An American airstrike in Mosul on March 17, which appears to have led to over 200 civilian deaths, has increased attention on civilian casualties and sparked a frenzy within the Iraqi media. This controversy is an additional strain on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s effort to hold together the coalition against the Islamic State (IS) as he tries to manage the domestic and international aspects of the alliance while facing shortfalls in his government’s military and humanitarian operations.
Parliament’s professional, albeit passionate, debate over the airstrikes on March 28 suggests the coalition will hold. Not only did Minister of Defense Irfan al-Hayali defend Abadi’s reliance on the U.S.-led international coalition, so did Minister of Interior Qasim al-Araji, a senior figure in the pro-Iran Badr Organization. While the killing of civilians in Mosul, Iraq’s largest Sunni-majority city, is quite sensitive, both Sunni and Shia MPs praised the courage of nation’s security forces—although some argued for a tactical change to reduce reliance on heavy artillery criticized for imprecision, including improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAMs).
Baghdad has succeeded militarily through overuse of Ministry of Interior forces and the special forces, notably the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS). However, the army’s inability to play a meaningful combat role ensured heavy dependence on airstrikes and artillery. While the government—with its vast advantages in human and material resources—grinds IS down to an inexorable military defeat, the shortcomings of the original offensive plan are clear. The CTS leads the offensive from the east of the Tigris while army and federal police divisions and the Kurdish peshmerga were limited to offensives on Mosul’s outskirts. New army divisions, trained by U.S. forces after the army’s collapse in 2014 as part of an effort to revive the Iraqi state, have been marginal, mostly playing a supporting role in offensives spearheaded by other forces. The army’s one offensive, in early December, ended in failure as advancing troops were ambushed and had to be rescued by the CTS.
In late December, Abadi modified tactics to rely more on the Ministry of Interior’s heavily armed Federal Police (FP) and its Emergency Response Division (ERD), which includes many members from the Iran-backed Badr Organization. Together with the CTS, they pushed a two-pronged offensive that made quicker progress. By mid-February these forces had liberated all core areas east of the Tigris, but not before the CTS, which had performed the bulk of the heavy combat in the earlier liberation of Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah, took unusually heavy casualties, forcing an “operational pause.” As the offensive moved to west Mosul, Ministry of Interior forces were tasked with liberating the old city, taking on an even more prominent role in combat operations and ensuring they would garner most of the news coverage. The CTS has played a more peripheral operational role in the west, while army units have been given the tasks normally given to police: holding ground other forces liberated in the east and blocking escape routes for IS fighters from the city.
While the CTS may well be the Arab world’s most accomplished counterterrorism force, its core 6,000 personnel, which Abadi moved to increase by 1,250 in mid-March, have been overused to pick up the slack of the ineffectual army units. In every major urban operation the past two years—Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah—the CTS has led the fight while the army recovered from its 2014 collapse, with Ministry of Interior forces also playing a strong role. Yet the tough street-to-street fighting in east Mosul, made bloodier by IS suicide bombing tactics, brought the CTS to its attrition limit. And this enabled Iraqi commanders to convince even a pro-Iran figure like Minister of Interior Araji that U.S. airstrikes are essential.
The failure of the army rebuilding effort may also have strategic implications for future U.S. military plans and Iraq’s domestic institutional balance. The new army units are the product of the Pentagon’s Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) program, a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s post-2014 Iraq policy. While ITEF’s equip and resupply provisions have been valuable to Iraq, the training prong of the program has fallen short. The CTS, which Iraqis colloquially refer to as the “Golden Division,” is a modest-sized force that the Pentagon developed over the course of a decade. Domestically, the army’s weak performance has boosted the status of the Ministry of Interior and its own security forces—potentially weakening the army’s ability to counterbalance the Shia militia-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd), which now has statutory standing as a military force.
Since launching the Mosul offensive on October 17, Abadi has presented a unifying vision. He has spoken of “winning the peace”, emphasizing how local citizens welcomed security personnel as liberators, not the oppressors they had been viewed as before. Yet this narrative of harmonious relations between residents and security forces has also been marred by reports of abuse. In November, the Ministry of Interior’s Federal Police were accused of using torture and summary executions against those suspected of involvement with IS. More concrete allegations are contained in a March 13 Human Rights Watch report describing the detention of over 1,200 suspects in squalid conditions in a Ministry of Interior prison near Qayyarah, south of Mosul.
In addition, the government’s management of humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs) has also become a matter of controversy. The Ministry of Migration and Displacement failed last year to provide meaningful assistance to IDPs during the battle for Fallujah, right on the outskirts of Baghdad, lowering expectations for its performance in northern Iraq. Following media reports that large numbers of Mosul residents failed to find adequate assistance, on March 4 Minister Jassim Mohammad al-Jaf lashed out and blamed the United Nations. The ministry does face funding challenges. The $85 billion 2017 budget allocates just over $1 billion to the ministry, currently relying on a provision deducting a percentage of state employees’ salaries to pay for IDP aid. Ministries often complain that money is often not dispersed in full, and Raad al-Dahlaki, chairman of parliament’s Migration and Displacement Committee, said on March 14 that the Ministry of Finance had not yet disbursed the Ministry of Migration’s 2017 funds. Jaf himself said in February that for the 2014-2016 period as a whole, the ministry only received about $850 (1 million Iraqi dinars) per displaced family.
Despite shortfalls in the original military plan and a worsening humanitarian situation, a victory over IS in Mosul is forthcoming. Abadi has a consistent record as a unifying leader, but his government has fallen short on building effective institutions. That latter task of institution building has barely even begun.
Kirk H. Sowell is an independent political risk analyst and the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics. Follow him on Twitter @UticaRisk.