Christoph Reuter reports: A thundercloud, heavy and dark gray. That is what it looks like from a distance. But the closer you get to Mosul from the south, the bigger and darker this cloud becomes. Instead of floating in the sky, it grows out of the ground, ultimately becoming a towering, opaque wall that swallowing entire villages, making them disappear into the darkness.
Driving to Mosul is a drive into the apocalypse. Or at least that’s what it feels like, with the gigantic clouds of smoke coming from burning oil wells, reservoirs and ditches — laid out by Islamic State over the last two years and now set alight one after the other. Although it would normally be a sunny midday in fall, the military jeeps coming from the other direction have their lights on.
The dark curtain is meant to keep the attackers’ jets and helicopters at bay; the smoke irritates the throat and causes headaches. An armada of over 30,000 soldiers and fighters from at least a half-dozen countries began a major offensive against the de-facto capital of the “caliphate” in northern Iraq last Monday. It is not only the biggest coalition to have assembled in the fight against Islamic State (IS), it is also the least predictable.
The jihadists can be expected to commit any number of heinous acts in the hopes of holding onto their most important city, which is home of many of its leaders. The attackers, meanwhile, are part of an extremely fragile alliance: The US Air Force and Special Forces are contributing enormous firepower that can react quickly to realities on the ground. On the ground, meanwhile, the two strongest forces eye each other with suspicion: The Peshmerga fighters from the Kurdish Regional Government and the primarily Shiite militias of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces. They forces were recently declared by decree to be Iraqi state troops, but are ultimately controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Shiite militias are feared, and have been accused of systematically expulsing, torturing and killing Sunnis. Furthermore, under the guise of fighting IS, they are suspected of conducting large-scale sectarian cleansing. [Continue reading…]