On June 30, 2014, around three weeks after the extremist group that was then known as Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) captured Iraq's second city of Mosul, its spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared the establishment of a caliphate across Iraq and Syria. ISIL, he continued, was no more: instead the group would know be known as Islamic State (IS). With the capturing of vast swaths of territory, the most successful terrorist brand in modern history had been born.
Just over two years later things look vastly different. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, backed by U.S. air strikes, recaptured many of the cities and towns lost to IS over the course of 2013-14, notably Sinjar and Ramadi late last year, while the Iraqi Army retook Fallujah in June.
Just recently, IS lost Dabiq, an insignificant town strategically, but vital to the group's theological message, being the purported site of battle between Muslims and infidels that will bring about the end of days.
IS's Iraqi franchise is in retreat everywhere. Mosul is its last major stronghold in the country and, unlike Dabiq, with a population of 1.8 million it is a major strategic city and carries significant symbolic value. It was the capture of Mosul in 2014 that allowed the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to announce that IS had achieved its goal of establishing a caliphate in the Middle East, bulldozing the British- and French-created Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria in the process. After all these other defeats, if Mosul falls, IS, at least in its present incarnation, will have been defeated. Claims of it controlling a state-like caliphate will no longer be credible.
IS forces have long been preparing for the coming battle and reportedly have 3,000-5,000 fighters inside the city, along with networks of tunnels and booby traps they have constructed. On October 31, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi told them that there was "no escape" and to "surrender or die."
But as IS retreats from the villages surrounding Mosul it is forcing locals to march to the city to act as human shields against the inevitable onslaught. The battle will be bloody; neither side will yield.
In the end though, Mosul will fall. The question is not if but when. The combination of forces allied against the extremist group is simply too strong. And herein lies the problem. The alliance against IS is a loose and disunited triumvirate of Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and the Shi'ite militias, many backed by Iran, known in Arabic as Al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces). In the background, supporting all three, are U.S. air strikes and special forces on the ground. Between these disparate forces is a gulf of mistrust and, in some cases, barely concealed hostility.
The first problem lies with the fear these forces instill in many of those they are coming to "save." Oz Katerji, a writer and journalist embedded with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and ISF, has been as close as 15 kilometers from Mosul and has spoken to many in the surrounding villages that have been liberated. "The civilians in these areas suffered greatly under IS but were also terrified of the shelling and bombardment," he told me. And while life under IS was horrific, the thought of the Popular Mobilization Forces coming to "liberate" them is also terrifying. "Many of these people suffered immensely under the rule of sectarian Shi'a militias," he continued, "and tit-for-tat sectarian violence has been an almost daily routine in Iraq for many years now."
"Reports from liberated residents vary, but some have spoken of a very heavy-handed nature by those freeing them from IS rule. Militias moving in and putting all the men in blindfolds and arresting innocent people."
When the Shi'ite militias freed Fallujah from IS in June, they reportedly executed more than 300 Sunni residents of the city as well as torturing many more. Iraq's Sunnis do not forget.
"I've seen many Iraqi Army units drive around flying Shi'a religious flags. This is worrying many Sunni locals who fear reprisal attacks against civilians," Katerji adds. And the militias are not the only ones liberated locals fear and mistrust. "Families have been killed by coalition air strikes and this has naturally enraged locals and increased hostility towards both Baghdad and the West."
The second, perhaps even greater problem lies within the coalition itself. The Iraqi Kurdish region's prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, has said Peshmerga forces will play a "central role" in Mosul's liberation. That puts him at odds with the ISF, which has insisted that the Kurds confine themselves to the city's surrounding areas. The Kurds are also demanding a referendum on Kurdish independence once IS is defeated -- part of a quid pro quo for the huge role they have played in fighting and weakening the group; a demand opposed by both Baghdad and Washington.
Meanwhile, the Shi'ite militias have also demanded a central role in the capture of Mosul, alarming the United States, ISF, and Kurds, who view with trepidation the possibility of more sectarian killings if the militias enter Mosul.
Tensions are already building. "There is great mistrust and hostility growing between Kurdish forces and Iranian-backed groups. Many of the Kurds I have spoken to out here are terrified of Hashd al-Shaabi," Katerji told me.
The problem thus presents itself: what happens once IS loses Mosul? Without a common enemy to fight, the loose bond between Iraqi Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds will dissolve. As Katerji concludes:
"Ultimately Iraq has deep problems; removing the IS threat only solves one problem but opens a new one -- who will move in to control Sunni-majority areas and how will those relationships progress? As sectarian attacks continue to proliferate and suicide bombings still occur frequently, there are no easy answers here. There needs to be a great deal of collaborative international involvement to ensure civilians of all sides and sects are afforded the protection of their human and civil rights."
The next fight may well be an internal one -- for control of Iraq. And it may well be even bloodier.