New horrors beckon
What will follow the ‘liberation’ of Mosul? Yassamine Mather is not optimistic
Confidence booster: member of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism unit
On July 10 Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared that Mosul was “liberated”. Just “one or two pockets” are still controlled by Islamic State. He arrived in the devastated city to salute Iraqi military forces - and give himself a much needed popularity boost.
However the triumphalism, echoed in the Iranian capital, Tehran, was premature. On July 11 Lise Grande, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator, said that hundreds of civilians - maybe as many as 3,000 - were still trapped in areas where IS fighters were still resisting. They were, she said, mostly disabled people, the elderly and children who had not managed to escape neighbourhoods where there is ongoing door-to-door fighting.
And Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Erbil on July 9, writes: “It’s not over yet.” Even before that there were “horrific stories” coming from survivors, many of them malnourished and seriously dehydrated.
The final battle for Mosul, which started in October 2016, included “Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Sunni Arab tribesmen and Shia militiamen”. Or at least this is what official Iraqi state propaganda keeps telling us. Locals who have returned to their homes tell a different story. They complain about the dominance of Shia forces - not just the Iraqi Shia state’s army and Iraqi Shia militias, but Iranian Revolutionary Guards. One would have thought not the best way to win hearts and minds in a Sunni-dominated city.
There is no doubt that Iran was involved in the fighting. Foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted on July 9: “Congratulations to brave people and government of Iraq upon liberation of Mosul. When Iraqis join hands, no limits to what they can achieve.” Then there was another tweet said to originate with Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader: “Youths of the Islamic world must know that if they stand firm and resist, their victory over all equipment of arrogance is absolute.”1
Iran claimed that it had been financing and arming Iraqi and Syrian forces in the war against IS for several years - Tehran is making sure no-one forgets its role in the recapture of the city, particularly as this is an election year in Iraq, when the current premier, the US-backed Haider al-Abadi, will be up against Nouri al-Maliki, favoured by Iran.
Like many other towns and cities across the Middle East, Mosul lies in ruins. Thousands of civilians are dead - it matters little whether they were used as IS ‘human shields’ or were the victims of air raids carried out by ‘allied’ planes, led by the US and including the UK. At least a million inhabitants are displaced, many of them living in makeshift camps around Mosul or in neighbouring villages. Those who had decided to stay look undernourished and in poor health - they all have horrific tales to tell, in particular about the rule of the jihadist group. However, very few Mosul residents or ex-residents show much enthusiasm for the ‘liberating’ troops - some complain that their city is now more like Tehran, with Shia symbols dominating every street corner.
Mosul had also been home to a large number of Christians, many of whom are now refusing to return, having spent the last three years in the Iraqi Kurdish region, in Baghdad or in exile. Al-Monitor quotes a priest as saying:
Strong sentiments are not a sufficient drive to return, as I still fear Islamic State and the extremist forces that might seek revenge ... The most important thing that the Christians have lost in their forced migration is not property and land, but the trust in the sons and daughters of neighbouring Sunni Arab areas and villages, who have joined Islamic State.2
It is just over three years since the Baghdad government lost control of Mosul. The Iraqi army had 30,000 soldiers in the area and the city had 30,000 police, yet it fell in less than six days (June 4-10 2014). The insurgents were allegedly no more than 1,500, yet they were able to take the city. An estimated 500,000 civilians fled.
Beginning of end?
Before anyone gets too excited by this ‘victory’, let us remember that it was Shia dominance in the region and the pro-Iran government in Baghdad (courtesy of the 2003 US invasion) that fuelled Sunni resentment in places such as Mosul. It was Saudi and Persian Gulf funds pouring into Jihadi groups that got us where we are today - the daily threats against civilians worldwide from Islamists ‘radicalised’ by imperialist actions.
Around half the population remains displaced, and there will now be pressure on the Iraqi government to supply housing and basic amenities. The UN predicts it will cost more than $1 billion to repair Mosul’s basic infrastructure. In some parts of the city, there is not a single building that has escaped structural damage.
According to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, the defeat of IS “promises better and brighter days for the Iraqi people, as for all the region.” Very few believe him. Yes, Mosul was IS’s last significant urban base in Iraq and the group has lost much of its territory, as it has in Syria. It has lost hundreds, maybe thousands, of soldiers too and morale among those surviving is reportedly low. However, the jihadist group still controls a number of smaller towns in Iraq: “By no means does this seemingly imminent victory by Iraqi forces in Mosul mean the end of Isil in Iraq,” says Al Jazeera.3
There are rumours that its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, died in a Russian air raid in Raqqa in May. Whether true or not, al Baghdadi’s story is a pertinent one. He came from a religious family in a poor area not far from Baghdad. He joined the Salafi insurgency, supported and financed by Saudi Arabia, in 2003, soon after the invasion of Iraq, and he spent most of 2004 in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. In April 2004 CBS News published photos that showed US soldiers smiling next to tortured Arab prisoners - there is also the picture of a hooded detainee standing on a box with electrical wires attached to his outstretched hands. Abu Ghraib is often described as a training ground for jihadists, and there is no doubt that Al-Baghdadi’s own commitment to the cause was reinforced by his experience. And, of course, it was in Mosul - from the pulpit of the al-Nuri mosque (destroyed a couple of weeks ago by IS) - that he chose to announce the ‘restoration of the Sunni caliphate’ in July 2014.
What is being done to defeat IS is in essence a repetition of what led to the current situation. The resentment against US-UK air raids in Iraq has been joined by resentment against US, Russian and Turkish air raids in Syria. The ongoing slaughter of civilians, the corrupt, incompetent Shia government in Baghdad and the Alawite dictator in Syria will ensure continuing steady recruitment for the jihadi groups and, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar demonstrated once again in their recent spat, the countries of the region will continue funding and arming these groups in their own interest.
So it is true that Islamic State is now much weaker than before, that the land it controls is now a fraction of what it held even a year ago. But, contrary to the triumphalism of the US and Iran, the group is far from finished. In fact in the short term the threat from IS may have grown. Those fighters who have not been killed will flee from Iraq and Syria, some as civilian refugees; many who were foreign recruits will try to return to their home country. Like its predecessor, al Qa’eda, IS will continue to enjoy the support not just of ill-informed young volunteers, but of wealthy Salafis in Saudi Arabia, the emirates of the Persian Gulf, Libya and much of north Africa.