Battle for Isil stronghold key test of Obama's presidency
A long time in the planning, the battle to wrest the key Iraqi city of Mosul from Isil began in earnest in the early hours of Monday morning. The Iraqi army-led offensive comes after several crucial victories against Isil over the past year which dislodged the militants from Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq and Palmyra, Manbij and Dabiq in Syria. With Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, the last significant territory under Isil's control in the country, the battle there is likely to be a turning point in more ways than one.
Mosul has been central to Isil's idea of itself since the group captured the city in summer 2014. From the city's storied mosque, Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself caliph, setting in train a narrative that would draw supporters from across the world to build its so-called caliphate across the swathes of Syria and Iraq the group then controlled. Historically significant and strategically located, Mosul was the crown of Isil's holdings, to which its capital in Syria, the northern town of Raqqa, played second fiddle. From Mosul, Isil ran a fledgling administration, raised taxes and oversaw oil infrastructure that provided the group with revenues.
The capture of Mosul two years ago, which saw Iraqi army forces flee as Isil advanced, exposed many of the weaknesses of the Iraq governed by then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. How the battle to regain Mosul might play out and what might follow afterwards will depend much on how the coalition taking on Isil acts in the weeks and months to come.
That coalition - estimated at some 30,000 fighters - consists of Iraqi armed forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Turkish troops and Shia militias supported by US-led air strikes in coordination with special forces on the ground. The plan is for the Kurds and the Shia militias to seal off Mosul from its eastern and southern flanks, while the army pushes into the city, confronting Isil neighbourhood by neighbourhood. One of the risks of the operation is potential conflict between Mosul's mainly Sunni population and the Shia militias taking part on its hinterland.
Isil has dispatched suicide bombers in armoured cars and trucks to target the forces advancing on Mosul, and it has also launched mortar attacks in a bid to repulse the offensive. While Isil is no longer the force it was in 2014 - whether in Mosul or elsewhere - there are an estimated 3,000-5,000 Isil militants inside the city who will fight to the end to defend what is their last important bastion in Iraq.
The battle for Mosul is important beyond the matter of routing Isil. Strategically valued for centuries, the city is now eyed by a range of actors inside and out of Iraq. Long squabbling Iraqi Arabs and Kurds hold Mosul as key to controlling northern Iraq.
Ankara sees it as a bulwark against Tehran's creeping influence, while others are wary of Turkish designs on the region. The way the US-directed battle for Mosul is conducted will also have ramifications for Aleppo in Syria, where Russian air strikes in support of president Bashar al-Assad have ravaged the rebel-held east of the city. Washington's criticism of Russia's role in Aleppo will have less weight if the Mosul offensive results in similar devastation.
Key to how the battle may evolve are Mosul's million or so Sunni residents. Wary of the Shia militias taking part in the offensive on the city's outskirts and long resentful of Maliki's government in Baghdad, they will need assurances of their place in a post-Isil scenario if they are to fully support the operation. If anything enabled the rise of Isil in Iraq to begin with it was the sectarian ills of Iraq under Maliki.
The UN's refugee agency has cautioned about the impact on civilians as the battle unfolds. It says Mosul will require one of the world's biggest and most complex humanitarian efforts, with fighting possibly forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes and civilians being used as human shields by Isil. More than three million people have been displaced in Iraq already due to fighting involving the jihadist group.
The UN has warned more than 100,000 Mosul residents could flee to Syria and Turkey, exacerbating a refugee crisis across the region and in Europe. Meanwhile, security officials are concerned that European members of Isil who travelled to Mosul to become part of its experiment there may try to return home.
The battle for Mosul is a major test not just for Iraq, but for regional powers and the Obama administration in its final days.