Magazine article The Spectator

Iraq's Endgame

Magazine article The Spectator

Iraq's Endgame

Article excerpt

Isis will fall in Mosul. But at least three forces are jostling over what happens next

At night, the temperature around the Islamic State-held city of Mosul drops to around 80°F. At the Bashiqa front line, 15 miles northeast of the city, it would feel pleasant and almost calm, were it not for the steady sound of exploding shells. Most of life is tea and cigarettes. It's like a quiet day on the Western Front, minus the mud.

'It's so peaceful you can't imagine what's happening -- it's surreal,' says Allan Duncan, a former soldier with the Royal Irish Regiment who volunteered to join the Kurdish peshmerga here two years ago in order to fight Isis. 'You almost forget that things are so close to the end.'

Seth J Frantzman tells Lara Prendergast about the scramble for Mosul:

Because soon, the waiting -- amid an abiding fear of attacks with suicide trucks, armoured like something out of Mad Max -- will be over. The final assault on Mosul, which was taken by Islamic State two years ago, is expected to end Isis's control of significant territory in Iraq.

Isis certainly seems to sense that the endgame has begun, and is responding with its customary brutality. It has been killing deserters, and relying on ever-younger recruits. Last month a massive car bomb killed 323 in a Shia district of Baghdad during Ramadan. (Foreign media speculated that the group was increasing its attacks during the holy month; locals, by contrast, reckon they have already grown fewer.)

It's not, however, a simple matter of Isis versus everyone else. The battle for Mosul is like the race to get to Berlin between the Soviets and the West in 1945. The positioning of forces in this final push is expected to redraw the boundaries in northern Iraq. Kurds, Shia and Sunni Arabs, not to mention various minority groups, all have claims to stake.

For the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, whose army will attack Mosul from the south, this is a chance to reunify the country under the control of Baghdad. Iran, which supports Shia militias fighting alongside the Iraqi army, wants the same thing.

But for the Kurdish peshmerga here, the fight against Isis is another chance to carve out an autonomous state. And for the Sunni Arab militia which will join the Kurds in attacking Mosul from the west, the battle is a chance to re-establish a Sunni presence that has nothing to do with Islamic State. The Kurdish president, Masoud Barzani, has told Sunni tribal leaders that Kurdish forces will participate in the operation to take Mosul but not enter the city itself.

Bahram Yassin, the peshmerga commanding officer, oversees 7,000 men along 30 miles of front line, and seems eager to move. It's thought that Islamic State leaders are already fleeing the city for Syria. 'People are deserting Isis now -- their morale is very low and we are ready to attack them,' he says. 'We now know that they have no advanced weapons.' He argues that the longer Isis is allowed to remain, the more Islam is besmirched. 'These jihadists say they fight for the Islamic religion but that is not true, so the Kurds must destroy Isis, break them. If not, they will break us Muslims. That's why we need international help.' He wants more airstrikes, and he complains that Baghdad, far from the front, receives advanced anti-tank weapons while the peshmerga have to defend a large area with AK-47s. …

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