Increased air strikes and shelling in western Mosul will hasten progress against Islamic State but increase Sunni sympathy for group
Iraqi Government forces regained control of the Government complex in the Bab al-Tob area of western Mosul on 7 March, and then began fighting to capture the Iron Bridge that connects the Old City to the eastern half. A Commander of the Counter Terrorism Service estimated on 12 March that 30% of the western half of the city had been captured in the first three weeks of the campaign. This relatively swift progress has been made in spite of fierce Islamic State (IS) resistance, which is credibly reported to have included the use of chemical weapons.
The increased support from Shia militias that we noted in our last Report has likely contributed to the accelerated advances. These forces have maintained pressure on IS from the west of the city, thus stretching its resources by increasing the number of fronts it has to defend simultaneously. Moreover, the Iraqi Government and their allies have made greater use of air strikes and shelling in western Mosul than they did in the East, where the Army sought to preserve infrastructure and minimise civilian deaths by restricting their use within the city’s limits. This was partly intended to prevent IS from using such strikes to boost Sunni support for its cause.
However, the new US administration is committed to accelerating progress against IS, as shown when it deployed additional advisors near the front lines last month. This is likely to have prompted the loosening of the rules of engagement for both US and Iraqi forces, which has caused a large number of civilian casualties from airstrikes and shelling in the West since the campaign began. The provincial Government of Nineveh, in which Mosul is situated, has also estimated that around 40% of western Mosul’s buildings and infrastructure have been destroyed, including by US-led coalition strikes.
The Government’s tougher approach may accelerate the ousting of IS from the city, potentially meaning that pro-Baghdad forces may capture Mosul within the next two months. However, IS will exploit the Government’s increasing disregard for civilian casualties and for the destruction of housing and infrastructure to increase its support, both among Iraqi Sunnis and further afield. This may notably lead to Iraqi Sunnis being more willing to shelter fleeing IS fighters, and so increase the group’s ability to carry out an insurgent-style campaign after its eventual defeat in Mosul.