As US pins hopes on provincial elections, Iraqis say prospects depend on better government, less poverty and a halt to Kurdish expansionism.
'If we help, they will help'
A cold, bright morning, two black US attack helicopters fly low over a dirt poor neighbourhood in eastern Mosul, making repeated loud passes above a line of people waiting near a lorry in the street. Dozens of Iraqi and US troops in armoured vehicles have fanned out to secure the area, the gunships overhead as an extra safeguard. They are not protecting a group of rich and influential people, and this is not a hunt for the insurgents who still maintain a powerful presence in the city. It is a food handout mission, a simple charity drop.
Residents of the Al Intisar neighbourhood queue up patiently until they are called forward, their names written down by a soldier before they are allowed to walk to the back of the Iraqi army lorry. There, another soldier hands them a large, heavy plastic bag containing rice, oil and flour. "We're here to prove to the people that we will work for their good and that we are not afraid to come to this area," said Major Ra'ad Jalal, the Iraqi officer overseeing the mission. "If we help the civilians, then they will help us."
This is the first time the Iraqi military, obtrusively backed up by the US army, has distributed aid in this area of town in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of an alienated, disgruntled and impoverished population. It is the soft side of a hard war being fought here between various rival factions: the US military, the Iraqi government, Islamic extremists, nationalist insurgents, powerful tribes and Kurdish separatists.
"The security situation in Mosul is improving," Major Jalal said. "It's safe here now, I'd be happy to come here even without all of this protection." The food packages ran out quickly and the discipline of the queue collapsed as the last bags were unloaded. At least a dozen disappointed Iraqis surrounded the lorry begging for help that was no longer there. "We can say the security has become better," said Amal Fathal, a mother of nine daughters and two sons, who had joined the welfare queue early and was among those lucky enough to get a precious plastic bag. "But we are poor people. This is the first food package or help we've had. It's good to get something, but it's a bag of rice. It's not enough."
Although there are some shreds of economic light - a number of street markets are beginning to open again and a handful of businessmen are returning from exile - unemployment or underemployment in Mosul, the capital of the Ninewa province, is estimated to be running at 60 per cent to 70 per cent. This year, the Iraqi government allocated 350 billion Iraqi dinars (Dh845m) to Ninewa for reconstruction projects, but despite the grinding poverty and shattered infrastructure just 40 per cent of the money has actually been delivered, according to US officials. They blamed excessive central control by Baghdad and a maze of corrupt bureaucracy that keeps progress at a glacial pace.
Among city residents, this ineffectiveness has manifested itself in a sense of being cut off from, and disillusioned with, both the central and local authorities. "We see nothing from the government and we see nothing from the provincial council," Mrs Fathal said. "There is no work here, there is no money. What we really need are jobs. We need some way of living." One of her daughters, wearing only socks caked in wet mud, clung to her shoulders. "Even the security improvements are not absolute. It is good while the Americans are here with all their soldiers, but it is dangerous when they go."
Thirty minutes after the food drop ended, a mile or so away, four black saloon cars filled with 16 gunmen staged a kidnapping, snatching their victims from the street. The US troops scrambled quick reaction forces but found nothing. Over previous days numerous bombs had been set in the Intisar neighbourhood and two Iraqi soldiers, Lt Assad and Private Ali Khadim Ibrahim, were killed in a rocket ambush a stone's throw from their base. The Iraqi soldiers at the camp did not respond - much to the anger and disbelief of their US mentors - because they did not receive orders to do so.
There has been a marked decline in the number of attacks in Mosul and Ninewa, according to US figures, with incidents down from 50 a day at the start of the year to the current level of 10 a day - similar to that of 2006. Open street fighting has largely ceased. However significant parts of the city - Iraq's second or third largest, depending on the source of the population figures - remain an apocalyptic wasteland of barbed wire, broken concrete road blocks and rundown, slum-like buildings. A massive wall of sand that rings Mosul - an effort to seal the city off from the surrounding countryside and prevent weapons trafficking - adds to the bleak atmosphere. Violence is commonplace: bombings, political assassinations, rocket attacks and abductions.
Since the spring, the Baghdad authorities have struggled to gain control over the city, launching two large military operations, one of which is still under way, and flooding Mosul with troops. There are more than 55,000 Iraqi security personnel in Ninewa together with almost 10,000 US soldiers, most spread across 30 combat outposts in Mosul. Although the police are widely held to be corrupt and ineffective - there are 24,000 police officers in the province - some of the Iraqi army units are more highly regarded, by Mosul's residents and the US forces, as professional and competent. Other units - those with mainly Kurdish soldiers - are viewed with mistrust by the city's Arab majority.
Elsewhere in Iraq, the insurgency has waned to some extent and the central government - or local politicians - have managed to exercise a kind of control. Mosul, 315km north-west of Baghdad, has remained restive. About 1.2 million people are thought to be in the city, a majority of them Sunni Arabs. They harbour deep suspicions about Iraq's rulers and about the ambitions of Iraqi Kurds, a minority that currently wields administrative power over the province because Sunni Arabs boycotted the last local elections.
