The Fight for Mosul


Executive Summary


In 2007, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was steadily pushed into northern Iraq. By the spring of 2008, the network attempted to regroup in certain areas, particularly around the city of Mosul. Mosul has long been an important hub for the Sunni insurgency and Coalition commanders have identified it as a strategic center of gravity for AQI. Though AQI cells remain in central Iraq, the principal fight against the network is now taking place in Mosul, western Ninawa province, and further south in the Za’ab triangle. As the fight against AQI proceeds and the Government of Iraq attempts to establish security and governance in northern Iraq it is important to understand the context in which this struggle will take place. Iraq Report #8 focuses on the fight for Mosul beginning with the context and history of the city and then detailing efforts to establish security in Mosul and Ninawa from the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 through the shaping operations that preceded Operations’ Lions’ Roar and Mother of Two Springs in May 2008.


Topic 1: Context and History of Mosul: Ethnicity, the Ba’ath Party, and the Army 


  • Mosul lies on a fault line where various ethnic, religious, sectarian, and tribal groups intersect. The distribution of the city is approximately 70% Sunni Arab, 25% Kurd, and the remaining 5% a mixture of Shi’as, Turcomans, Yezidis and Christians.
  • Before the Iraq War, Mosul was home to a large Ba’ath Party headquarters and was an important military center. By some estimates, under Saddam Hussein, Mosul and the surrounding areas contributed over 300,000 residents to the military, security and intelligence services.
  • Mosul’s ethnic balance and history as a Ba’athist and military stronghold help to explain the city and the fight taking place there. First, Mosul is part of the larger Arab-Kurd competition across northern Iraq. Second, the large Ba’athist and military presence before the war explain why Mosul has served as a recruiting ground and sanctuary for the insurgency.


Topic 2: From the Early Days of the War through the Battle for Mosul in 2004 


  • In the midst of the initial disorder in Mosul, Kurdish political parties and their militias moved to establish a presence in the city and former regime elements began to organize themselves into an insurgency. 
  • Beginning in 2003, the presence of the 101st Airborne Division under then Major General Petraeus restored order to Mosul and helped restore balance among the city’s diverse groups.
  • During 2004, after the 101st was replaced by a smaller force, ethnic tensions grew and a balance emerged whereby insurgents and Arab nationalists controlled the west side of Mosul and Kurdish political parties and militias controlled the east side.
  • In November 2004, Mosul’s police force collapsed in the face of an insurgent assault. After several tough weeks of fighting, Coalition Forces retook the city with the help of a large number of Kurdish peshmerga forces.   
  • In the aftermath of the Battle for Mosul, the previous stalemate was solidified with overwhelmingly-Kurdish army forces operating on the east side of the city and insurgents on the west side. The biggest change was that before November 2004 the insurgents present in Mosul were mostly associated with the former regime, but afterward there was an increasing presence of AQI and Ansar al-Sunna. The city’s Sunni Arab population tolerated and even supported AQI and other insurgents and Mosul developed into a hub for AQI.


Topic 3: Operations Against AQI from 2007 through Early 2008


  • In 2007, the troop surge coupled with a change in counterinsurgency strategy led to major clearing operations in central Iraq. The tempo of operations was increased in Mosul and throughout Ninawa province in support of these operations further south.
  • The 4th HBCT, 1st CD, degraded AQI’s leadership in the area and focused on disrupting the bombing, finance, and facilitation networks. Through the first eight months of the year attacks fell by 50%. 
  • By late summer, operations in central Iraq began pushing insurgents further north into the Za’ab triangle, Mosul and across Ninawa where AQI and other insurgents hoped to regroup. By December, attacks increased significantly and a decision was made to shift forces to Mosul and establish the Ninawa Operations Command.
  • In late January 2008, a series of spectacular attacks brought Mosul to the forefront of the fight against AQI. Between January and April, Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition Forces conducted shaping operations to set the battlefield in Mosul for clearing operations that eventually began in May.


Topic 4: The Enemy System in Mosul and the Strategy to Secure the City


  • In early 2008 Mosul was considered the last urban stronghold of AQI. There were an estimated 2,000 insurgents entrenched across the city involved in IED, VBIED, suicide, and small arms fire attacks, and the finance and facilitation networks.
  • AQI was based in the outer neighborhoods of western Mosul, the southeastern neighborhoods around Sumer, and the northern neighborhood of Rashidiyah. They also used Mosul’s close lying villages and southwestern belts as support zones and were active further west along the line to the Syrian border and further south along the cities of the Tigris River Valley.
  • By March, the strategy to secure the city began to take shape. A series of Combat Outposts were established in contested neighborhoods, which Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition Forces began to use as bases to project forces to clear neighborhoods, establish and maintain checkpoints, and conduct presence patrols.
  • Efforts were also made to make stakeholders of Mosul’s surrounding tribes and the large population of former Ba’athists and Army personnel residing in the area. Iraqi officials began meeting with local tribal leaders to establish better relations and coordinate their efforts for upcoming operations. At the same time, former Army personnel were recruited to join the Iraqi Security Forces.



The fight for Mosul will be long and will play out over several months. Coalition and Iraqi forces will likely employ a similar strategy to that employed in Baghdad with some key differences. While Baghdad was cleared with twenty Coalition battalions, there are only two in Mosul. The lion’s share of the burden will therefore fall on Iraqi Security Forces. As a result, the operation is likely to be much slower than if it were conducted by Coalition Forces. The Iraqi Security Forces are still building capacity and their shortcomings in logistics and supply have long been a problem in Mosul. This will be an important test to see whether a slimmed down Coalition Force can work with Iraqi Security Forces to create and maintain security in an area that is a sanctuary for a large number of determined insurgents.