By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Peshmerga contested ISIS’s hold over significant urban centers in Mosul’s environs from October 22-24, 2016. In response, ISIS continued to launch suicide attacks against advancing security forces and to attack far-flung areas in a diversionary tactic.
The 9th Iraqi Army Division completed the recapture of Hamdaniya District, southeast of Mosul, on October 22. The ISF had breached the district center on October 18 but faced tough ISIS resistance to take full control of the city. The ISF continued its advance beyond Hamdaniya, linking up ISF areas of control across the Gwer-Khazar axis. Units from the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) advanced from its position in Bartella, which it secured October 21. As of October 24, the CTS is firmly in the urban terrain of Mosul’s outer limits and is positioning itself to begin an offensive into Mosul’s eastern city limits.
Operations north of Qayyarah continued to focus on retaking Shura, the former al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) hub which has been the center of the ISF’s attention in the southern axis since operations launched on October 17. Units from the Iraqi Army and Federal Police surrounded the city by October 24 and will likely begin a push into the city center in the coming days. Meanwhile, the ISF continued its advance up the western bank of the Tigris River towards the next major urban center, Hamman al-Alil. This southern axis will challenge the operational objective to encircle Mosul as it is lagging behind the others axes, which are relatively equidistant from Mosul’s city limits. The ISF’s inability to narrow ISIS’s escape aperture to the west towards Syria will complicate efforts to contain ISIS’s freedom to maneuver in northern Iraq. It could also result in increased ISIS attacks on the ISF’s western flank and recaptured terrain to the south.
The ISF and Peshmerga are contesting ISIS’s control north of Mosul. The 16th Iraqi Army Division advanced from its position at the Mosul Dam towards Tel Kayyaf on October 22. This effort is matched by the Peshmerga and CTS advancing from Tel Saqaf, north of Tel Kayyaf. The Peshmerga and CTS also continued its offensive to encircle Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul. The city is cut off from Mosul but still under ISIS control. Coordination between the Peshmerga and CTS on both axes will position the CTS directly on Mosul’s northern and northeastern limits from where it can begin an assault into the city, while the Peshmerga holds the city’s outskirts.
ISIS launched counteroffensives far from the frontlines around Mosul in order to both demonstrate its continued capacity to launch deadly attacks in Iraq despite losses in Ninewa and draw security forces away from the north. ISIS launched a massive attack on Rutba, in far western Anbar province, on October 23, forcing ISF units to deploy to the area. ISIS also targeted Peshmerga locations in Sinjar on October 24, the second time in a week. The attacks in Sinjar could aim to disrupt refugee flows to a UN camp in al-Hawl, Syria, while also ensuring that ISIS maintains an inroad, possibly by hiding in the refugee flow, to Syria. Meanwhile, ISIS continued minor attacks in Kirkuk City, following its large-scale counteroffensive on October 21, which required the Peshmerga to move units to the city. ISIS may further increase attacks in order to prove its enduring strength in Iraq, including through large-scale suicide attacks in Baghdad and the belts.