President Barack Obama was surely right to predict the battle that began Monday to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State fighters will be hard fought and ugly. The insurgents have had two years to beef up their defenses in and around the city of more than 2 million, and initial reports suggest the operation, which already has been slowed by ISIS suicide attacks, roadside bombs, concrete barriers and booby trapped buildings, could take weeks or months to complete. "It's going to be a tough fight and a difficult fight," the president acknowledged.
It will also represent the biggest test so far of Mr. Obama's strategy of avoiding putting U.S. boots on the ground in favor of supporting local forces with airstrikes, intelligence and logistical support. With only months remaining in his term at the White House, the president clearly hopes to be able to hand over a much more stable Iraq to his successor than the one he inherited on taking office in 2009. But even if the military situation in Mosul improves in coming weeks, the Iraqi government will still face enormous challenges governing the restive region and ensuring that the smoldering ethnic, religious and sectarian tensions at the root of the conflict aren't re-ignited.
The attempt to recapture Mosul is the largest offensive carried out by the Iraqi army since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and will marshal a hodgepodge force of some 25,000 Iraqi government troops, Sunni tribal fighters, Kurdish paramilitary forces and Shiite militia groups backed by Iran to confront as many as 6,000 Islamic State defenders. Getting all those different groups, some of which despise each other, to work together will be a major diplomatic and political headache for officials in Washington and Baghdad.
The Shiite militias, in particular, have been accused of committing atrocities against Sunni communities, and their participation threatens to inflame sectarian tensions. Rights groups have charged the militias with killing hundreds of Sunni civilians during the government's campaign to retake the western city of Fallujah earlier this year, and Mosul's much more diverse population includes not only Sunnis but Kurds, Yazidis and other ethnic minorities as well as a large Christian community. Concerns that the Shiite militias will seize the opportunity to run roughshod over those communities were only partly allayed when they announced this week that they would restrict their operations to the outskirts of Mosul and would not enter the city itself.
Meanwhile, international aid groups are scrambling to prepare for a massive exodus of refugees from Mosul as the U.S.-led coalition draws closer to the city. More than 1 million residents are believed to be still living there, and officials worry a humanitarian catastrophe could be imminent if the fighting is prolonged and Islamic State fighters resort to using fleeing civilians as human shields. Reports describe the makeshift refugee camps that have been set up as woefully ill-equipped to deal with the influx, raising the threat of disease outbreaks linked to shortages of medicines, hospital beds and access to clean water.
If history is any guide, Mosul's civilian population will pay a heavy price for the city's deliverance from two years of brutal rule by the Islamic State. When coalition forces finally recaptured the central city of Ramadi in January, large parts of the provincial capital had been reduced to rubble laced with improvised explosives that made it impossible for people to return safely to their homes. The U.N. estimated that some 2,000 buildings, streets, bridges and other structures in Ramadi lay in ruins by the time the fighting ended. The scale of destruction in Mosul, a much larger city, is expected to far exceed that, and billions of dollars will be needed for the reconstruction effort.
President Obama pledged to end America's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan nearly eight years ago, but that proved easier said than done. The U.S. has learned to work with regional allies and thereby avoid sending its own ground troops to fight interminable Mideastern wars, but we have learned our influence only goes so far when it comes to convincing our partners of the need for a political resolution to the problems that create such conflicts. Ultimately, only the Iraqis can bring peace to their country, and regardless of what happens in Mosul over the next few months they will still have a long way to go on that score.