How to Win Mosul Without Losing Iraq

This may be the easy part.

Photographer: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

Few doubt that the offensive now underway in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, will end Islamic State’s barbaric two-year rule there. The question is how to manage the aftermath so it doesn't plunge Iraq back into civil war.

You almost need a scorecard to keep track of all the players in the effort to liberate the ethnically diverse metropolis: the Iraqi army; Iran-backed Shiite militias; a 10,000-man Sunni “tribal force”; various Kurdish peshmerga forces; Turkmen, Yazidi, Chaldean and Assyrian Christian resistance groups; and several hundred American special forces backed by U.S. air power. They are all arrayed against just 5,000 or so Islamic State fighters.

It is a case where the spoils are going to be more problematic than the victory. Already there is talk in Iraq and the U.S. Congress of turning Mosul and surrounding Ninevah Province into several quasi-autonomous “cantons” along the lines of the Kurdish protected zone created after the Gulf War. This is a terrible idea.

Such mini-states would have no legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi government or people. They would likely fight among themselves over land and oil. And their creation could give momentum to a total breakup of the Iraqi state, which would create the sort of chaos that allowed Islamic State to thrive in the first place.

This is why the Iraqi government has to come up with a plan now for a temporary ruling authority to take civilian control of Mosul as soon as the fighting ends. This government would have to allow representation from all the ethnic and religious factions and be committed to religious tolerance and rule of law.

The plan should be made public before the battle ends, which would keep Mosul’s residents calm and eager to expel the terrorist forces. Equally important is avoiding atrocities by Shiite militia members against the Sunni population for alleged collusion with the terrorists, as occurred after the fights to re-take Amerli, Fallujah and Tikrit from Islamic State. Shiite units should be kept out of the center-city fighting entirely.

Ethnic strife is not the only threat facing Mosul and its environs. There is the potential for a monumental refugee crisis. Nongovernmental groups say there will be capacity for 200,000 refugees at most, while as many as 700,000 are expected to flee. The Iraqi military is urging civilians to hunker down in their homes until the siege is over, but that seems unlikely. There is also a plan to screen citizens leaving the city during the battle -- including all males above the age of 14. The government should make clear the criteria used for any detainments, ensure that trained troops and not Shiite militias run the checkpoints, and let human-rights groups monitor the process.

Last, the Iraqi government must not be tempted to make the fight easier by letting the terrorists melt away and return to the Islamic State homeland in Syria, as happened to some extent in Fallujah. The northern part of the Iraq-Syria border is now a fiction, and Islamic State remains a threat to Iraq’s sovereignty no matter which side it inhabits. 

The fighting in Mosul will be ugly. If the past is any guide, the terrorists will rig homemade bombs, use civilians as human shields and carry out suicide attacks. It would be a tragedy, both human and political, if Iraq ends up less stable and more dangerous after the battle than it is now.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.