Operations in Mosul paused since the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) recaptured eastern Mosul on January 24. The ISF is now preparing to retake the western side. Political conditions have changed, however. Increased pressure on Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to keep his premiership and uncertain relations between the U.S. and Iraq may allow pro-Iranian groups to extract concessions from PM Abadi that run contrary to U.S. interests in Iraq.
The ISF recaptured the last ISIS-held neighborhood in eastern Mosul on January 24, nearly three months since operations in the city began on November 1, 2016. Preparations and troop movement are now underway for operations to break into western Mosul, though no official start date has been announced. Mosul Operations Commander Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir Yarallah announced that local Ninewa police and fighters, headed by the 16th Iraqi Army Division, will hold recaptured eastern neighborhoods while local Ninewa tribal militias will hold recaptured land outside of the city limits. The Federal Police stated on January 29 that their forces were moving towards western Mosul, suggesting that the three brigades which supported southeastern operations returned to their original position on the southern axis.
PM Abadi is at increased risk of losing his premiership. Former PM Nouri al-Maliki is maneuvering to reclaim the position by appealing to Iranian interests and courting the pro-Iranian support base away from PM Abadi. PM Abadi, who has been receptive to and supported by the U.S., may need to make concession to the pro-Iranian political base in order to ensure his position, especially if U.S.-Iraq relations strain. PM Abadi compromised on the appointment of a Badr Organization member as the Minister of Interior on January 30, despite previous reservations. He may also need to appease political parties by allowing their affiliated militias greater latitude in anti-ISIS operations.
PM Abadi may have conceded Tel Afar to the Popular Mobilization, who have long lobbied to own the operation. Popular Mobilization media stated on January 27 that Lt. Gen. Yarallah announced that the Popular Mobilization were assigned to recapture Tel Afar with Iraqi air support. Pro-Iranian militias, including the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Kata’ib Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, have been building up in the vicinity of Tel Afar, rather than moving west towards the Syrian border as they had previously intended. In previous urban operations, such as Fallujah, the Popular Mobilization has entered urban terrain behind a more experienced ISF frontline. The militias are likely seeking to coordinate with the ISF to bolster their limited urban warfare capabilities and generate Coalition air support. Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri met with Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Uthman al-Ghanimi on January 26 to discuss northern operations, indicating that this effort is underway.
Pro-Iranian militias may also try to establish a presence in Mosul, though will likely remain far from the frontline. Badr Organization media claimed that a small Badr unit found a VBIED factory in the industrial neighborhood in eastern Mosul on January 18 however the unit was also sited in the countryside southeast of Mosul around the same time, making it unclear if the unit actually entered the city. Coalition ground forces commander Gen. Joe Martin stated on January 25 that he is unaware of any militias present in the city. This is the first report of militias operating east of the Tigris River, however, and it could be an early indicator that the militias will use PM Abadi’s vulnerable position and lack of a political support base to maneuver without check from the Iraqi Government.