Bypassing Hawija on the way to Mosul or postponing its liberation operation raises serious questions. I have been asking myself and other people about this. I hear that this is just a military tactic, that the liberation of Mosul will consequently force ISIS out of Hawija.
I do not find this convincing. There is a lot more than the obvious objective behind fighting ISIS, namely the struggle between the Sunnis and the Shiites, the rivalry among the warring factions, the problem between Erbil and Baghdad and their disagreement over the identity of the disputed areas, Baghdad’s effort to keep the Hashd al-Shaabi force operational, and other relevant matters. This indicates that bypassing Hawija is due to ulterior political motives, namely a pressure card on Kirkuk and Garmian.
The recent assault on Kirkuk confirms this reality. However, one of their objectives behind the attack was possibly to reduce the already increasing military pressure on Mosul, especially after ISIS realized that their defeat could only come at the hands of the Peshmerga, and that the Iraqi forces could not advance alone on Mosul.
ISIS wanted to change the balance of the war by attacking Kirkuk, possibly aiming to force the Peshmerga to withdraw some of its forces from the Mosul front to Kirkuk. Perhaps they also wanted to show the world that retaking Mosul is not that easy. If they could attack Kirkuk with a force of fifty militants, being able to stay there for two days, tens of thousands of militants can stay a lot longer in Mosul.
Postponing the Hawija operation is intended to undermine the Kurdish standing in the region, regardless of whether or not ISIS can put up a lengthy resistance in Mosul, i.e. whether they will fight to stay there or leave for Syria.
Even though I do not know the answer to the question of delaying Hawija, I have no doubt that this is to re-impose Baghdad’s hegemony on the disputed areas on the one hand, and to ensure that the Peshmerga do not end up being the sole hero of the war on ISIS, on the other.
But the Peshmerga’s push against ISIS over the past two years has shown the world how heroic the Peshmerga forces are in defeating ISIS. The Peshmerga liberated the majority of the disputed areas which were under Iraqi control before ISIS, and are now protecting them.
Baghdad wants to drive the Peshmerga out of these disputed areas, and does not want the Peshmerga to continue being seen as the hero in the fight against ISIS.
There is disagreement between Erbil and Baghdad over the future of these disputed areas after the demise of ISIS, with Erbil apparently insisting on keeping the area under Peshmerga control and Baghdad wanting to bring it back under the federal government by pushing the Peshmerga forces back to where they were before ISIS.
By postponing the Hawija operation, the Iraqi government wants to impose the participation of the Shiite militia in the liberation of ISIS-held areas and giving the militia legitimacy in governing them after they are freed.
The Iraqi government wanted to attribute the success of the war against ISIS to its army and the Hashd al-Shaabi forces, which is why they initially tried to exclude the Peshmerga from the Mosul offensive.
However, the Iraqi government eventually accepted the participation of the Peshmerga forces in the operation to recapture Mosul, and this was due to the indispensable role the Peshmerga have had in defeating ISIS in the region.
The Islamic State might transfer through Hawija its dispersed militants to Kirkuk all the way to Saadiya and Jalawla, so that the Shiite militia have a role in ejecting ISIS in these areas, diminishing the Peshmerga role in the war.
Kurds should bring the Hawija offensive forward or liberate the town concurrently with Mosul in order to avoid these eventualities.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.