By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) reached Mosul’s eastern city limits on October 31 to begin the initial push into the city. Meanwhile, Iraqi Shi’a militias, including Iranian proxies and U.S.-designated terrorist groups, opened up a western axis on October 29 with the intention to retake Tel Afar, west of Mosul.
The ISF has concentrated on the northern and eastern axes of the Mosul operation and is making progress towards Mosul’s eastern city limits. The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) reached the border of Mosul’s city limits on October 31, where it clashed with ISIS. The CTS is currently operating around Gogjali, a village bordering Mosul’s eastern limits. The CTS has not yet breached Mosul’s city limits, despite local reports. Meanwhile, units from the 9th Iraqi Army (IA) Division are advancing towards Mosul from the southeast, moving beyond Hamdaniya, which the ISF recaptured on October 22. The 16th IA Division is approaching the city from the north, composing part of the third axis working on breaching Mosul’s eastern side. The 16th IA Division also continues the offensive around Tel Kayyaf, which it reportedly stormed on October 31.
The southern axis advanced after nearly a week of limited progress. The Federal Police recaptured Shura, the former Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) hub, on October 29. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi visited the city on October 31 after a visit to the Qayyarah Airbase, which landed cargo planes on October 30 for the first time since 2014. The Federal Police now progress north towards Hamam al-Alil, the last major city on the southern axis before Mosul.
Iraqi Shi’a militias launched an operation on Mosul’s western axis on October 29 in order to retake Tel Afar, a district with a significant Shi’a Turkmen population. The militias include Iranian-backed proxies such as the Badr Organization, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), a U.S.-designated terrorist group. IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani also appeared on the frontline on an unspecified date, indicating senior-level Iranian involvement in the planning and coordinating of the operation. The militias’ presence will complicate the Mosul operation and its success in defeating and preventing insurgent groups from resurging in recaptured territories. Many of the militias have a record of sectarian abuses against Sunni civilian populations and could carry out sectarian reprisals on the majority Sunni villages they pass through, as they did during their previous anti-ISIS operations in Fallujah and Tikrit. Sectarian attacks could drive Sunni populations to either seek a protectorate outside of the Iraqi government, including ISIS, or become a foothold for other insurgents, such as AQI, to resurge in Iraq. Tel Afar served as a Sunni insurgent and AQ stronghold in the early years of the Iraq War and could retain dormant AQI networks. Shi’a militia participation in greater Mosul operations also gives them a say in the post-ISIS governance of Mosul. Shi’a militias’ presence in Ninewa, combined with disputes with Kurds over the control of terrain, could marginalize Sunni Arab representation in the future provincial administration, exacerbating conditions for a renewed future Sunni insurgency after Mosul is recaptured.
Turkey may see the militias’ presence in Tel Afar, an ethnically Turkmen town, as grounds for greater intervention in northern Iraq. Turkish President Recep Erdogan stated on October 29 that Turkey would have a “different response” if Shi’a militias “unleash terror” on the city. Erdogan also announced that Turkey will be reinforcing its troops on the Iraqi border in the Turkish border town of Silopi. The town had reportedly already witnessed a military build-up when the Mosul operation began on October 17. The intervention of Shi’a militias into the Mosul operation could thus further ingrain Mosul as the convergence of regional and Iraqi actors, thereby undermining the sovereignty of the Iraqi government in northern Iraq.