By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made limited gains in eastern Mosul from November 22 to 28 as it struggled to identify and target ISIS militants operating among the significant civilian population remaining in the city. Meanwhile, Iraqi Shi’a militias turned their offensive towards remaining ISIS-held cities in far western Ninewa province, as Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced that the Iraqi army and police would recapture Tel Afar.
Operations in Mosul remain concentrated in eastern neighborhoods as ISF units look to breach the city in other areas. To the southeast of Mosul, the Iraqi Army has nearly completed operations in the Ninewa Plains, positioning additional units to join efforts to clear ISIS. North and south of the city, Iraqi Army and Federal Police units have not yet moved to breach the city limits, respectively. Inside the city, the ISF reported that they gained control of three northern neighborhoods since November 22, but the ISF has failed to advance in southern neighborhoods. ISIS continues to use the significant civilian population as a primary line of defense, including attacking from positions within refugee flows, which is slowing the ISF’s advance inside the city.
The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), operating in eastern Mosul, called for a change in tactic for managing the remaining civilians in eastern Mosul. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi urged civilians to stay in their homes as the ISF breached Mosul’s city limits in early November, forcing the CTS and Iraqi Army to adopt measures to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. The CTS now is asking for the Iraqi Government to encourage civilians to leave the area, which would allow the CTS to be more aggressive in anti-ISIS operations, including its use of airstrikes. The mass exodus of an estimated 1.5 million civilians from Mosul may overwhelm humanitarian efforts, however, allowing ISIS to take refuge in the refugee flow.
Prime Minister Abadi announced on November 23 that the Iraqi Army and police would recapture Tel Afar, a primarily Turkmen village west of Mosul and former Al Qaeda hot spot. Shi’a militias, including Iranian-backed proxies, had designated Tel Afar as its initial line of effort, raising international concerns that the militias, many of which are charged with human rights violations, may raise sectarian tensions in the area. PM Abadi’s designation of the ISF to retake Tel Afar relegates the Iraqi Shi’a militias to recapture remaining ISIS-held terrain in western Ninewa, including Baaj, Qayrawan, and Qahtaniya. The move will likely satisfy regional actors such as Turkey, which threatened undefined intervention on October 30 if the militias moved into Tel Afar. Instead, the militia units operating around the Tel Afar airbase moved west along the Sinjar highway, making contact with Peshmerga forces operating in eastern Sinjar District. Simultaneously, militia units advanced from Ain al-Jahush westward to Tel Abtah, from where they will approach Baaj from the south. The 15th Iraqi Army Division will take point for the operation into Tel Afar, where the Shi’a militias would have likely struggled to handle the dense urban terrain without taking on significant casualties.