Mosul lies on the doorstep of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region and Iraqi Arabs are concerned the Kurds are trying to absorb it into their territory, which they hope one day will become an independent state. Exacerbating the tensions is the fact Mosul and Ninewa are home to many former Baathists and high-ranking military personnel from Saddam Hussein's regime. It all makes for a volatile mix. "In Mosul there is massive exclusion of the Sunni Arabs, there has been three years of drought, the economy is a disaster, there are inefficiencies and corruption in the public sector and no private sector," said a US state department official involved in efforts to rebuild the city. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he had not been authorised to speak to the press. "That's pretty ripe ground for an insurgency. It's a perfect storm of political, economic and even climatic factors. Catastrophe may not be too strong a word."
Although the war in Baghdad quickly descended into an outright sectarian conflict, in Mosul it has not. Christians and other minority communities have been targeted, but there has not been the ethnic cleansing seen in the Iraqi capital. In part that is because the ethno-sectarian mix is different and in part because insurgents have, to some degree, avoided the random attacks against civilians that came to characterise Baghdad's violence. Just as the Iraqi and US militaries are waging a campaign for hearts and minds, insurgents are wary of alienating the local population. Too many civilian casualties could turn insurgent sympathisers away and push them into the governments' hands.
"What we are currently seeing is a VBIED [car bomber] cell operating in eastern Mosul," said Major Adam Boyd, head intelligence officer with the 3 Armored Cavalry Regiment (3 ACR), the US unit responsible for the city. "They pretty much only attack Iraqi security forces or coalition security forces, not the general populace. It intimidates the security forces and makes people doubt their credibility: 'If you can't protect yourself, how can you protect the people?'
"In west Mosul, you see the murder portion of campaign, there is a lot of infighting between the [insurgent] groups, for example Jaish al Islami is fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq. Also there is the killing of suspected informants and of individual civilians who are known as being pro-Iraqi security forces or pro-government of Iraq. Likewise there are political assassinations; to stop the government being able to provide services."
If the city has a central fault line today it is between those who are pro-Kurd and those who are anti-Kurd. The division has not as yet erupted into fighting but with provincial elections due to take place on Jan 31, the various factions are jockeying for position. There seems to be little question that Sunni Arabs will participate in the vote this time around, despite efforts by some Kurdish politicians to have their offices shut down and supporters arrested. If the Arabs can unite, they will theoretically command a majority and, as a result, will be in a position to end outright Kurdish control over Ninewa and Mosul.
The provincial elections will help start to solve some of the most pressing issues, according to Lt Col Robert Molinari of the 3 ACR, who described security problems as "a symptom of the disease". "Provincial elections are the answer for Ninewa," he said. "The long-term solution here isn't how many military forces you can dump into Mosul and turn it into a small base camp. The long-term solution is reconstruction. That's not an easy thing when the budget strings are so tightly controlled by Baghdad."
The Americans are keen to make the elections as much of an Iraqi affair as they can. They are also pushing the electoral role being played by the United Nations, which has a delegation based on Forward Operating Base Marez, the main US camp in the area. "We are in Iraq to support the government, the problem is that our presence delegitimises it and the vote," the state department official said. "That's why we want a UN face on the election. I think there will be a high turnout but I've no idea what will happen. I expect it will be an ethnic census, which is unfortunate."
However, anecdotal evidence suggests at least some of the electorate will stay away from the polling centres. Mrs Fathal, the mother of 11 from the food aid drop, said she would not cast a ballot. "If we vote or not, it means nothing," she said. "It has the same effect. Our votes count for nothing." Ahmed Ali, who was also waiting in line for a food handout, made it clear he had no faith in elected officials at any level. "Politicians are only interested in helping themselves," he said, warning that the dire economic situation was adding to the violent unrest. "If we continue to have no jobs, then there is no future. If there is a terrorist who comes with money, people will take the money to fight. They will do what they need to do to feed their families."
As well as pinning their hopes on the elections, the US military is keeping its fingers crossed that recent rainfall continues and that this winter will be wet. The drought has put farmers out of work and encouraged them to sell their stocks of agricultural fertiliser to insurgents. Rather than using military grade explosives, which are hard to smuggle past checkpoints, militants are using home-made bombs, with fertiliser the main ingredient.
"As long as it stays wet, you can't dry fertiliser for bombs in the sun," said Maj Boyd. "That means they'll have to move back to using military explosives and we are restricting their ability to move them around the city. "If it stays wet, it's great news. Between the rain coming, elections, the additional security forces and this potential for increased reconstruction, there is a very bright future."
In the Palestinian neighbourhood of the city, also on the east side of the river, Omar Fathel, 29, a pharmacist, was more pessimistic. Economic depression, Kurdish expansionism and the continued involvement of foreigners in Iraq's affairs could bring more trouble, not less, he said. "There is more security than before although if you ask me I will say I am still afraid. We have more soldiers and sometimes they are well trained, but many of them are Kurdish and it is not for them to solve the problems of Mosul. We have our own problems and we can solve them better alone.
"There are problems but I don't believe these are coming from Iraqis. There are invaders. We need to be left to solve our problems on our own." Mr Fathel, whose wife is pregnant with their second child, said he expected city residents to register their dissatisfaction in the elections. "Many people will vote," he said. "We are not satisfied with the performance of the provincial government. We need administrators who are professional and know how to do their jobs. At the moment, there are people without education running the city.
"Finally we need more security, we need economic improvements, we need opportunities." firstname.lastname@example.org