The Coming Fight for Mosul: Snapshots of Two Key Sunni Arab Commanders (September 2016 Briefs – Free)

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 9

Nicholas A. Heras

The campaign to recapture Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, located in the northwestern Iraqi province of Ninewah on the border of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Syria, from Islamic State (IS) will reportedly begin by the end of October (Rudaw [Erbil], September 25; Reuters, September 9). A core component of the anti-IS campaign will be local Sunni Arab militias under the command of Sunni Arab leaders who will be responsible for both security and governance in Mosul after the defeat of IS (Daily Sabah [Istanbul], September 29). Two of the most powerful, anti-IS Sunni Arab leaders in Mosul are Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan, the governor of Ninewah province and overall commander of local Sunni Arab militias mobilized to fight alongside the Iraqi military under the authority of Baghdad, and Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Ninewah and the commander of the Hashd Watani (National Mobilization Units), a large Ninewah province-based militia force.

Baghdad’s Choice: Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan

Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan, 64, is the nominal commander of the Sunni militia forces mobilized in Ninewah province to support the Iraqi Security Forces. Although he was born into a prominent family in the al-Hadar district of Ninewah province southwest of the city of Mosul, Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan attended school and spent the majority of his life in Mosul (YouTube, January 30). Like many Iraqis, Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan was a low-level member of the Ba’ath Party. After the defeat and dismantling of the Saddam Hussein government in 2003, however, he became well known in the Mosul city’s politics (YouTube, January 30). Currently, he is a high-ranking member of the al-Nahda movement, a predominately Ninewah-based organization that has been a strong political opponent of Atheel al-Nujaifi and al-Nujaifi’s al-Hadba party (YouTube, January 30; Shafaaq  [Erbil], October 5, 2015; Al-Monitor [Erbil], December 29, 2014).

Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan was elected governor by the Ninewah Provincial Council, a body that meets and deliberates in exile outside of Mosul, in October 2015 (Shafaaq  [Erbil], October 5, 2015). He reportedly was elected governor by a narrow margin and after a bitterly contested campaign in which he went head-to-head against Atheel al-Nujaifi’s handpicked candidate (Shafaaq  [Erbil], October 5, 2015). Significantly, Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan was elected governor of Ninewah province in spite of reportedly fierce lobbying against him by Turkey (Shafaaq  [Erbil], October 5, 2015). His election was viewed as a reassertion of Baghdad’s influence over the anti-IS campaign and the process of managing the political aftermath of the IS’ eventual defeat in Mosul (Shafaaq  [Erbil], October 5, 2015).

As the current governor of Ninewah, Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan has moved from relative political obscurity to a highly visible role that requires him to be intimately involved with the planning and conduct of the anti-IS campaign, including recruiting and mobilizing local fighters in Ninewah, particularly Sunni Arabs, for operations to capture the city (YouTube, June 25; YouTube, March 9; YouTube, January 14). Unlike the Hashd Watani, the local anti-IS forces that are nominally under Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan’s command are generally organized under the Hashd Shaabi organization (YouTube, June 29; Al-Araby Al-Jadid, June 25; Al-Alam [Tehran], March 25).

Therefore, they are built into a chain of command that runs from Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan to Baghdad – not to Ankara and Erbil. It is likely, however, that all the anti-IS forces being organized in Ninewah will be utilized in the campaign to capture Mosul, and Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan will therefore need to balance the interests of the Iraqi central government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, Turkey, the U.S.-led Coalition, and various local actors in the city of Mosul and in Ninewah province (An-Nabaa [Baghdad], September 24; YouTube, January 30).

Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan is a member of the Akoub, a predominately Sunni Arab tribal organization that has a powerful sociopolitical network in and around the city of Mosul. Although he is a member of one of Mosul’s most important Sunni Arab tribes and understands the socio-political impact of influential Sunni Arab tribes in the city, Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan’s ability to mobilize a large number of his tribesmen for the anti-IS campaign to capture Mosul is limited (Viber Interview, October 3; YouTube, January 30).

