The Shattering of Mosul


“If you went into the streets on your own you would be dead in 15 minutes,” says Khasro Goran, the deputy governor of Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city. An able, confident man he speaks from experience having survived more assassination attempts than almost any political leader in Iraq.

The one hour car journey to Mr Goran’s office from the Kurdish capital Arbil underlines the dangers. He has sent his own guards, many of them his relatives, to pick me up from my hotel. They travel in slightly battered civilian cars, chosen to blend in with the rest of the traffic, wear civilian jackets and T shirts and keep their weapons concealed.

We drive at great speed across the Greater Zaab river, swollen with flood water, into the province of Nineveh of which the ancient city of Mosul is the capital. The majority of its 1.8 million people are Sunni Arabs and one third are Kurds along with 25,000 Christians. Arabs and Kurds have been fighting for control of the city for four years. Every day brings its harvest of dead. “Five Kurds were killed here yesterday,” says one of the guards dolefully.

The weapon of choice in Mosul these days is the vehicle born suicide bomb. We pass the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish parties, where 19 people were killed by just such a bomb last year. I can see where a second suicide driver targeted another PUK branch office close to the light blue dome of a mosque earlier in March and killed a further three people and wounded 20.

The city is not as obviously dangerous as Baghdad where whole districts are intermittently controlled by Sunni insurgents or Shia militiamen. At a quick glance there even appear to be reasons for optimism in Mosul since there are plenty of relaxed looking policemen patrolling in their blue and white cars and directing traffic.But as an indication of uncontested government authority such signs are misleading. In Mosul the police are mostly Arab while the two Iraqi army divisions are largely Kurdish. Out of 20,000 police Mr Goran believes that half belong to or sympathise with the Sunni resistance. When Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death last November one policeman stuck a picture of the former leader on his windscreen by way of protest.

We drive quickly through the crumbling walls of ancient Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, and past a large mound beneath which is the tomb of Jonah, who, having survived his unfortunate experience with the whale, was buried here. Traffic is lighter than I remember it during my previous visit last year. This is good news from the point of view of safety because we are unlikely to get caught in a traffic jam when other drivers have time to notice that I am obviously a foreigner and the guards are wearing civilian shirts but camouflage uniform trousers.

Unfortunately the reason why there are so few vehicles on the streets turns out to be bad news for the people of Mosul and Nineveh province as a whole. Syria has suspended supplies of fuel. As a result the province is getting only 10 per cent of its overall fuel needs and 4 per cent of its normal supply of gasoline. Food rations are no longer being delivered. Water and sewage as well as hospitals are affected.

We finally speed into Mr Goran’s heavily fortified headquarters, a former Baath party centre on the left bank of Tigris river taken over by the Kurdistan Democratic Party of which he is head in Mosul. Its elaborate defenshjes, high concrete walls and watchtowers, would do credit to a castle in a particularly disturbed part of medieval Europe. The sentries indicate to cars on a nearby round about that they are getting too close to the headquarters by firing bursts from their automatic rifles into the air. Mr Goran, though deputy governor, is a Kurd and more powerful than the Arab governor. He is very different from those politicians in Baghdad who never leave the Green Zone except to make numerous foreign trips during which they exude ill-informed optimism about security. He has a clear vision of the strengths and weaknesses of the government’s position in Mosul. He points out that, unlike Baghdad and the provinces of central Iraq, insurgents do not permanently control any single area. His claim that the government security forces have arrested many ‘terrorists’ is confirmed by other security sources.

The difference between Mosul and Baghdad is that in Mosul the government can at least rely on the Kurdish community as supporters. In the capital government has nobody on whose loyalty it can wholly depend. On March 23 the deputy prime minister Salam al-Zubaie was badly injured by bomber who got near him with the connivance of his own bodyguards. The government’s only response was to consider hiring another non-Iraqi security company.

Mr Goran admits that the insurgents have a sort of ‘shadow’ government in Mosul that competes with the real government. “There are eyes everywhere knowing what you do,” he says. They visit hairdressers and beauty salons to make sure they give only ‘Islamic’ haircuts. Many Kurds are fleeing the city because of assassinations and intimidation. Some 70,000 have already left. Kurdish students at Mosul university, one of the largest and previously among the most distinguished in Iraq, dare not stay. Aside from wholly Kurdish units the Iraqi government’s own security forces are thoroughly infiltrated. This is true not just in Mosul but throughout Iraq. It is a crucial point that President Bush and Tony Blair never seem to understand when they explain that they are training and equipping some 265,000 police and soldiers in Iraq. The real problem for Washington and London is that most of these men are loyal to their own communities–Shia, Sunni or Kurdish–before they are loyal to the government in Baghdad.

