An Iraqi operation to recapture the city of Mosul, the last stronghold of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the country, has started. Artillery began firing on the city early on Monday, in a long-awaited assault from Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi government and allied forces. Tanks are now moving towards the city, which has been held by IS since 2014. The BBC’s Orla Guerin, who is with Kurdish forces east of Mosul, says tanks are advancing on the city, kicking up clouds of dust.
The UN has expressed “extreme concern” for the safety of up to 1.5 million people in the area.
So reads the latest news out of Iraq from the BBC with the following three subtexts
■ UN prepares for aftermath ‘chaos’
An Exodus is expected
Hundreds of thousands of people – possibly a million – are expected to flee Mosul ahead of the forthcoming battle.
A planned military offensive to reclaim Mosul from so-called Islamic State (IS) could see up to a million Iraqis flee their homes. The UN’s refugee agency has told the BBC how it and its partners are gearing up to deal with the expected humanitarian crisis by building camps to house those in need.
■ Battle must navigate ethnic rivalries
Plans for the recapture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from the so-called Islamic State are fiendishly complicated. Ethnic rivalries, as well as sectarian and religious sensitivities, will have to be respected if the offensive is not to go horribly wrong.
The Iraqi army which scattered and fled as IS fighters drove and rode into Mosul in 2014 was mocked as I.R.A.Q. or I Ran Away Quickly. But the soldiers may have been running not only from IS. The mostly Sunni Arabs of Mosul resented the domination of the central Baghdad government by Shia Muslims.
Junior ranks in the Iraqi army were afraid that they would be attacked by Sunni Arabs in Mosul as well as IS, taking revenge for the transformation of Iraq into what they perceived to be a Shia state.
But the new prime minister Haider al-Abadi – also Shia of course – has worked hard to bring Sunnis back into the fold.
For example, he has funded and armed Sunni Arab tribal forces which are expected to play a prominent role in the imminent battle for Mosul.
The remaining residents, especially in the city centre, are more likely to welcome them than the mostly Shia Iraqi army, the irregular Shia “Popular Mobilisation Forces”, or the Kurdish Peshmerga.
Meanwhile the remaining IS fighters have driven out, or massacred, the Christians, Yazidis and Kurds who used to live there.
Thousands of Sunni Arabs too have also left Mosul. If they ever believed that IS was a potentially sympathetic group of Sunni co-religionists, they were quickly disabused as the conquerors of Mosul revealed themselves to be irrational psychopaths who, for example, force children to watch public executions.
■ Is IS finished?
“Even if the territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria is dismantled, this doesn’t mean the end of the movement,” says Fawaz Gerges, author of ISIS: A history.
Although IS shares some of its ideology with other militant groups, such as al-Qaeda, it differs in one key respect: it did not just talk about a caliphate; it conquered cities, erased borders and declared one. And in doing so, says Fawaz Gerges, it has energised global jihadism.
“The caliphate model will likely haunt the imagination of jihadists for many years to come,” he says.
So where does all of this leave IS?
A year ago, no-one predicted IS would lose so much so quickly. And as it loses more land in the coming months, it is likely to lose more fighters. After all, what is Islamic State without a state?
So is Islamic State finished? Yes, it will lose its caliphate. But then the insurgency will begin.
While the whole world is looking on our team is on the ground in Dohuk, a mere 28 miles from Mosul prepared to do whatever we can to assist the new flood of IDPs fleeing the battle. We believe we’ve been strategically placed in northern Iraq just for such a time as this.
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