Notoriously, Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan’s brother declared allegiance to IS and denounced Nofal in a widely disseminated video that was released by IS’ media organization (YouTube, July 16; The New York Times, June 18). Also, his political opponents in the Ninewah Provincial Council have tried to tie Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan to a massive embezzlement scandal involving members of the Akoub, including some members of the tribe who had reportedly joined IS (Al-Gharbiya News [Baghdad], April 13).

Ninewah’s Turkish Proxy: Atheel Abd al-Aziz Muhammad al-Nujaifi

Atheel Abd al-Aziz Muhammad al-Nujaifi, 58, belongs to a prominent Sunni Arab family from the city of Mosul. Before becoming active in politics after the defeat of the Sadam Hussein government in 2003, he was a prominent businessman in the city, focusing on airport construction, real estate development, and media production (Atheel Al-Nujaifi Website). Buoyed by his brother Usama al-Nujaifi’s rise to national political prominence as one of Iraq’s most powerful Sunni Arab politicians, Atheel al-Nujaifi was elected the governor of Ninewah province in April 2009, a position that he would hold until May 2015 (Viber Interview, October 3; Atheel Al-Nujaifi Website). He is currently the leader of the al-Hadba Party, a political movement mobilized from Sunni Arab Moslawis that was accused of being anti-Kurd and criticized for its association with the Muslim Brotherhood (Viber Interview, October 3).

It was under Atheel al-Nujaifi’s leadership of Ninewah that IS built alliances within the anti-Baghdad, Sunni armed opposition movement in the city of Mosul, culminating in the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces in the city and the relinquishing of control over the city to IS in June 2014 (Viber Interview, October 3). Atheel al-Nujaifi was subsequently removed from his position as the governor of Ninewah province in May 2015, on the grounds that it was under his administration that IS was able to build the network in and around Mosul in order to capture the city and most of Ninewah governorate (Al-Jazeera [Doha], May 28, 2015). In spite of his removal as governor of Ninewah province, al-Nujaifi continues to be a powerful Sunni Arab leader with strong ambitions to return to his prior role in governing the province.

Al-Nujaifi publicly supports dividing Ninewah into several smaller, autonomous provinces apportioned along ethnic and sectarian lines. Critics of Atheel al-Nujaifi assert that his support for dividing Ninewah province into multiple provinces is being given to win favor with Masoud Barzani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), who have promoted this plan for Ninewah post-IS. It is believed that as many as four of the proposed provinces in Ninewah would choose to join the KRG, a political red line for Baghdad (Kurdistan 24 [Erbil], September 8; Al-Monitor [Erbil], September 6). The administrative reorganization of Ninewah into multiple smaller provinces would also directly undermine Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan’s ability to build a Mosul-centered, but province-wide, network of patronage facilitated by Baghdad after the defeat of the IS in Mosul.

Significantly, under Atheel al-Nujaifi’s leadership, the Hashd Watani has developed into a force with an estimated 4,000 fighters, primarily trained by the Turkish military. Hashd Watani is garrisoned at and deployed from the Bashiqa military base, which is located 15 kilometers northeast of the city of Mosul near the border with the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (Rudaw [Erbil], March 22; Hurriet Daily News [Istanbul], December 7, 2015). Although it is nominally a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian militia representing the demographic diversity of Ninewah province, the majority of the fighters who are mobilized within the Hashd Watani are Sunni Arab Moslawis who served as local police or in the Iraqi Army, both after and prior to 2003 (Al-Aan  [Dubai], April 22; YouTube, June 9, 2015).

