Iraq

Mosul regained

Print edition : August 18, 2017

The destroyed al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP

Suspected Islamic State members in a prison south of Mosul. Photo: Bram Janssen /AP

The Iraqi Army reclaims Mosul from the Daesh after a protracted battle. The cash-strapped central government in Baghdad will have to depend on foreign donors to help rebuild the heavily bombed city.

IT took more than nine months for the Iraqi Army to finally liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from the clutches of the Daesh (Islamic State). In comparison, some 3,000 Daesh fighters took over the city in less than four days in a lightning attack on a garrison of over 20,000 troops in 2014. The Iraqi Army was equipped with tanks and helicopters. The Daesh’s military success was to a large extent possible because of the support from the majority Sunni population in the city and the surrounding areas. The Sunni minority had felt discriminated by the predominantly Shia-dominated Army and the police force stationed in the city at the time. All the communities had generally coexisted peacefully under the watchful and efficient eye of the authoritarian government of Saddam Hussein. His secular Baath government had given as much importance to old Christian churches as to medieval mosques.

When this correspondent visited Mosul in 2002, it was evident that the people there were strong supporters of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein. In 2004, Saddam’s sons and grandchildren were killed in Mosul. The Daesh fighters, according to reports, are led by former officers of Saddam’s elite Republican Guards. It is unfortunate but true that the praetorian guard of a secular regime has become the backbone of the lean but mean fighting force created by the Daesh. The former Revolutionary Guards played a big role in the Daesh’s capture of several Iraqi cities. Only Iranian intervention stopped the fall of the capital, Baghdad, to the rampaging Daesh forces in 2014. The Iraqi Army, after its defeats in Mosul, Ramadi and other cities, was in complete disarray at the time.

The battle for Mosul began in October last year. The United States had hoped to get the job done before President Barack Obama left office in January 2017. But that was not to be. The Daesh control of Mosul only ended six months into the presidency of Donald Trump. The former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had pledged to retake the city within months of its capture. The Iraqi Army, during its long siege and eventual recapture of Mosul, was helped by the U.S. Air Force and allied militias. In the second week of July, it finally managed to subdue the tenacious resistance put up by the Daesh. War historians have compared the fight for Mosul to the brutal urban warfare witnessed during the Second World War.

According to a senior Iraqi Army officer, the Army had to literally battle for every “metre of territory” when it entered the central part of the city. Scattered pockets of resistance amid the rubble of the old city were reported even as the Army was continuing with its mopping-up operations. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, dressed in military fatigues, undertook a well-publicised tour of the city on July 7. He congratulated the Army for “liberating” the city even as Daesh fighters were fighting to the death in isolated pockets of the old city.

Mosul, one of the oldest inhabited urban areas in history, has been virtually razed in the more than seven months of fighting. When the Daesh captured the city, it had a population of around 1.2 million. Many residents, especially those belonging to non-Sunni denominations and the Christian and Yazidi minority, managed to flee to escape certain persecution. Sexual slavery and summary executions became the hallmark of Daesh rule over the city. From January, the Iraqi Army and the U.S. Air Force resorted to indiscriminate use of firepower to subdue the Daesh. It is now estimated that more than 50,000 civilians were killed in the long campaign to liberate the city. The Iraqi Army has not released its casualty figures, but it is estimated that more than a thousand of its soldiers were killed.

A report by Amnesty International stated that Iraqi government forces and allied forces led by the U.S. “relied heavily upon explosive weapons with wide area effects such as IRAMs [Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions]”. These weapons, according to the report, had crude targeting capabilities that resulted in wanton destruction of entire neighbourhoods in western Mosul. One attack by the U.S. missiles demolished a residential complex, killing more than 200 civilians. The intense house-to-house fighting in Mosul’s old quarters left that part of the city devastated. The Daesh randomly used suicide bombers in cars, trucks and earth-moving machines with deadly effect. It targeted a large number of civilians who tried to flee from the war zone and was not averse to using “human shields” in its last stand in Mosul. In the aftermath of the battle, the city was littered with unexploded U.S. munitions and Daesh booby traps. It is estimated that more than 10 per cent of the munitions dropped by the U.S. and allied forces over Mosul failed to explode.

