The Iraqi armed forces will eventually capture west Mosul, which is still held by Isis fighters, but the city itself will be destroyed in the fighting, a senior Iraqi politician has told The Independent in an interview.
Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader who until last year was the Iraqi finance minister and prior to that the country’s long-serving foreign minister, says that Isis will fight to the last man in the densely-packed urban districts it still holds.
“I think west Mosul will be destroyed,” says Mr Zebari, pointing to the high level of destruction in east Mosul just taken by government forces. He explains that Isis is able to put up such stiff resistance by skilful tactics using networks of tunnels, sniper teams and suicide bombers in great numbers. He adds that no date has yet been set for the resumption of the Iraqi government offensive into west Mosul, but he expects the fighting to be even tougher than before.
A further reason for fanatical resistance by Isis is that Mr Zebari is certain that the Isis leader and self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still in west Mosul and reports of him being killed or injured in an air strike elsewhere in Iraq are incorrect. He says that Isis sector commanders in the city are experienced professional soldiers, all of whom were once officers in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard or Special Forces, and will fight effectively to defend their remaining stronghold in the larger part of the city that is to the west of the Tigris River.
The elite Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services, led by the 10,000-strong Golden Division, had expected to take the whole of Mosul, once a city of two million people, by the end of 2016. But ferocious resistance by some 3,000 Isis fighters on the east bank of the Tigris meant that this part of the city was only captured after three months of fighting with heavy loss of life on all sides, especially among civilians.
Mr Zebari, who originally comes from Mosul, describes the present situation in the city as “horrible” and “a shambles”, even in those parts of it that Iraqi government forces have captured, though not fully occupied and secured. “There are Isis ‘sleeper cells’ with maybe 16 to 24 men in each district which come out of hiding and kill people who are cooperating with the government,” he says. “They target restaurants which have reopened and serve soldiers.” There has also been a complete failure by the government to restore basic services like electricity and water supply.
Asked about casualties, Mr Zebari said those on the Iraqi security forces side had been heavy, but the government in Baghdad has refused to produce exact figures. US reports say that some units of the Golden Division, which is a sort of highly trained army within the army, had suffered up to 50 per cent losses. He discounts official Iraqi claims that 16,000 Isis fighters had been killed, saying that the real figure was probably between 1,500 and 2,000 Isis dead out of a total of 6,000 in Mosul. He thought that they had brought in reinforcements and there were probably 4,000 Isis fighters left who would defend west Mosul, which is home to about 750,000 people.
This account is borne out by other reports from in and around east Mosul where this week two suicide bombers attacked a market, killing twelve and wounding 33 people. Mortars and rockets fired by Isis are still exploding and the main water system was destroyed in fighting in January. Pictures show cavernous craters reportedly caused by bombs dropped by US Air Force B-52s to aid the Iraqi army advance. People who fled Mosul at the height of the fighting and have been returning to it are often leaving again. The UN says that it is worried by arbitrary arrests of displaced people as possible Isis sympathisers and records that on 8 and 9 February some 1,442 came back to east Mosul, but 791 left for displacement camps.
Despite the Iraqi security forces’ focus on weeding out Isis supporters and “sleeper cells”, Mr Zebari says that this does not provide real security because travel documents can be bought from corrupt security officers for 25,000 Iraqi dinars (£17). Drivers on Iraqi roads have confirmed to The Independent that the main concern of checkpoints is not security, but to extract bribes from passing vehicles. This would explain how Isis suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives are able to pass through multiple checkpoints before detonating explosives in civilian areas in Baghdad or other cities.
Mr Zebari notes that rivalry between the US and Iran in Iraq is increasing under President Donald Trump, with the latter slow to call the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and making US help conditional on a reduction in Iranian influence. During the US presidential election campaign, Mr Trump claimed that Iran had taken over Iraq. There is also growing friction between the different Shia parties and movements that Mr Zebari says makes “inter-Shia fighting imminent”.
Mr Zebari’s prediction that Mosul will be destroyed as a city by the next wave of fighting is all too likely because the last three years in Iraq and Syria have seen deepening sectarian and ethnic hatred. This was greatly fostered by Isis massacres, primarily of Shia and Yazidis but also of its other opponents. There is an ominous precedent for what may happen in Mosul because other Sunni cities and towns up and down Iraq have been wrecked or rendered uninhabitable by government counter-offensives since 2014. Some 70 per cent of the houses in Ramadi, the capital of the overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province, are in ruins or are badly damaged. Even where many houses are still standing, as in Fallujah 40 miles west of Baghdad, the people who come back to them have to live without electricity, water, jobs or medical care. In practice, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government wants to break the back of Sunni resistance to its rule so it will never be capable of rising again.