Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State and self-declared Caliph, escaped from the siege of Mosul two months ago when the road to the west was briefly re-opened by a fierce counter attack by IS fighters, according to a senior Kurdish official.
“IS used 17 suicide car bombs from Mosul and some of their units from Syria to clear the road leading out of Mosul for a few hours,” said Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, in an interview with The Independent. He says that he and other Kurdish leaders believe that IS would only carry out such an elaborate operation, in which they suffered heavy casualties, in order to bring al-Baghdadi to safety.
The escape took place after the fall of east Mosul and before the Iraqi security forces began their final attack on IS-held west Mosul on 19 February. Hussein says that IS “brought 300 of their fighters from Syria and it was a very fierce fight.” The only possible escape route out of Mosul for IS is to the west, through territory held by the Hashd al-Shaabi Shia militia who were forced to retreat, enabling IS briefly to gain control of the road.
“I believe myself that they freed al-Baghdadi,” says Hussein saying that the IS unit from Syria returned there immediately and monitoring of IS radio traffic showed that they were jubilant that they had carried out a successful operation. Al-Baghdadi, who became leader of IS in 2010, is the movement’s iconic leader who led it to a series of spectacular victories including the seizure of Mosul in 2014. His death or capture would be a further body blow to the movement, which has lost much of its territory in Iraq and Syria.
Hussein said that he expected IS to survive after the fall of Mosul, where its fighters still hold the Old City which the UN says has a population of 400,000. “But I don’t think they will survive as a state,” he said. He expects IS will revert to being a guerilla-type organisation carrying out terror attacks but without its previous resources. Despite its current implosion, it still has sanctuaries in different parts of Iraq and Syria where it can try to regenerate itself.
Hussein says that there was no political plan for post-IS Mosul put forward last year, because it would have raised divisive issues that might have prevented a military campaign against IS. It is unclear who will hold power in Mosul in the long term or what will happen to Kurds and Christians who were forced out of the city. A short drive across the Nineveh Plain reveals political and sectarian rivalries and hatreds stopping any return to normality. There is not much sign of the Iraqi army and most checkpoints are manned by the Hashd al-Shaabi, often recruited from the Kurdish speaking Shia minority known as the Shabak.
The Sunni Arab population of Mosul has been traumatised by the six month siege, which is far from ended and is destroying a large part of the city. Hussein says that it was a serious mistake in the planning of the Mosul operation to believe that IS would be defeated quickly or the population might rise up against the jihadis. “There was an idea in Baghdad that there would be an uprising against IS,” says Hussein. The optimistic conviction that this would happen, and over-confidence about how quickly IS could be defeated, led to the government telling people in the city to stay in their houses, a miscalculation that is leading to heavy civilian loss of life.
Hussein does not doubt that IS will eventually be defeated in Mosul. But, unless there is an agreement about what to do next, he says the “logic of war” will take over and everybody will hold onto territory they have already taken. Driving around government-held east Mosul there is a noticeable lack of local police or any other security forces to replace elite military detachments. like the Counter-Terrorism Service, that have moved into west Mosul to fight IS there.
In the plains around Mosul, insecurity is even greater with many towns and villages, recaptured from IS last year, still deserted. The Christian town of Qaraqosh, for example, retaken from IS at that time, remains empty and without electricity or fresh water. Yohanna Towaya, a local Christian leader, says the community “will not go back unless they are guaranteed protection by the KRG and the Baghdad government.” He says that “two or three Christian families are leaving KRG each day for Lebanon or Australia.” Everywhere there are predatory militias on the payroll of different masters staking their claim to power, money or land, something which exacerbates the deep distrust felt by all communities in northern Iraq towards each other.
[Patrick Cockburn is an award-winning writer on The Independent who specialises in analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East.]