After Ramadi, Anti-ISIS Coalition Shifts Focus to Liberating Mosul

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Ramadi on Tuesday, one day after Baghdad's forces raised the country's flag over the main government complex in the western city that had been held by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) since May.

"We are coming to liberate Mosul and it will be the fatal and final blow to Daesh," he said in a state television broadcast, using an Arabic acronym for the group. While the liberation of Ramadi represents the most significant victory over ISIS for Iraqi security forces, the focus of Baghdad's coalition government, the U.S.-led coalition and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan government in northern Iraq has shifted to the country's second-largest city, Mosul.

The timing of any offensive remains unclear, with the Iraqi military likely to emulate the cautious approach taken in Ramadi, encircling the city and cutting off supply routes before entering. A Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that Spring next year is the "new timeline" for an offensive despite U.S.-led coalition spokesman Colonel Steve Warren saying the coalition is "not going to put a timeline on Mosul."

ISIS's offensive on Ramadi, which saw hundreds of militants aided by sleeper cells and double agents overrun authorities in the city, delayed a Spring offensive on Mosul in May this year and led to a seven-month operation. Abadi is adamant that ISIS would be defeated in the country by the end of next year, "2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when Daesh's presence in Iraq will be terminated," he says.

Mosul, located in the Nineveh province some 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Baghdad with a population of more than a million people, has sat in the hands of the militant group since June 2014. Its significance is largely down to size—the city is three times the size of Ramadi and 15 times the size of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein which was recaptured by a Sunni-Shiite military coalition in March.

Al-Abadi describes Mosul as the "capital" for ISIS with Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, saying,"It's there (Mosul) where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate," in reference to the group's "caliph." It is for both of these reasons—size of the city and the importance placed on it by ISIS—that the liberation of Mosul will provide the sternest test for all parties involved in the battle against the group, officials and experts say.

"There is a lot of civilian life in Mosul that ISIS will use to its advantage if there is ever an offensive. They are still able to use the locals as human shields," the KRSC official says. "They are still generating a lot of income in Mosul by forcing people to pay a lot of tax. So Mosul will be a very different game to what happened in Ramadi." Any operation would likely resemble the Iraqi offensive to liberate Ramadi with Iranian-backed Shiite militias outside the city playing a supporting role. Similarly, the Kurdish official says the Peshmerga—the military force of Iraqi Kurdistan—"would not be going into the city" but would play a supporting role to Iraqi security forces. And the U.S.-led coalition aircraft, as with Tikrit, Kobane and Ramadi, would support any ground operation and leave Sunni forces to enter the city.

Any entry into the city would be problematic however as ISIS has been able to consolidate its strength in Mosul for a year and a half, embedding themselves and planning far ahead of any planned offensive, says Max Abrahms, professor of political science, and terrorism expert, at Northeastern University in Boston, U.S.

"The one thing that Islamic State is really great at is planting these IEDs and making it difficult for opponents to recapture territory," he says. "I would say that Mosul is the most important territory for Islamic State. So, I do think that there will be a much more significant loss of life," he adds. "It will also be harder because, as Islamic State gets flushed out of other areas, it must put up a major fight to defend what's left."

The size of Mosul ultimately renders the city a more significant asset for the group than even Raqqa, in Syria, where U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have been predominantly focused. "Mosul will be a harder objective than Ramadi because it is a much larger city," says Warren. The KRSC official agrees that the battle for Mosul will be drawn out, as it is the prize each side wants. "ISIS will fight to the last bullet to hold onto Mosul. I think that they are even willing to give up Raqqa to keep Mosul. It is going to be a very bloody fight there."