IRBIL, Iraq — The former governor of Iraq’s northernmost province claims he has a workable plan for the recapture of Mosul from Islamic State with a combined force of Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga and 1,000 fighters within the city but loyal to him. Former Governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, a leader of Nineveh Province’s Sunni Arab bloc and a controversial figure in the fight against Islamic State, said in an interview that his is the most realistic approach as U.S.-based Iraqi forces gear up for the campaign to retake Iraq’s second-largest city from the radical Islamic group.
Mr. Nujaifi was governor of Nineveh Province in June 2014 when Islamic State soldiers took over the city. He was removed from his post by the Iraqi parliament in 2015 under a cloud of suspicion that he had played some part in the city’s fall, which he denies.
Since the fall of Mosul, he has used his time to recruit, equip and arrange professional training for more than 1,500 soldiers at the Bashike military base 20 miles east of Mosul. Much of the financing for this project has come from his own assets, says Mr. Nujaifi, the son of a wealthy land-owning family.
“There are 1,500 well-trained and equipped fighters in Bashike, as well as 2,500 trained fighters who are at their homes and on call,” he said in a May 30 interview. Most of these fighters are former Baathist military officers or policemen who left the city when Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, took over, according to U.S. State Department sources. An elite group of 200 of these fighters has been trained by U.S. military advisers as well as advisers of the Turkish military, and have already helped recapture villages north of Mosul in May, according to Mr. Nujaifi.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey confirmed many of these details, but cautioned that the Sunni Arabs of Mosul remain divided into factions, only one of which Mr. Nujaifi leads.
In Iraq, Mr. Nujaifi is seen as close to Turkey, which has clashed with the U.S. over the best strategy for taking on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and on the role of the Kurds in the fight. Critics say his past record trying to build up an effective fighting force has been spotty at best.
Mr. Nujaifi contended that his force, which he calls the National Mobilization Force (NMF), already includes 1,000 fighters embedded in individual cells inside Mosul but now known to Islamic State. In a city in which those suspected of collaborating with Iraqi security forces are executed through grisly torture, including dissolving their bodies in vats of nitric acid, secrecy is of utmost concern.
“We are very careful, if [Islamic State] gets one of our men, they can only get one more, because the men are organized in cells of two or three, and coordinated by officers operating from outside of Mosul,” Mr. Nujaifi said. “If we can organize recruiting people inside the city, we could capture Mosul in less than six months.”
Three steps to success
He outlined three steps needed for a successful campaign.
“First we need to be just outside the city so that we can have physical contact with people,” he said. Since the peshmerga forces have taken over nine villages near the Khazer River, just 12 miles east of the city, “we can start now,” he says.
“Second, we need financing. Third, we need amnesty for the fighters after the fight, which means that if they fight for us, they will not be prosecuted for crimes done before ISIS. Some of them may be wanted for something done in 2003 or 2005,” he says.
The men in this network are not Islamic State or al Qaeda operatives, he said, but former soldiers of Saddam’s army.
“Al Qaeda or ISIS, we cannot talk to them. They will fight to the death. But there are others from the resistance [to the U.S.-led invasion], the Baathists, the Army of the Naqshbandi, and the Islamic Army, whom we should not undermine as they are on the ground now,” the commander said. “One thousand inside would be stronger than 10,000 outside the city because they would confuse Islamic State, which would be fighting within its own city.”
The governor estimates that approximately 1.9 million people are residing within Mosul. After Islamic State took over the sprawling city of predominately Sunni Arabs, approximately 400,000 people left, however, in following months as many as 700,000 new residents moved in.
Mr. Nujaifi estimates that only about 7,000 to 8,000 Islamic State soldiers are holding the city and the surrounding area, and they can’t count on much support from the locals.
“I would say only 5 percent of the population are really supporting [Islamic State], and an additional 15 percent of the population are employed by [ISIS], or they are afraid of the Shia militia, and they would prefer to fight with [Islamic State] than see the city taken by these militia,” he says.
“Remember, Mosul has been conquered twice before, in 2003 and 2014. In both cases, 80 percent of the population was unengaged with the two sides,” Mr. Nujaifi said. “I would look for how to keep the 80 percent of the population neutral or unengaged.”
Mr. Nujaifi shares the concerns of many U.S. analysts that the largely Sunni populations in Islamic State-held cities such as Mosul and Fallujah harbor deep suspicions of the Iraqi national army and Shiite militias that are leading the fight in Anbar Province.
Mike Pregent, an adjunct scholar from the Hudson Institute and a former U.S. military intelligence officer, warned that “continued U.S. support to Iraqi units that work with, tolerate and integrate Shia militias into their operations will reset the conditions that led to ISIS to begin with: A disenfranchised Sunni population that would be ripe for ISIS 2.0 to exploit.”
Added retired Gen. Jay Garner, director of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq following the 2003 invasion: “If the Shia militia enter Mosul, there will be a bloodbath.”