Journal Essay

Liberating Mosul: Beyond the Battle

Dylan O'Driscoll

Winter 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 4

Dr. O'Driscoll is a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The occupation of the Iraqi city of Mosul by the Islamic State (IS)1 has become an issue of global importance. The liberation of the city is seen as a symbol for defeating IS in Iraq, and there is international pressure to achieve this. Both the Obama administration and the prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, have been pushing for the liberation of Mosul for political reasons.2 There is the perception that Obama would like to end his term on a high, and victory over IS in Iraq would provide just that, at least temporarily. Additionally, Abadi promised to defeat IS before the end of 2016 and, as his political position is weak at the moment, this is a promise he needs to deliver on.3 The flurry of activity in September 2016 — with visits from the British and German defense ministers to Erbil,4 a high-level delegation from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) visiting Baghdad5 as well as a tripartite agreement among Baghdad, Erbil and Washington for the Mosul liberation — made it clear that the Mosul battle was imminent.6 Indeed, on October 17, 2016, Abadi announced the beginning of the operation to retake the city of Mosul from IS.7 However, no political agreement has been reached for the future governance and security of Mosul and the wider province of Nineveh.8 Liberating Mosul without adequate planning with regard to post-IS dynamics will only result in a short-lived victory that the people of Iraq will pay for in the years to come. A political agreement should have been reached prior to the launch of the offensive, and it is now imperative that political action be taken before the end of the offensive.

This article argues that the political and security marginalization of the Sunnis is partly responsible for the rise of IS; thus, any liberation would be counterproductive if not paired with a political and security agreement for Mosul and the wider province of Nineveh. It thus lays out the issues that need to be, and should already have been, addressed. As the battle for Mosul is likely to take as long as three months,9 and possibly even more, it is vital that negotiations begin and agreements be reached for the political and security elements of the liberation before it is completed. I will first contextualize the political failures in Iraq by examining the marginalization of Sunnis. Following this, I will analyze why it is essential for a political and security deal to be reached prior to the completion of the liberation of the city of Mosul and what role the coalition forces, particularly the United States, can play in facilitating this arrangement. The fieldwork for this research, undertaken between June and August 2016, involved semi-structured interviews with the key political actors in Nineveh.

The deep structural and political failures in Iraq are indicated by the way in which the security forces gave up Mosul so easily. If they are not dealt with, any military defeat of IS will be pointless; IS will merely be replaced by another radical entity looking to represent the marginalized Sunni population. Lessons must be learned from the actions of the post-Saddam era. Failure to create a political, civil and security system that represents the entire population of Iraq led to radicalization and disengagement from the Iraqi state. If these same mistakes are not to be repeated post-IS, substantial planning is needed.10

The governance system in Iraq has failed to adequately represent its various communities, and since 2003 the government has been unable to deliver economic and security stability. Under these circumstances, IS grew and thrived in Iraq, making it clear that a political solution needs to come before any military decision. Because IS is the grotesque manifestation of the marginalization of the Sunni population, defeating it militarily will not solve the issue that brought it to life in the first place. It needs to be defeated politically. Once a political settlement is achieved, there will no longer be a void to fill; consequently, IS will lose its mandate to exist.11 In order to understand the need for a political deal, it is important to first examine the marginalization process in Iraq.


As a result of the process of de-Baathification and the political sidelining of Sunnis, al-Qaeda was able to gain a significant foothold in Iraq. The response to al-Qaeda's rise was the creation of the Sunni Sahwa forces, which finally produced an active engagement with the Sunni community.12 This led to an increased participation in the political process, which in turn led to the secular al-Iraqiya bloc's winning the most seats in the 2010 national elections.13 This could have been a turning point with regard to Sunni political participation in post-2003 Iraq. However, due to Iraq's political system and fraught post-election negotiations for power, Nouri al-Maliki and his State of Law bloc managed to maintain power.14

The period of Maliki's second term is seen as largely responsible for the complete marginalization of the Sunnis that led to the rapid rise of IS.15 Maliki's growing authoritarianism and amalgamation of power were decisive. First, alongside his role as prime minister, he became minister of defense, minister of interior, minister of state for national security and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Second, Maliki eliminated a number of his political opponents through accusations and arrests.16 Third, he disbanded the Sunni Sahwa forces without properly incorporating them into the security services, thus ridding himself of (Sunni) military opposition.17 Fourth, he replaced high-ranking military officials with his allies and began giving them direct orders. Additionally, Maliki created provincial command centers with generals loyal to him and placed both the army and police under these generals' control. This led to his effectively running the Iraqi Security Forces both on the ground and in the parliament.18 Finally, Maliki sent in the army to deal with those Sunnis protesting against his governing methods. The resulting violence caused many deaths.19

This essay is only available in the print edition of Middle East Policy.

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