Smoke rises from oil wells, set ablaze by Islamic State militants before fleeing the oil-producing region of Qayyara, Iraq, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Smoke rises from oil wells, set ablaze by Islamic State militants before fleeing the oil-producing region of Qayyara, Iraq, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

While the media headlines are littered with the tag line, “Iraqi army pushing forward in Mosul” against the Islamic State (IS), the battle for Mosul is hardly being fought by the Iraqi army itself. With Iraqi army being advised and led by the US forces, spearheaded by the Iran backed Popular Mobilization Forces and aided by Kurdish militias, the only role it is playing is that of a second fiddle to geo-political interests of the US, Iran and Turkey.

Not only does Iraq not appear as the leading actor, its inability to steer the course of action is conspicuous by its absence.

Take, for example, the case of the 7,500 strong US military presence in Iraq, which is theoretically authorized to play an “advisory” role only. In reality, this is far from the case.

“Advisers” is the Pentagon’s preferred term for every type of US military personnel in Iraq and Syria who isn’t a pilot. However, in reality, “advisers” run the gamut between Special Operations forces such as Army Green Berets, to National Guard soldiers teaching an Iraqi unit, for instance, how to build a bridge.

For Mosul, US “advisers” will advance in tandem with whatever Iraqi unit they are paired with. Conventional American forces, for the Mosul battle, are allowed to “advise” even at the battalion level.

This implies that while the US advisers will, officially, be supposed to stay behind the lines, if an Iraqi unit’s battalion commander wants to fight from the front, his American counterparts will go with him. Western Special Operations forces, therefore, will practically move about the front much more freely than is theoretically expected of them.

What this position implies for the whole operation is that the US forces will have more control of the battlefield and be able to steer the course of action to any direction they deem advantageous to them (West/NATO countries) than any other actor, including Iraq.

The particular direction this battle is likely to take is evident from the particular configuration of Iraq’s own fighting force. Interestingly enough, around half of the 3,000 Iraqi troops trained by Turkey, a significant NATO member, at the Bashiqa camp in northern Iraq are participating in the Mosul operation. The revelation was made recently by Turkey’s own military sources.

The preference for these Turkey-trained units over other units is meaningful in that this is how the US has indirectly fulfilled Turkey’s demand for a presence on the ground.

While the Iraqi government has opposed the presence of Turkish troops on the ground, and while Turkey has scaled down its own demand for full participation in Mosul, the fact that Turkey-trained units are fighting and are being “advised” by the US speaks volumes about the true nature of the battle for Mosul.

Just to remind ourselves of some territorial conflicts in the region, Mosul happens to be a city Turkey has been claiming as its own territory since the First World War. It now intends to use it to counter-balance the increasing Iranian influence in the country as well as to neutralize any possibility of Kurdish militias, yet another force fighting in Iraq for interests that don’t converge with those of Iraq, gaining any strong foothold in and around the city and pose a direct threat to Turkey.

There is no denying that Iran is actually weary of any direct or indirect Turkish involvement in the battle. To date, Iraqi forces have been unable to, and they have been “advised” not to, play a prominent role in this operation, which it probably can’t play either due to the acute shortage of both man and combat power.

In fact, the very reason that led to proliferation of Iran-backed militias in Iraq was, and still is, the abject conditions Iraqi army found itself in after the fall of Mosul to IS in 2014. And the fact that the Iraqi government continues to use these militias speaks volumes about how weak Iraq’s own army continue to be.

Another significant reason for relying on these Iran-backed militias is to deny the Turkish-trained army units, working closely with the US forces, a success in the battle, which would, if it happens, allow Turkey to play a greater role in influencing the final outcome.

In order for anything to be an “Iraqi operation,” it needs to be conducted by Iraqi troops. The force doing the bulk of the fighting in Iraq is Shiite Hashd militia, which is one of the 40-odd other militias fighting under the umbrella of Popular Mobilization Forces, which are trained, led and equipped by Iran and have the Iraqi government’s political and military support.

All these militias are officially, religiously and ritually linked to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and come in line with Iran’s strategy to strengthen its foothold in the region.

As such, it is the Hashd boots-on-the-ground that have given Iran more control and influence over Southern Iraq than the Baghdad government. This situation has created speculation that Iran will annex the southern half of Iraq, which is Shia in orientation, as is Iran.

This being the case, where Iraq does not appear to be on course to “liberation” from IS, it certainly does appear to be the battle ground for various actors vying for protecting their interests through proxies.

Therefore, while the operation may succeed, it is more likely to leave Iraq in shatters. With its northern parts likely to fall under the control of a foreign-trained and foreign-advised army, and its southern region already under the control of officially supported Iran-backed militias, what can be expected in the long run is a de-facto division of Iraq along sectarian lines (Sunni north and Shia South ) and its transformation into a hub for the conduct of a much bigger fight taking place in the whole region.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at