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Opinion
Noah Feldman

Islamic State Has Good Reasons to Retreat in Iraq

But moving all its fighters to Syria isn't one of them.
Iraqis on the road to retaking Mosul.
Photographer: Mahmoud Al-Samarrai/AFP/Getty Images

There’s no need to believe the Russian propaganda that says the U.S. agreed to let 9,000 Islamic State fighters flee Mosul to go fight President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But the story “reported” Wednesday by Russia Today (on the basis of a single anonymous source) does capture a strategic truth in the run-up to the attack on the Islamic State-controlled city: The fighters have good reason to flee -- and the Iraqis and the U.S. have good reason to let them.

The battle to retake Mosul has been a long time coming. Islamic State occupied the city in June 2014, without encountering much in the way of Iraqi military resistance. Mosul was the biggest and most important city to fall into the hands of the self-proclaimed caliphate. Before Islamic State arrived, it had a population of roughly 2 million, making it Iraq’s third most populous city. (Since then, at least half have fled or been expelled or killed, including essentially all the ethnic and religious minorities such as Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrian Christians and Yazidis.)