Treading with caution

The 12th century al-Nuri mosque, with its distinctive leaning minaret, was among the several historical monuments that were destroyed. The mosque, from which Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate three years ago, was apparently demolished by militants in the face of imminent defeat. The victorious Iraqi forces would have liked to have hung their national flag from the dome of the mosque after Mosul’s liberation. After it conquered Mosul, the Daesh destroyed the Nabi Yunus (tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah) mosque as also priceless antiques on the grounds that they spread idolatry. The Daesh, despite its depredations, had struck root among the populace in Mosul and the surrounding Sunni-dominated areas. The Army is treading with caution and suspicion in liberated Mosul. There are many stories of suspected Daesh fighters and supporters being summarily executed.

Many in the top Daesh leadership have managed to escape in order to fight another day. The news of al-Baghdadi’s demise seems to have been premature. The huge amounts of arms the Daesh had seized from three Iraqi Army divisions after its forces fled from Mosul are still unaccounted for. The Daesh has probably hidden them away in tunnels dug deep in the desert or kept them in isolated ravines. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, the bulk of the Taliban fighters melted away, hiding their U.S.-supplied weapons, which were in mint condition at that time. Within a few years, the Taliban regrouped with its weapons intact, to fight and once more pose a potent threat to the central government in Kabul.

The Daesh in Iraq and Syria is known to be highly motivated. In the immediate aftermath of its losses in Mosul and Raqqa, its main focus may once again revert to suicide attacks in urban areas, both in the region and outside. Four years ago, nobody had visualised that the Daesh would emerge out of the desert and create a state with a functioning capital and a bureaucracy. Daesh sleeper cells and suicide bombers, Iraq watchers are aware, can be activated at short notice. The Daesh still controls the cities of Hawija and Tal Afar in northern Iraq apart from smaller towns in the Euphrates river valley.

In all, 25 million Sunni Muslims live between Baghdad and Damascus, many of them alienated from the government. The Iraqi government has to ensure that the Sunni population does not feel discriminated against any more. The Prime Minister has promised to implement what he describes as “functioning federalism”.

The Iraqi Constitution provides for decentralisation of powers. Sunni militias, under the banner of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, played a role along with Shia militias in the liberation of Mosul. However, the sectarian divide has not been bridged yet. The government has a Herculean task ahead as it seeks to rebuild Mosul. Essential services have to be restored. Residents who wish to return to the city will likely find that their homes have been reduced to rubble. Thousands more are forced to stay in squalid refugee camps because they are under suspicion of harbouring sympathies for the Daesh ideology. Many of their close relatives are either with the Daesh or have died fighting for it. The humanitarian crisis facing the city is getting worse even as the Iraqi government and international relief agencies are trying to provide relief to the beleaguered population.

United Nations relief agencies have estimated the cost of emergency repairs and reconstruction at $700 million. The cost of rebuilding the city, according to experts, will exceed the figure of $50 billion. Two weeks after the city was declared liberated, rotting bodies still litter the street and lie underneath destroyed homes.

Collateral damage

By the third week of July, civil defence workers, desperately short-staffed, removed more than 2,000 corpses. The U.S. warplanes had dropped bombs weighing between 500 and 1,000 kilograms, which caused tremendous collateral damage. The Washington Post reported that workers found the bodies of “hundreds of people suffocated under the ruins of their homes”. U.S. air strikes in Iraq and Syria rose dramatically after Trump assumed the presidency. He had given the U.S. military “total authorisation” to decide the kind of force they wanted to use. Under Trump, there is absolutely no public accountability for the damage caused to civilian lives and property as a result of U.S. bomb and missile strikes.

Already, the remaining residents of Mosul are complaining of government neglect saying that very few relief and rehabilitation workers have been deployed in the city. The cash-strapped central government will have to depend on foreign donors to help in the task of rebuilding Mosul. Because of the low price of oil and the costs of waging war, the Iraqi economy is in dire straits. Last year, the government in Baghdad had to negotiate a standby loan of $5.5 billion. Iraq’s economy reduced by more than 10 per cent last year.

The Iraqi Ambassador to India, Fakhri al-Issa, told the media in New Delhi that more than a dozen Indian nationals had fought alongside the Daesh in the battle for Mosul. Many of the best Daesh fighters are said to be foreigners, mainly from Central Asia and Europe.

The Indian government dispatched the Minister of State for External Affairs, V.K. Singh, to northern Iraq after the liberation of Mosul on a fact-finding mission to verify the fate of 39 Indians who were abducted by the Daesh in 2014. Iraqi diplomats had indicated in the past that the missing workers, all hailing from Punjab, were, in all probability, executed by the Daesh three years ago. The Indian government is probably aware that there is very little chance of finding the Indians alive, but the issue is an emotive one in Punjab.

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