Mosul looks like a city of the dead. American and Iraqi troops have launched an attack aimed at crushing the last bastion of al Qaida in Iraq and in doing so have turned the country’s northern capital into a ghost town. Soldiers shoot at any civilian vehicle on the streets in defiance of a strict curfew. Two men, a woman and child in one car which failed to stop were shot dead by US troops who later issued a statement saying the two men were armed and one man made ‘threatening movements.’
It is not easy to reach Mosul, a city of 1.4 million people on the Tigris river, sealed off from the outside world by hundreds of police and army checkpoints since the Iraqi government offensive against al-Qa’ida began at 4 am on Saturday morning.
The operation is a critical part of the government’s attempt over the last six weeks to reassert military control over Iraq which has led to heavy fighting in Baghdad and Basra.
We began the journey from the Kurdish capital Arbil in a convoy of white pick up trucks, each with a heavy machine gun in the back manned by alert-looking soldiers, some wearing black face masks, that were escorting Khasro Goran, the deputy governor of Mosul, to his office in the city.
Soon after crossing the long bridge over the Zaab river and leaving territory officially controlled by the Kurds, we saw lines of trucks and cars, whose drivers presumably had not heard of the curfew, being stopped by police. The soldiers defending our convoy said that there was little real danger ahead, but even so we turned into a military headquarters in the Christian village of Bartilla to exchange our pick ups for more heavily armoured vehicles with small windows a few inches across of bullet proof glass.
I had been to Mosul down this road half a dozen times since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and on each occasion the military escort necessary to reach the city safely has grown bigger. Squinting through the small glass portholes I could see local people were clearly taking the curfew seriously. Even the miserable looking cafes used by the truck drivers, and which I had imagined were never closed, had put up their metal grills.
In eastern Mosul the streets are usually bustling and stalls spill onto the road near the tomb of the prophet Jonah who died in Mosul sometime after his alarming experience with the whale. Most of the people living in this part of the city are in any case Kurds, who support the central government against al-Qa’ida, but here again every shop was shut and there were police and soldiers at checkpoints every fifty yards.
An extra brigade had been sent from Baghdad for the present offensive along with special security troops to reinforce the 2nd and 3rd divisions. Outside the police headquarters the black vehicles of the Interior Ministry, each with a heavy machine gun and a yellow head of a tiger as an insignia on the doors, were drawn up in rows.
American helicopters flew high overhead as well as drones for reconnaissance. There was the occasional burst of firing and bomb blast in the distance. The governor of Mosul, Dunaid Kashoula, says the city ‘has come to be dominated by the leaders of al-Qa’ida as a result of the delay in the military operation’ originally scheduled for earlier this year. Nevertheless, the insurgents in Mosul have never held whole quarters of the city and there was no street fighting.
The government offensive in Mosul was promised in January by the prime minister Nouri al-Maliki as the last battle against al-Qa’ida. He promised revenge for the assassination of the previous police commander for the city who had been assassinated by an al-Qa’ids suicide bomber dressed in a police uniform.
There is no doubt that security in Mosul has been getting worse over the last six months. Mr Goran, who effectively runs the city, says that 90 people were killed in Mosul last September compared to 213 dead this March including 58 soldiers and policemen. The number of roadside bombs had risen from 175 to 269 over the same period.
The official theory for this is that al Qa’ida in Iraq, which has only a limited connection with Osama bin Laden and is largely home grown, has been driven out of its old bastions in Anbar and Diyala provinces and Sunni districts of Baghdad. It has therefore retreated to Mosul, the largest Sunni Arab city and the third largest in Iraq.
This is probably over simple. Attacks on US troops in Anbar province have started again and in Sunni districts of west Baghdad al-Qa’ida appears to be lying low rather than being eliminated. In many cases in Baghdad al-Sahwa, the supposedly anti-al-Qa’ida awakening Councils paid by the Americans, in practice have cosy arrangements with al-Qa’ida.
I had decided to go to Mosul – and therefore arrived in the first hours of the government offensive – because of what turned out to be a false report that the head of al Qa’ida in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri [check spelling], had been captured in a pre-dawn raid in the city. Later Iraqi security officers said they captured many ‘Emirs’, al Qa’ida cell leaders, and targeted hundreds of suspected houses.
These are critical days for the Iraqi government of Mr Maliki. Since 25 March he has launched military offensives in Basra and Baghdad. He is getting support from the Americans and the Kurds. But it it is not clear if the Iraqi army will fight without the backing of US firepower in the air or on the ground. On Saturday a ceasefire was agreed with the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr in Sadr City giving the government greater control. But, as in Mosul, it is not clear how far the government’s opponents have simply retreated to fight another day.
I was in Mosul on the day it was surrendered by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 2003.Scenes of joy were succeeded within the space of a few hours by looting and gun battles between Arabs and Kurds. Five years later Mosul, one of the great cities of the world, looks ruinous and under siege. Every alley way is blocked by barricades and the only new building is in the form of concrete blast walls. The fact that the government has to empty the streets of Mosul of its people to establish peace for a few days shows how far the city is from genuine peace.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”