FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future

Photo by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús | CC By 2.0

Photo by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús | CC By 2.0

Mosul has been a dangerous place since the US-led invasion of 2003. It is the greatest Sunni Arab city of Iraq during an era in which the Sunni had lost their old predominance and have struggled against Shia-dominated governments in Baghdad and Kurdish rulers next door in Iraqi Kurdistan.

It is a battle that is still going on as the Iraqi army and Shia paramilitaries advance on Mosul from the south while Kurdish Peshmrga come from the east. The way is cleared for both by air strikes, predominantly by the US air force, attacking Isis fighters dug into ruined villages and hiding in deep tunnels.

If the anti-Isis forces ultimately succeed in recapturing Mosul it will be the fifth time the city has changed hands in the course of 13 years of war. The first time was in April 2003 when the Iraqi army was breaking up and surrendering and the Kurdish Peshmerga burst into the city. There was looting on a mass scale which the Arabs blamed on the Kurds and vice versa, but in fact both took part. I saw crowds ransack the governor’s mansion, the Central Bank and the university.

The Arabs, three-quarters of the city’s population of two million, were appalled by the Kurdish incursion. I visited the biggest hospital in Mosul where the director Dr Ayad Ramadani told me that “the Kurdish militias are looting the city. Today the main protection is from civilians organised by the mosques.” By the entrance to the hospital, a family was loading the body of a deceased relative into the back of a truck when there was a burst of machine gun fire. This frightened the truck driver who sped away leaving the body behind and the family angrily waving their fists after him.

Relations between Arabs and Kurds did not get much better over the following years. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) claimed parts of Nineveh province around Mosul which it said had a Kurdish majority or had historically belonged to the Kurds. Mosul sits at the heart of a fascinating but confusing ethnic and sectarian mosaic made up of Arabs, Kurds, Shabak, Yazidis and Christians of different dominations. Few of these communities had any liking for the others.

The Kurdish takeover was followed by the Americans and for the rest of 2003 General David Patraeus commanded the 101st Airborne Division in the city. He could see how the “de-Baathification” campaign mandated by the US authorities in Baghdad was alienating former Iraqi army officers and officials who were now out of a job. A high proportion of the army officer corps had always come from Mosul and, in keeping with this military tradition, the defence minister under Saddam Hussein was from the city. Petraeus issued de-Baathification certificates on his own authority so these unemployed officers were at least eligible for a job.

It was not enough. The Americans over-confidently thinned out their troops and then withdrew the remainder to take part in the recapture of Fallujah. In November 2004, Iraqi armed opposition fighters raced into the city, the newly reformed Iraqi army fled and the rebels captured aresnals of weapons. They withdrew after a few days and Baghdad, backed by the US, regained a shaky control.

But Baghdad’s rule was always contested between 2004 and 2014. There were repeated guerrilla attacks. I would travel from Irbil in KRG to visit the Kurdish deputy governor whose well-fortified office was on the far side of the Tigris river. But we either had to drive very fast or go more slowly in convoys defended by troops and armoured vehicles.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq never entirely lost its grip on Mosul even when it was at its lowest ebb before 2011. Local businesses had to pay it protection money, close down or risk assassination. A Turkish businessman with several big construction contracts there recalled later that he had to pay $500,000 (£400,000) a month and, when this was increased and he refused to pay up, one of his employees was killed. He stopped work, withdrew his staff to Turkey and complained to the government in Baghdad. But their only proposal was that he pay the protection money and add the sum to his contract price.

The government was much disliked in Mosul, but even so the Isis capture of the city in June 2014 was an astonishing victory of a few thousand fighters against a garrison that was meant to total 60,000 and may have had as many as 20,000 soldiers and police. The difference between the two figures was made up of “ghost soldiers” who did not exist or never came to the barracks but whose salaries were taken by officers. Many other soldiers had simply gone on leave to Baghdad and never come back as the security situation deteriorated. When Isis attacked the army and police dissolved.

Isis was never popular in Mosul but they ferociously suppressed all dissent. They drove out the Christians and murdered and enslaved the Yazidis. They blew up iconic monuments like Jonah’s Tomb. People may have disliked them, but there was not much they could do about it.

Isis also benefited from fear among Sunni in the city about what would happen if the Iraqi army and Shia paramiltary militias came back. They know that the whole five or six million Sunni Arab population of Iraq, a fifth of the 33 million population, are under threat and as many as a third have been displaced. In the sectarian war in Baghdad in 2006-7 the Sunni in Iraq had been driven into several enclaves, mostly in the west side of the city, which US diplomats described as “islands of fear”. This is now happening in the rest of Iraq. Other Iraqis may see them as complicit in Isis’s crimes and seek vengeance. Whatever conciliatory statements come from Iraqi leaders, sectarian and ethnic hatreds are running deep and people in Mosul face a frightening and uncertain future.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

April 25, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Selective Outrage
Dan Kovalik
The Empire Turns Its Sights on Nicaragua – Again!
Joseph Essertier
The Abductees of Japan and Korea
Ramzy Baroud
The Ghost of Herut: Einstein on Israel, 70 Years Ago
W. T. Whitney
Imprisoned FARC Leader Faces Extradition: Still No Peace in Colombia
Manuel E. Yepe
Washington’s Attack on Syria Was a Mockery of the World
John White
My Silent Pain for Toronto and the World
Dean Baker
Bad Projections: the Federal Reserve, the IMF and Unemployment
David Schultz
Why Donald Trump Should Not be Allowed to Pardon Michael Cohen, His Friends, or Family Members
Mel Gurtov
Will Abe Shinzo “Make Japan Great Again”?
Binoy Kampmark
Enoch Powell: Blood Speeches and Anniversaries
Frank Scott
Weapons and Walls
April 24, 2018
Carl Boggs
Russia and the War Party
William A. Cohn
Carnage Unleashed: the Pentagon and the AUMF
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
The Racist Culture of Canadian Hockey
María Julia Bertomeu
On Angers, Disgusts and Nauseas
Nick Pemberton
How To Buy A Seat In Congress 101
Ron Jacobs
Resisting the Military-Now More Than Ever
Paul Bentley
A Velvet Revolution Turns Bloody? Ten Dead in Toronto
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Left, Syria and Fake News
Manuel E. Yepe
The Confirmation of Democracy in Cuba
Peter Montgomery
Christian Nationalism: Good for Politicians, Bad for America and the World
Ted Rall
Bad Drones
Jill Richardson
The Latest Attack on Food Stamps
Andrew Stewart
What Kind of Unionism is This?
Ellen Brown
Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising
April 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
In Middle East Wars It Pays to be Skeptical
Thomas Knapp
Just When You Thought “Russiagate” Couldn’t Get Any Sillier …
Gregory Barrett
The Moral Mask
Robert Hunziker
Chemical Madness!
David Swanson
Senator Tim Kaine’s Brief Run-In With the Law
Dave Lindorff
Starbucks Has a Racism Problem
Uri Avnery
The Great Day
Nyla Ali Khan
Girls Reduced to Being Repositories of Communal and Religious Identities in Kashmir
Ted Rall
Stop Letting Trump Distract You From Your Wants and Needs
Steve Klinger
The Cautionary Tale of Donald J. Trump
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Conflict Over the Future of the Planet
Cesar Chelala
Gideon Levy: A Voice of Sanity from Israel
Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail