When the 3,000 men of the mainly Kurdish 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Division of the Iraqi Army go on patrol it is at night, after the rigorously enforced curfew starts at 8pm. Their vehicles, bristling with heavy machine guns, race through the empty streets of the city, splashing through pools of sewage, always trying to take different routes to avoid roadside bombs. “The government cannot control the city,” said Hamid Effendi, an experienced ex-soldier who is Minister for Peshmerga Affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government.
He is influential in the military affairs of Mosul province with its large Kurdish minority, although it is outside the Kurdish region. He believes: “The Iraqi Army is only a small force in Mosul, the Americans do not leave their bases much and some of the police are connected to the terrorists.” In the days since a suicide bomber killed 43 young men waiting to join the Iraqi army at a recruitment centre near Mosul last week soldiers in the city have been expecting a second attack.
“We are not leaving the base in daytime because we know other bombers are waiting for us,” said a soldier at a base near Mosul’s city centre.
Saadi Pire, until recently the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Mosul, says bluntly that the 12,000 police “are police by day and terrorists by night. They should all be dismissed and other police brought in from outside.”
He thinks that Mosul, the northern capital of Iraq with a population of 1.7 million, could erupt at any moment. He points out that it is difficult to pacify because so much of Saddam Hussein’s army–some 250,000 soldiers and 30,000 officers–was recruited from there.
General Muthafar Deirky, the ebullient commander of the 3rd Brigade, is more confident about the government’s grip the city. He has been stationed there since November 11, 2004 when, in one of the least publicized disasters of the US occupation of Iraq, insurgents captured the city as the police and army deserted en masse. Some 11,000 weapons and vehicles worth $40m were lost.
The American media was almost entirely embedded with the US Marines who were engaged in the bloody battle for Fallujah, population 350,000, so the outside world did not notice that the anti-American resistance had captured a city five times as large.
General Deirky, a peshmerga veteran, was called in a panic by the army commander in Baghdad who told him that “Mosul was under the control of terrorists”. He gathered 700 men and, having fought off two ambushes, advanced into the city just in time to prevent the capture of the television station. He was dismayed to discover that out of an 1,800-strong Iraqi Army unit all but 30 Kurds had deserted.
After a brisk counter-attack by the 3rd Brigade and American troops the guerrillas evaporated having chosen not, as in Fallujah, to stand and fight. General Deirky says most of the resistance cells were later eliminated.
He claims that the situation is very different today when the people of Mosul “welcome us, hate the terrorists and give us information about them”. But the general’s own account of recent events in the city show the depth of the divisions between Arabs and Kurds as well the Arab hostility to the occupation.
For instance at the end of last year the Arab chief of police Ahmed al-Jibouri, appointed after the uprising, was dismissed with 40 of his officers for aiding the insurgents. “He was telling people that every family should have one of its members in the resistance,” recalled the general.
In reality, Mosul city, like so many places in Iraq, is an ethnic minefield which the US has sought to negotiate with varying success since the overthrow of Saddamin 2003. At first US commanders did not want Kurdish forces in the city fearing the reaction of the Arabs.
General David Petraeus of the 101st Airborne tried to bring on board the Sunni Arabs but when he left this policy languished. Since November 2004 Arabs in the province claim that the US has simply joined forces with the Kurds after the mass desertion of the Arab police and army.
“The Americans are now just one more of the tribes of Mosul,” said one Arab source alleging that the CIA got all its information from Kurdish intelligence.
Most soldiers have an ethnic map of Mosul imprinted on their brain. “I feel safer now because there is nothing but Kurdish villages from now on,” said a driver, with a sign of a relief, as we drove away from the city.
For the moment nobody is wholly in control and most expect more fighting.