Mosul has already seen examples of this. In November 2004 the city police force went home, effectively handing over control of Mosul to insurgents who captured 30 police stations and $41 million in arms. Things have improved since then but possibly not by as much as the Iraqi government and the US would like to imagine. The police are not only Sunni Arabs but many come from the powerful and numerous al-Juburi tribe. This makes it politically very difficult to fire or demote them. It is not only the police whose loyalties are suspect. On March 6 insurgents from the Islamic State in Iraq movement–of which al Qaeda in Iraq is a part — stormed Badoush prison 15 miles north west of Mosul. They freed 68 prisoners of whom 57 were non-Iraqis. It was the biggest jail break in Iraq since the occupation started in 2003. Mr Goran cynically points out that there are supposedly 1,200 guards at Badoush of whom 400 ­500 were present during the attack but did nothing to halt it. He suspects that many of the guards, who get their orders not from him but the Ministry of Justice in Baghdad, had colluded with the insurgents in the break out. He suggests that the jail be moved to Basra or into Kurdistan for greater security.

It is allegiance not training, equipment and numbers that determines the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces. For instance frontier guards on the border with Syria to the west of Mosul mostly come from the Sunni Arab Shammar tribe. They are unlikely to be very effective because many of the insurgents and smugglers whom they are supposed to stop also belong to the Shammar who live on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian frontier. I have always liked Mosul. It feels a more ancient city than Baghdad. I enjoyed climbing the ancient stone streets in the Christian quarter too narrow and rutted by carts over the centuries for any car to enter. Even today, from Mr Goran’s heavily defended KDP headquarters, there is a wonderful view across the shimmering waters of the Tigris towards the old city with its elegant minarets on the west side of the river.

I first visited the Mosul in 1978 and saw the tourist sights. I spent a few days here in 1991 during the first Gulf War. But the day in the city I most vividly recall was April 11 2003 when the Iraqi army collapsed and Kurdish forces poured into the city. It was a moment full of lessons for the future. At first there was a sense of jubilation as people realised that Saddam Hussein’s iron rule was over. Even the looters had a cheery air. Scores of young men were breaking down the doors of the Central Bank building and reappearing clutching great bundles of Iraqi dinars. A small yellow KDP flag floated from one end of the governor’s office and an Iraqi flag from the other but looters were in charge. I was fascinated by one determined man who trying unaided to drag a vast and hideously ornate gold and purple sofa he had found in the governor’s sanctum down the stairs and into the street. He would go to one end of the sofa and laboriously move it a few feet. Then he would repeat the process at the other end. I kept running into the man in the course of the day as he doggedly moved his sofa across Mosul’s main square towards his home. The mood began to change in the course of the morning. The hotels were on fire and men were breaking into the local museum. At first people blamed criminals released by Saddam under an amnesty the previous year. Others wondered why the Americans had not arrived. The answer was they had only 2,000 men in the whole of northern Iraq and these had been sent to secure the Kirkuk oilfields. The Americans–and this was to be the pattern for the next four years–could not control Mosul without the Kurds.

Iraqi nationalism was not entirely dead. I went looking for American troops and found some of them at a checkpoint on the outskirts. They had raised the Stars and Stripes. Suddenly a man popped up from behind a wall nearby and vigorously waved an Iraqi flag, The soldiers, fearing he might lob a grenade, opened fire but he dodged down and escaped. By evening most of the Arab majority in Mosul had concluded that the problem was not criminals but Kurds. I went to the Republican hospital where Dr Ayad Ramadani, the hospital director, said: “The Kurdish militias are looting the city.” There was a frightening air of anarchy. As I spoke to rhe doctor there was a deafening chatter of a heavy machine-gun nearby. Some men had been trying to lift the body of a dead relative, wrapped in a white shroud, into the back of a pick-up. At the sound of the firing the driver of the pick-up panicked and suddenly drove off leaving the mourners shaking their fists at the departing vehicle.

Vigilantes began to appear and–again a sign for the future–they were organised by the local mosques. Rudimentary barricade made of rocks appeared in the streets. There was a growing feeling of rage among the Arabs of Mosul. I had gone to see if I could stay with the Assyrian archbishop in the Christian quarter. When I got back to the car our driver Yusuf, normally a taciturn man, was looking shaken. He explained that a crowd had come out of a mosque while I was away. They noticed that our car had number plates showing it came from Arbil in Kurdistan. They wanted to know what a Kurd was doing in their city and clearly suspected Yusuf of being a looter. He said: “One of them yelled, “Let’s kill him and burn the car.” Fortunately wiser counsels prevailed but it was obvious that we had to get out of Mosul as fast as possible.

