A car-bombing in east Mosul is confirming fears of some analysts that the offensive against the Islamic State is dealing the terror group military defeats but not necessarily political setbacks.
More than 190 days since U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces launched their campaign to oust IS fighters from Mosul, the militants remain in parts of the western half of the city. And last month IS detonated a car bomb in the Zuhur district of east Mosul that left four dead and 14 wounded.
Sections of Mosul still not cleared of IS fighters
Zuhur was meant to have been cleared of Sunni militants back in January when Baghdad declared eastern Mosul “fully liberated,” but the bombing demonstrated that active IS cells are still operating there, despite strenuous efforts by Iraqi security personnel to unearth them.
“Out but not down,” is how Kyle Orton, an analyst with the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank, describes the terror group’s strategic position.Zuhur “is part of a pattern of attacks that suggests the Mosul operation itself was rushed and more importantly that IS is already recovering in liberated areas,” he warned in a study for the think tank.
He cautions, “IS’s loss of territory should not be seen as the sole measure of how this war is going.” U.S. and Iraqi officials estimate IS now controls just seven percent of the country, down from a high of 40 percent.
Military, not political, defeats for IS forces
IS hopes to emulate itsprecursor jihadist organizations, which were able to weather the military defeats inflicted on them by U.S. forces during the 2007-08 Surge.
The group is exploiting its strategic depth in remote territory both in west and east Iraq — in the Euphrates River Valley bordering Syria, the Jalam desert east of Samarra and in the Hamrin mountains — to launch hit-and-run attacks like an April 23 ambush on a government military convey near the western Iraq town of Rutba that left 10 Iraqi soldiers dead.
IS’s official spokesman, Abu Mohammad al Adnani, before his death in a targeted drone strike, presaged IS’s post-Mosul strategy in a 2016 audio-message to followers, in apparent reference to the 2007 Surge, he said: “Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land? …It is the same, whether Allah blesses us with consolidation or we move into the bare, open desert, displaced and pursued.”
IS presence in Kirkuk
IS has regrouped in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. The militants still control half the province. “A lot of these terrorists have been able to escape from Mosul, escape from other places and regroup,” Najmidin Karin, governor of Kirkuk province, observed recently.
The jihadists presence in Kirkuk was not challenged early on in the anti-IS offensive, argues Orton and others. “Hawija sits in a prime location to cause mayhem behind the lines, and has done so,” according to Orton. Although besieged by Kurdish peshmerga forces since last August, IS fighters appear to have little trouble slipping in and out to launch attacks from Hawija on nearby cities.
“In simple military terms, Hawija should have been cleared before Mosul,” says Orton. Recently, Iraqi commanders announced they’re considering an assault on the town, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, using Shi’ite militias. That would continue, argues Orton, “one of the worst aspects of the campaign against IS, namely the use of demographically inappropriate forces to cleanse local areas that has meant IS’s military losses are not political losses.”
Mixed military results
When it comes to Mosul, Baghdad has managed to prevent Shi’ite militias from entering the city, allowing the offensive inside to be conducted by regular Iraqi security forces. Even so, most Iraqi soldiers are Shi’ite, which doesn’t help Baghdad with its hearts-and-minds campaign for the longterm loyalty of local Sunnis.
Thanks to the terror group’s brutal handling of civilians the Shi’ite influx into Mosul has not turned Sunnis en masse against the security forces. But rising civilian casualties in west Mosul from coalition airstrikes is starting to anger local Sunnis.
In neighboring Syria, analyst Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington also worries about the unfolding anti-IS offensive and the assault on Raqqa repeating tactical missteps observed in Iraq, especially if mainly Kurdish forces are used for the assault on IS’s de facto capital. “The United States does not need to rush our push to Raqqa. Doing so risks achieving the short-term objective – the city’s capture – but securing groups like ISIS with an invaluable narrative victory,” he said last week in congressional testimony.