By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team
The Coalition-led operation to secure Mosul from ISIS advanced towards the city from two directions in the first 72 hours as of October 19, 2016. U.S. Forces are participating in the operation as advisers and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs). The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Popular Mobilization units advanced from the south, while ISF and Peshmerga units advanced from the southeast. The ISF and Peshmerga recently opened a third offensive northeast of the city. The ISF have recaptured the city center of Hamdaniya, southeast of Mosul, but fighting is still underway.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) advanced north of Qayyarah towards Shura, a previous al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) hub south of Mosul, in a pincer move from the southwest and the southeast. Iraqi Army (IA) units moved in from the southeast, recapturing al-Hawd and al-Lazakah, directly north of Qayyarah on October 17. Civilians in al-Hawd had reportedly already risen up and killed many of the ISIS militants before the ISF arrived. Units from the Federal Police and Emergency Response Division (ERD) moved in towards Shura from the southwest and also moved west to recapture towns and oil wells west of the highway. Popular Mobilization units, including Iranian proxy militias, reportedly advanced alongside Federal Police units that are penetrated by members of the Badr Organization, a major Iranian proxy militia. Advancing security forces have yet to enter Shura, and the ISF ordered a two-day operational pause on October 19 in order to regroup. The pause was likely intended to allow the 15th Iraqi Army Division to catch up, as it has advanced north at a slower pace than other units.
The ISF is also advancing southeast of Mosul on the Khazar-Gwer axis towards Hamdaniya, a majority Christian town southeast of Mosul. The Gwer-Hamdaniya line currently forms the seam between the areas of operation of the ISF and Peshmerga as of October 19. Armored Iraqi Army brigades led by Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) units advanced to Hamdaniya on October 18. The ISF recaptured the government complex but do not yet have control over the entire city due to resistance from remaining ISIS personnel, including heavy sniper fire, and because of a large presence of civilians. There is no indication that the Peshmerga is participating in Hamdaniya alongside the ISF or if it will join in, though the Peshmerga made advances from Khazar towards Mosul in villages north of Hamdaniya. Meanwhile, the Peshmerga began an offensive from their position on Mt. Bashiqa northeast of Mosul into the ISIS-held town of Bashiqa at the base of the mountain on October 18, but have not made significant progress. The CTS reported on October 19 that they would assist in the Peshmerga operation beginning October 20. The CTS’s positioning in Kurdish terrain is one of the results of a U.S.-brokered agreement between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi Government in August and will set the CTS up to breach Mosul’s city limits from the northeast.
ISIS demonstrated signs of resistance to the Coalition’s advances. ISIS launched suicide attacks against advancing forces in Hamdaniya and north of Qayyarah. ISIS has also attacked away from the frontlines, including in Sinjar on October 19, to distract from progress towards Mosul. In Mosul, the Pentagon stated that ISIS lighted tires and oil on fire in order to create black clouds to conceal their movements from Coalition aircraft. Reports also surfaced of ISIS using human shields in Mosul to avoid airstrikes.
The Pentagon confirmed that over 100 U.S. soldiers are on the ground with the Peshmerga and ISF in a report on October 18. The report stated that the forces, serving as advisors and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), are embedded with the ISF at the division level and with the Peshmerga in smaller units. The U.S. forces are expected to advance with the offensive.
Turkey remains a potential spoiler in northern operations. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated in a press conference on October 18 that Turkey’s air force was involved in Coalition airstrikes in Mosul, but later backtracked the statement, saying that Turkey participates “in principle.” The Pentagon likewise did not list Turkey as among the Coalition countries conducting airstrikes in Iraq. These statements come in the midst of a large-scale demonstration at the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad on the same day, directed by radical Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Turkey may escalate its rhetoric to military maneuvers in order to prove its importance in shaping the operation and post-ISIS conditions in Mosul.