The Americans did make a serious effort to cope with the problems of Mosul. General David Petraeus, now overall US commander in Iraq, then commanded 20,000 men of the 101st |Airborne Division based in Mosul during the first year of the occupation. He avoided many of the crass errors being made by Paul Bremer, the US viceroy in Baghdad. Petraeus could see that he had to deal with a predominantly Sunni Arab city with a proud nationalist and military tradition. Nineveh province as a whole was full of ex-army and ex-security officers who needed to be conciliated. They would never love the occupation but they might be persuaded not to join the armed resistance. Bremer dissolved the Iraqi armed forces–the symbol of Iraqi independence–and thus made a gift to the resistance of tens of thousands of young men with military training but no job. Petraeus tried to evade the ruinous consequences of de-Baathification by getting officers to sign a document renouncing the Baath party. On a wet day on a hill top outside Mosul in January 2004 I watched as 2,243 former officers raised their right hands and solemnly renounced the Baath and all its works. There was no doubt about the officers’ motives. They wanted jobs. Major Faiq Ahmed Abed, a grizzled veteran with 26 years military service, had served in the Republican Guard but had not been paid since the previous April. “Since then I have been selling my furniture to feed my children,” he said.

Petraeus kept the returning Iraqi exiles who were gaining power in Baghdad at arms length. Several had turned up in Mosul and politely suggested that they were willing to carry out any non-competitive contract the US military might like to put their way. Petraeus wanted to hold elections as quickly as possible to give the Iraqis he was co-operating with some legitimacy. When he left Mosul in early 2004 I asked him what was the most important advice he could give to his successor. He said, after reflecting for some moments, that it was “not to align too closely with one ethnic group, political party, tribe, religious group or social element.” By the end of the year the conciliatory policies pursued by Petraeus were in ruins. In November, during the US assault on Fallujah further south, the Mosul police force revolted to a man. So too had all the soldiers, aside from the Kurds, at the army base in the centre of town. US army and Kurdish units had to be rushed into the city to regain control. The Kurds had detested Petraeus because he had deliberately avoided aligning too closely with them. Today there are two Iraqi army divisions, most of the soldiers Kurdish, and one US battalion in Mosul. After November 2004 the Americans in the city became, in the eyes of many Sunni Arabs, one more tribe allied to the Kurds.

The city today lives on its nerves. Bombings and assassinations are not as frequent as Baghdad but enough to make life hideously insecure. A message from a professor at Mosul University, who did not want her name published, sent last November conveys the grim flavour of life. ‘The condition here is worsening more and more,’ she writes. ‘My office at the college was in havoc by the shrapnel & huge storm of a huge explosion just in the early morning. If I were in my office I should have been certainly torn to pieces. A suicidal explosion by a huge fuel vehicle took place at 7 am targetting at a police centre. The area includes a paediatrics hospital, a neighbourhood, a filling station where a long line of waiting people (mostly the poor who cannot afford buying benzene from the black market). The casualties were mostly them, children at the hospital, a whole family who were by chance there and some officials going to their offices in the university. It was more horrible than one can imagine or describe.’

The professor did not expect life in Mosul to get better and her pessimistic expectations have been fulfilled. For centuries Mosul has been one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the Middle East. Sadly, this is now ending. Kurds are in flight. So too are Christians. Fanatical Jihadi Islamists persecute them as being no different from US soldiers. When US soldiers were accused of damaging a mosque in a raid two Christians churches in Mosul were blown up by way of retaliation.

The fighting is likely to get worse. Under article 140 of the Iraqi constitution passed by a referendum in 2005–though Nineveh province voted against–there must be a referendum on joining the Kurdistan Regional Government by the end of 2007. The Kurds are determined to get back the lands from which they were expelled by Saddam Hussein and his predecessors. Above all they want Kirkuk and its oilfields. The vote will be by district so existing provinces, whose boundaries were gerrymandered by Saddam Hussein, will cease to exist. The Kurds expect that large areas of eastern, northern and western Nineveh province will join the KRG but not Mosul city itself because it has an Arab majority.

The Kurds are absolutely determined to get what they consider their rights after years of persecution, expulsion and genocide. They rightly think that they now have an historic opportunity to create a powerful near independent state within Iraq: They are America’s only effective allies in Iraq; they are powerful in Baghdad; The non-Kurdish parts of the Iraqi government are weak. Mr Goran confirms that they may postpone the referendum for a short period but not for long. He suspects that the province will split into two, one Kurdish and part of the KRG and the other Arab.

The history of Mosul over the last four years since the fall of Saddam Hussein has some lessons for resolving the conflict in Iraq in the long term. Many of the crass errors made in the first days of the occupation in Baghdad did not happen in Mosul. American and Kurdish commanders have often been able men. But the end result has been disastrously similar in both cities. Perhaps the most crucial lesson is that Iraqi communities mean exactly what they say and will fight to get it. In Iraq this means that the Kurds are going to recover their lost lands; the Sunni are going to get the Americans out and the Shia, as the majority, are determined to be the primary force in government.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.



Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).