization's presence in Iraq, warned northern Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani
"IS will not be eradicated from Iraq by a military operation," Barzani said Friday in an interview with VOA. "It may well lose cities like Mosul and [Syria's] Raqqa, but it will remain as an ideology and organization."
Barzani's comments come after The New York Times reported Thursday that the White House is drafting a presidential directive that calls on Defense Secretary James Mattis to devise plans to more aggressively strike IS, especially in Mosul and Raqqa, its capital in Syria.
FILE - Iraqi Army soldiers deploy after defeating Islamic State militants in the eastern side of Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 24, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump will demand that new options be presented to him within 30 days, according to the report.
IS fighters are reportedly reeling as their territorial control in Iraq and Syria continues to shrink. In Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq, the group has lost the eastern half of the city to the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.
The operation for the west side of Mosul is expected to be more complicated, as it is crisscrossed by streets too narrow for armored vehicles and is more populated than eastern Mosul, Barzani said.
"The military operation is going slow now because we don't want more civilian deaths," he said. "The plan is going slowly and is supervised by the United States, while the Iraqi forces are a part of it."
U.S. backing seen as key
Barzani said his region's army, known as peshmerga, would not have made advances without aerial backing from the U.S.-led coalition against IS.
FILE - Peshmerga forces inspect a tunnel used by Islamic State militants in the town of Bashiqa, after it was recaptured from the Islamic State, east of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 12, 2016.
"This would not have been possible without international support, especially from the United States," Barzani said.
Sectarian violence and bloodshed have swept Iraq for years following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi central government — especially with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — is accused of isolating the Sunni population, making them susceptible to extremist groups such as IS.
Under an agreement brokered partly by U.S. officials, Shi'ite militiamen are fighting on the western and southwestern outskirts of Mosul, and regular Iraqi army troops and peshmerga are on the eastern front. Peshmerga, under the agreement, are standing aside to let Iraqi forces take the battle into the mainly Sunni Muslim city.
Human rights groups have voiced repeated concerns about the treatment of civilians from areas once controlled by IS, and point to a growing anxiety among Iraqi Sunnis living under IS that they will be targeted by Shi'ites.
‘Incorrect politics’ created IS
Barzani told VOA that a continuing sectarian divide in Iraq will allow IS to thrive in some form.
FILE - Newly arrived Iraqi Shi'ite militiamen check their weapons in the predominately Sunni city of Nukhayb, in southwest Iraq, May 21, 2015. Analysts fear deep sectarian divisions will cripple the fight against the Islamic State group.
"What's important to realize is that the problem in Iraq is political, not military," he said. "IS is created in this country. It is the consequence of incorrect politics that has been in place for years in Iraq. Until those political circumstances are resolved, I doubt IS will end in Iraq. Until now, we don't see a single step made in Iraq to resolve those problems that led to IS."
To prevent IS from regrouping amid sectarian disputes, some Kurdish leaders are calling for a stronger U.S. military presence in northern Iraq.
"In my opinion, after the liberation of Mosul and other areas from IS, the American Special Forces and advisers should stay in Iraq even in a larger number," Najmaldin Karim, a Kurd and the governor of Kirkuk, told VOA. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk is a disputed territory claimed by both the Kurdish Region and the Iraqi government.
"I think President Trump is better to make an agreement with the Kurdistan Region to ensure American Special Forces remain in the region," Karim said.