By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) isolated Mosul completely on March 1 as units advanced within the city towards the government center. The Popular Mobilization are nearing Tel Afar from the west and could breach the city in the coming weeks.
Increased U.S. investments in Mosul since December 2016 have ensured smoother and quicker operations in the western half of the city. The U.S. increased its involvement in December 2016 when the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) appeared close to culminating in eastern Mosul. The U.S. and Coalition embedded advisors at the brigade- and battalion-level, rather than at the division-level, improving the ISF’s cross-axis coordination. Recent reports also revealed that the December directives granted advisors the ability to call in airstrikes without going through a joint operations cell in Baghdad. The new directive was lauded as adding “precision” to ground operations; it also underscores that U.S. personnel are increasingly at the frontlines of the operation. Indicators from the new U.S. Administration, including a proposed 10% budget increase for the Department of Defense, suggest that it may expand the level of U.S. involvement in Iraq, beyond the Mosul operation.
The ISF isolated Mosul completely after units from the 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division took the Tel Afar-Mosul road on March 1. The division will continue along the road to the west, looking to retake the ISIS-held town of Badush on the Tigris River, and will likely turn east as well in order to breach Mosul’s northwestern neighborhoods. Operations inside of Mosul have steadily advanced after the initial push to recapture the airport and military base on February 24. Units from the Iraqi Army, Federal Police, and Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) retook three adjacent neighborhoods from February 25 to 28 and have seized the western side of the Fourth Bridge, marking full control of one of five bridges that span the Tigris River in Mosul. All five bridges are inoperable, but the ISF may now be able to repair the Fourth Bridge to transit supplies and personnel in from the east. The ISF is now preparing to advance further into Mosul’s city center.
ISIS’s resistance remains capable and deadly, despite these advances. ISIS launched indirect fire at the Mosul airport after the ISF declared it under control, killing four Iraqi soldiers on February 23. ISIS also began to burn civilian homes and vehicles on February 27, producing thick black smoke. ISIS similarly burned tires and oil in eastern Mosul to produce smoke cover in October 2016. ISIS’s resistance may increase as the ISF nears the Old City and government center, especially if escape routes are cut. However, ISIS could also attempt a counteroffensive in eastern Mosul in order to draw forces back across the river.
The Popular Mobilization, meanwhile, is nearing Tel Afar, now a primarily Sunni Turkmen town and a historic insurgent hotspot. The militias, alongside two army brigades, will likely breach the city from the west within the coming weeks. Other militias currently operating further east of the city may make up ground during that time and match the western axis’s advance. The Popular Mobilization has cited the Iraqi Army Aviation (IAA) as a key participant in their advance towards the city and the IAA has been increasingly assessed to be providing the bulk of airstrikes for the militia operations. Doing so, however, reduces the U.S.’s ability to effectively leverage its airstrikes in order to condition militia participation in operations. The U.S. must establish a strategy that secures sufficient leverage over Iran to reduce its influence over Iraq’s security forces and ensure continued U.S. presence in Iraq beyond the Mosul operation.