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Iraq needs Kurds' help to retake Mosul, says deputy PM

Baghdad: The Iraqi army will need the Kurds' help to retake Mosul, the largest city under the control of Islamic State with the planned offensive expected to be very challenging in a region home to rival religious and ethnic groups, says Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who served for much of the last decade as Iraq's foreign minister and is now its deputy prime minister.

Islamic State militants patrol Khazer, near Mosul.
Islamic State militants patrol Khazer, near Mosul.  

Mosul, 400 kilometres north of Baghdad, has been designated by the government as the next target for Iraq's armed forces after they retook the western city of Ramadi, the first major success of the US-trained force that initially fled in the face of Islamic State's advance 18 months ago.

Retaking the mostly Sunni city of Mosul would be hard as the local and regional players in northern Iraq have diverging agendas. The region is a mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups lying between Turkey, Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan.

It would effectively mark the end of the caliphate proclaimed by IS in adjacent Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria, Mr Zebari said.

"Mosul needs good planning, preparations, commitment from all the key players," he said on Monday in Baghdad.

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"Peshmerga is a major force; you cannot do Mosul without Peshmerga," he added, referring to the armed forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous northern region of Iraq close to Mosul.

Kurdish forces have positions east, north and west of Mosul, while Iraqi security forces backed by Shiite militias have positions in Baiji, south of Mosul.

Iraqi soldiers hold national flags in the government complex in central Ramadi.
Iraqi soldiers hold national flags in the government complex in central Ramadi. Photo: AP

The city had a population of 2 million before it fell to the militants in June 2014, in the first stage of their sweeping advance through northern and western Iraq.

The battle of Mosul would be "very, very challenging", Mr Zebari said. "It will not be an easy operation, for some time they have been strengthening themselves, but it's doable."

An Iraqi soldier flashes the victory sign after entering the government complex in central Ramadi.
An Iraqi soldier flashes the victory sign after entering the government complex in central Ramadi. Photo: AP

Given the extent of the area that needs to be secured around Mosul during the attack, the army may also need to draw on local Sunni forces and possibly the Shiite Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in support roles, he said.

The PMF, known in Arabic as Hashid Shaabi, is a loosely-knit coalition of mostly Iran-backed Shiite militias set up to fight IS. The government sidelined the PMF in the Ramadi battle to ensure air support from the US, which is reluctant to be seen fighting on the same side as the Iranian-backed militias.

Iraq's Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari in 2007.
Iraq's Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari in 2007. Photo: AP/File

"Mosul is different from Ramadi," US Army Colonel Steve Warren said on Tuesday. "It's a big, big, big city and it's going to take a lot of effort. It's going to take more training. It's going to take more equipment, and it's going to take patience."

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Monday that IS would be defeated in 2016, with the army planning to move on Mosul. "We are coming to liberate Mosul and it will be the fatal and final blow to [IS]," he said in speech praising the army's "victory" in Ramadi.

"It's there [Mosul] where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate," Mr Zebari said, referring to the group's leader. "It is literally their capital."

The Iraqi Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, discussed plans for the liberation of Mosul with Britain's senior defence adviser Lieutenant-General Tom Beckett in September, according to Kurdish TV Rudaw.

Peshmerga forces, backed by US air strikes, in November dislodged IS from Sinjar, a town west of Mosul that is home to Iraq's Yazidi minority.

Mr Barzani said at the time that the capture of Sinjar "would have a big impact on liberating Mosul", as the Yazidi town lies on the road to Raqqa, Islamic State's stronghold in Syria.

Arab Sunnis and Shiites are concerned the Kurds could use the battle as a means to expand the territory under their control, said Wathiq al-Hashimi, chairman of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Baghdad.

The Kurds are concerned the Shiites will use their presence to bolster the influence of the central government in Baghdad, he said.

"The Peshmerga's involvement will be inevitable but could further complicate the battle in Mosul if not enough guarantees have been taken from the regional leadership that they will not use it to expand their territories," said Mr Hashimi.

Reuters

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