Thousands of fighters have been training in northern Iraq to retake ISIL’s de facto capital in the country.
Clear divisions have emerged between Iraqi and Kurdish leaders over territorial control after the recapture of Mosul, even though the battle for ISIL’s last stronghold in Iraq is far from over as it enters its second month.
Backed by US-led coalition air strikes, Iraqi forces launched a massive operation to retake the northern city on October 17, with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters also playing a major role in the offensive.
The military push has seen the autonomous Kurdistan region gain or solidify control over swaths of disputed territory in northern Iraq.
And in recent days, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi have given contrasting interpretations of understandings on who will control territory in the Mosul area after the city is retaken.
“We are in agreement with the United States on not withdrawing from the areas of Kurdistan,” Barzani said on Wednesday during a visit to Kurdish Peshmerga frontline fighters in the recaptured town of Bashiqa.
Iraqi Kurdistan has long insisted that areas skirting its official boundary – stretching from the border with Syria in the west, to Iran in the east – are part of the territory it should control. This is a position strongly opposed by Baghdad.
“These areas were liberated by the blood of 11,500 martyrs and wounded from the Peshmerga,” Barzani said. “It is not possible after all these sacrifices” to return them to direct federal control.”
The region surrounding Mosul is a mosaic of ethnic and religious communities – Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, Sunnis and Shia Muslims – though Sunni Arabs comprise the overwhelming majority.
The Kurdish leader went even further and said that they reached an agreement with Baghdad regarding Kurdistan’s “independence”.
“The independence is the natural right of our people and we will never give up such a right under any condition and we have discussed this matter clearly and openly with Baghdad that gave us positive response.”
Abadi’s office responded on Thursday with what it termed a “clarification”, saying the agreement between Baghdad and Kurdistan specifically called for the peshmerga forces to pull back.
“The agreement includes a specific clause on the withdrawal of the Peshmerga from the liberated areas after the liberation of Mosul,” it said in a statement.
The agreement stipulates that they would return “to the previous places that they held prior to the launch of liberation operations”, it said, without giving specifics.
Kurdish forces moved into areas vacated by federal troops that withdrew during an offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant armed (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, in 2014, when it overran large areas north and west of Baghdad.
They subsequently lost some of this territory to ISIL but have since steadily pushed the fighters back, as federal forces advance in areas further south.
A Kurdish push for independence could destabilise the whole region, according to some analysts.
“So far there is cooperation between the Iraqis and the Kurds but any push for independence could destroy Iraq,” Ranj Alaaldin, an analyst from the Brookings Doha Center, told Al Jazeera.
“I t may spark another prolonged war that could draw in Turkey and Iran.”
The Kurds are a minority group in four countries: Iraq, Iran Turkey and Syria.
The governments of all four countries have long quashed hopes of a greater Kurdistan.
Turkey, a country that has been fighting a Kurdish armed campaign in its southeast for more than three decades, is backing Barzani’s forces in their fight against ISIL in Iraq, saying it will do anything to stop Shia forces to take control of Mosul.
It claims that any attempt to change Mosul’s Sunni demographic composition by the Shia-led federal government would be a direct threat to Turkey’s security.
But it is yet to be seen whether the Turkish government will continue its support for Barzani after the battle for Mosul is over.
Meanwhile, the US-backed offensive to defeat ISIL in Mosul entered its second month on Thursday, as forces allied against the group sought finally to seal off the city from all sides.
ISIL fighters have been steadily retreating from areas around Mosul into the city since the start of the offensive.
An elite army unit, the Counter Terrorism Service, breached the city’s eastern limits for the first time two weeks ago. Other army units have yet to enter from the northern and the southern sides, with the armed group’s fighters putting up fierce resistance.
The offensive to take Mosul, the largest city under ISIL control in either Iraq or Syria, is turning into the biggest battle in Iraq’s turbulent history since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iraqi authorities have declined to give a timeline for the recapture of the whole city, but it is likely to last for months.
ISIL fighters have launched waves of counterattacks , moving around the city through tunnels, driving suicide car bombs into advancing troops and hitting them with sniper and mortar fire.
Iraqi military estimates put the number of ISIL fighters in the city at 5,000 to 6,000. Facing them is a 100,000-strong coalition of Iraqi government forces, Kurdish fighters and Shia paramilitary units.
Nearly 57,000 people have been displaced because of the fighting, moving from villages and towns around the city to government-held areas, according to UN estimates.
The figure does not include the thousands of people rounded up in villages around Mosul and forced to accompany ISIL fighters to cover their retreat towards the city.