MESOP BACKGROUNDER : Turkey’s Demands Complicate Battle Plan to Retake Mosul From Islamic State

By Tamer El-ghobashy and Dion Nissenbaum – Wall Street Journal – 2016-10-13

Plans for a pivotal offensive to uproot Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Mosul are running into unexpected complications from Turkey, which is pressing the U.S. and Iraq to incorporate its allies into the battle’s fighting force.Ankara’s demands to include a Turkish-trained Sunni force are threatening to fracture an uneasy alliance of diverse Iraqi fighters in what could be a turning point in the war against Islamic State.

The Turkish pressure on Baghdad has triggered new demands from influential, rival Shiite militias, which are rethinking their agreement to play a more limited role in the fight for Mosul, according to Iraqi officials–throwing a wrench into delicate negotiations over the battle plan.

Mosul, historically a prosperous trading hub of 1.5 million people, is the largest city under Islamic State control. The city’s importance has touched off a rivalry between Iraq’s disparate fighting forces. Kurdish and Shiite fighters are jockeying for a role in what is considered the last major battle against the militancy as both seek to expand their political influence across Iraq.

And the dispute has devolved into an unusually personal feud between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who traded caustic barbs this week as the U.S. urged the two leaders to set aside their differences and focus on the battle against Islamic State.

On Wednesday, Mr. Erdogan vowed to protect Turkey’s Sunni allies in Iraq from “being crushed under the wheels of global power games” and warned that sectarian feuds could drown the region in “blood and fire.”

The dispute centers on 3,000 Sunni fighters trained by Turkish forces at a base in northern Iraq. In Baghdad, some officials say they believe the Turkish government in Ankara wants to use the Sunni tribal force as a proxy for its own interests in the Mosul offensive, which include protecting ethnic Turkmen in the area and containing the territorial ambitions of Kurdish forces.

For nearly a year, Turkey has rebuffed Baghdad’s demands that it pull its own troops out of Iraq. Turkey has trained Iraqi forces in the country’s Kurdish region for years. But last year, Turkey expanded its military presence outside the Kurdish areas near Mosul.

Under the current plans, Iraq’s military, backed by other local Sunni forces, is expected to lead the fight for the heart of Mosul, a Sunni majority city.

Shiite fighters and Kurdish forces have agreed to secure the surrounding towns, villages and outlying neighborhoods. But now, Shiite militias and their allies in Iraq’s federal police are demanding a larger role if Baghdad allows the Turkish-backed Sunni fighters to join the loose-knit coalition, according to Iraqi officials.

One of Iraq’s most influential Shiite militias threatened to attack Turkish troops in Iraq if they don’t pull out.

“We advise Erdogan to come to his senses and withdraw his soldiers before we send them back home in boxes,” the Shiite Badr Organization, which has strong political ties to Iraq’s security apparatus, said Wednesday.

Turkey has offered air support during the battle for Mosul, but not ground troops.

Two Pentagon officials said privately that they didn’t believe the diplomatic rift would delay the Mosul operation, which is expected to kick off in a week or so.

“All military operations have political complications, and this one is no different,” said one senior defense official. “All of these problems are ones we are working through, and there’s no indication any of this will interrupt our plans for Mosul.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan belittled Mr. Abadi, telling the Iraqi leader to “know his place” and allow Turkey to play a role in the operation.

“You are not on my level, you are not of my quality,” Mr. Erdogan said in a public speech. “You ranting and raving from Iraq is not of any importance to us.”

Mr. Abadi, in return, mocked Mr. Erdogan, who had to rely on a video cellphone interview with a television anchor to rally public opposition to a failed military coup in July.

“We are not your enemy and we will liberate our land through the determination of our men and not by video calls,” Mr. Abadi wrote on Twitter.

Gordon Lubold in Washington contributed to this article.