Concerns remain over whether the Hashd Watani will be an effective military force against IS, and whether the Turkish-backed Atheel al-Nujaifi will be an effective leader who can return to his position as an administrator over a post-IS Mosul (Brookings Institution, September 19; Atlantic Council, May 26, 2015). Nevertheless, the Hashd Watani under al-Nujaifi’s leadership has been increasingly deployed in combat against IS over the course of this year (YouTube, June 8; YouTube, April 22). For all intents and purposes, the Hashd Watani is Atheel al-Nujaifi’s own Turkish-trained, private militia, and it is likely to be a force that will be highly consequential to the future security regime that governs Mosul after IS (Viber Interview, October 3). Due to his longstanding political network in and around Mosul, and his active leadership over the Hashd Watani, al-Nujaifi is believed to be the most powerful Sunni Arab proxy leader for Turkey in Iraq, which is an association that Baghdad and the predominately Shia militias organized under the Hashd Shaabi strongly oppose (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, September 9; Anadolu Agency [Erbil], September 9; Kurdistan 24 [Erbil], September 8).

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi is putting public pressure on Turkey to leave northern Iraq, which is viewed by members of the ruling Shia-majority National Alliance coalition as a vehicle for Turkish occupation of Mosul post-IS (Elaph, September 19). Over the last year, the Iraqi government under Abadi has been critical of Turkey’s intentions with its training missions being conducted via the Hashd Watani. As the date of initiation approaches, this issue is one of thorniest complicating factors challenging the anti-IS campaign in Mosul (Al-Akhbar  [Beirut], October 1; Al-Arabiyya  [Dubai], December 31, 2015). Seeking to elicit U.S. support to directly arm and train the Hashd Watani separate from the Iraqi Security Forces and the Shia-majority Hashd Shaabi organization, Atheel al-Nujaifi hired a lobbying firm in Washington DC to promote the Hashd Watani to U.S. policymakers and to promote the idea that his force is best positioned to administer Mosul after IS – even if he is at odds with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad (The Hill, February 23).

The Competition to Lead Ninewah

The evolution of Atheel al-Nujaifi from a politician to a militant commander with the active backing of Turkey is a serious challenge for the politician-technocrat Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan. Although al-Sultan is the commander of local Hashd Shaabi forces, he is more a politician than local warlord. Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan will need to balance Baghdad’s desire to deploy Shia-majority Hashd Shaabi units in order to expedite the military campaign to seize Mosul, while retaining control over local, Mosul-mobilized, Sunni Hashd Shaabi units. He will also need to be regarded as an authentic and trustworthy champion of the Moslawi Sunni Arab community, while achieving the cooperation and acceptance of the KRG and Turkey, both of which have incentives to work through Atheel al-Nujaifi as their client in Mosul and Ninewah province after the defeat and removal of IS.

Although Atheel al-Nujaifi hails from a more established and well-known political family within the Moslawi Sunni Arab community, his strength as a powerbroker in Mosul and the wider Ninewah province will not only depend on the performance of the Hashd Watani in the campaign to capture the city. It will also depend on to what extent local Moslawi actors – these actors like neither Baghdad nor Erbil and chose to subordinated themselves to IS in 2014 – would tolerate the re-ascension of the politician who IS removed from power in the name of the greater resistance movement against Baghdad. Al-Nujaifi could achieve the wider acceptance of Moslawis if he is able to attract significant humanitarian and reconstruction assistance for the city and the areas around it, and successfully funnels that assistance through the Hashd Watani. This is likely the reason he proposed the targeted Turkish military, humanitarian, and reconstruction assistance program for Jarablus as the model to provide support for the civil and security authorities in Mosul after IS (Al-Ghad TV [Cairo], September 10).

The rivalry between al-Nujaifi and Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan is emblematic of the looming intra-communal game of power politics that is likely to occur in and around Mosul after the defeat and displacement of Islamic State. Although Nofal Hammdi al-Sultan is supported by the Baghdad government as its legitimate agent in Ninewah province, Atheel al-Nujaifi is likely to remain a persistent challenger to his authority, particularly if al-Nujaifi is able to retain the military support of the KDP and Turkey. However, both Atheel al-Nujaifi and Nofal Hammadi al-Sultan will likely be severely challenged to assert leadership over the Sunni Arab community in and around Mosul in the post-IS period, as neither man is powerful or well-positioned enough to mobilize a popular armed opposition to IS without significant backing from actors outside of Mosul.