By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) recaptured the government complex in central Mosul on March 7. ISIS has increased its use of chemical weapons in its defense.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made a push towards central Mosul on March 7, retaking the government complex and securing a second bridge. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi arrived in Mosul for the occasion. The Federal Police and Emergency Response Division (ERD) continue to advance north by skirting along the river’s edge rather than penetrate into the dense Old City. The Federal Police and ERD have spearheaded operations in western Mosul instead of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) which is leading a secondary line of effort in southwestern neighborhoods. The move was likely an effort to relieve the weary CTS of bearing the main thrust of the western operations. The ISF will likely continue to advance along the river, where the roads are wider and the ISF can remain in vehicles, until it reaches the 1st “Iron” Bridge. There it can turn west and advance towards the Great Mosque. Recapturing the mosque would be a symbolic victory in the anti-ISIS fight as the location where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance as Caliph in July 2014. The 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division alongside Popular Mobilization units meanwhile began efforts on March 7 to recapture the village of Badush, northwest of Mosul, seizing the nearby prison on March 8.
ISIS increased its use of chemical weapons in the defense of western Mosul. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stated on March 3 that it treated seven patients for exposure to chemical agents near Mosul. The United Nations likewise stated it treated twelve patients for wounds from a “blistering agent.” ISIS has used chemical weapons before; in November 2016, ISIS used chlorine and mustard gas in Bashiqa against the Peshmerga and burned sulfur plants around Qayyarah to prevent ISF advance. ISIS may increase its use of chemical weapons as the ISF breaks through its lines of defense in western Mosul. It may also try to combine chemical weapons with spectacular attacks, as the Federal Police reported it dismantled a Vehicle-Borne IED (VBIED) carrying unspecified chemical weapons on February 26.
The Coalition must set conditions for political stability and good governance at the local level to prevent ISIS from resurging after the recapture of Mosul. Coalition outreach has thus far been primarily directed at the Iraqi Government. ISIS is already resurging in provinces where local governments suffer from political infighting, such as Anbar. The Iraqi Government and U.S.-led Coalition need to facilitate the Ninewa Provincial Government’s ability to deliver services, reconstruction, and governance while remaining politically stable. Failure to rebuild local institutions and governance in Ninewa and other provinces risks the return to an environment of instability in which ISIS and other Sunni insurgencies thrive.