x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Mosul left lagging as Iraq struggles forward

The US military says the security situation is vastly improved in Iraq's second city but residents beg to differ.

MOSUL // Until 18 months ago, Abdul Rahman had been a police officer in Mosul, just as his father had been before him. Even as violence worsened, the family was adamant they would not walk away from the city that was their home. By 2008 conditions had been bad for some time and Mosul's police officers suffered along with the rest of the population. Turning up for duty each morning, Mr Rahman, a 34-year-old senior non-commissioned officer, would wonder which of his colleagues might not have lived through the night. One day a close friend did not arrive at the station.

"Two days before he'd arrested someone we were 99 per cent sure was a criminal involved in terrorism," Mr Rahman recalled. "The next day that man was out on the streets again and he went straight round to my friend's house and said to his face: 'You were the one', and then shot him. "The terrorists, the criminals, they find out who the good officers are and they deal with them. Too many police officers have been killed. I would look around the room and think, 'I wonder who will still be alive in a year'?"

His older brother was not the next person to die in Mosul and he was certainly not the last, but he too was shot and killed. "My brother was murdered because of me," Mr Rahman said, struggling to keep back tears. "I was in the police and some terrorists were looking for me. They found it easier to take my brother, so they killed him. He has two kids. They killed him and they said it was to get to me. I left Mosul after that, I moved the whole family out. But by then it's too late, isn't it?"

In the past year, levels of violence in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, have declined significantly according to US military records. In September 2008 there were 287 reported attacks; this September that number was 121, down from an average of almost 10 attacks per day to four. Nonetheless, Mosul remains a dangerous place. A typical week might include assassinations, street gun battles, roadside bomb explosions, drive-by shootings and kidnappings.

Last week, Iraqi security forces detained 150 people suspected of involvement in insurgent activity in Mosul, in the latest in a series of large-scale military operations designed to break the lingering hold militants have kept over the city. While other parts of Iraq have begun making some progress on reconstruction and economic revitalisation plans, Mosul, the capital of Ninewah province, has struggled by comparison and remains a devastated cityscape, in many ways a war zone in appearance and atmosphere more than a post-war zone. Iraqi army soldiers, deployed on Mosul's restive east side, man bleak outposts and fighting positions behind machine guns and scarred concrete blast shields. Many are recruited from southern Iraq and cannot wait to return home.

The police force is 8,000 men short of full strength, despite being reinforced by a well-trained unit of heavily armed federal paramilitary police from Baghdad, and operates only on the west side of the city. Continued violence is, in part, a consequence of Ninewah's long-running political dysfunction, which itself is largely a product of Arab-Kurd tensions. The border between Kurdish and Arab Iraq splits the province.

Between 2005 and 2009, Ninewah was run by a Kurdish administration put in power after the Sunni Arab majority decided to boycott elections. With the bulk of the populace disenfranchised and ill served by the provincial government, insurgent groups had little trouble finding recruits or sympathisers. The problem was exacerbated by Mosul's particular character; it is a conservative Islamic city and home to senior Baath Party and former Iraqi army figures.

As the US military and Iraqi government forces struggled to maintain some semblance of control over the city, they clung to the hope that new provincial elections would solve the problem of Arab underrepresentation, and therefore address an underlying cause of instability. The ballot in January rebalanced the council, but after a bitter and divisive campaign between Arab and Kurdish groups it hardly solved the political problems.

Atheel al Najafi, the head of the Arab Hadba list, won the vote and became governor. His coalition duly exercised its right to choose who would fill the four other most influential positions in the provincial government. No one from the opposition Ninewah Brotherhood list, the pro-Kurdish alliance, was given a key post, despite its strong showing in the polls. Of the 37 council seats, al Hadba took 19, the Ninewah Brotherhood list 12, with the remaining six going to smaller parties.

The Kurdish bloc saw Hadba's refusal to share any power as a return of Baathist-style Arab chauvinism. When the provincial council convened for the first time after the elections, the meeting lasted less than five minutes before the Kurdish bloc walked out. It has since refused to recognise the council's authority. In the space of a few months, Ninewah's provincial council lurched from having no real Arab representation to having no real Kurdish representation. Mediation efforts have yielded nothing, with the issue tied up in the wider unresolved Arab-Kurd dispute over large swathes of territory, including Kirkuk.

"People voted democratically and parties that did well were given no positions in the provincial government, which means all of those voters are being ignored," said Dahsin Sabo, the local council leader in Bashiqah, one of the 16 districts involved in the Ninewah boycott. "We have told [Atheel al] Najafi our conditions for co-operation and we have heard nothing from him since. There has been no dialogue, no reconciliation."

The Ninewah Brotherhood list has demanded it be given at least two principal government posts and, crucially, that Peshmerga forces, the Kurdish army that answers to the Kurds' regional government, not to Baghdad, be allowed to stay in their current positions. Ninewah's new governing parties consider the Peshmerga an illegal militia and have insisted it be withdrawn to its pre-2003 invasion boundary, far north of where it is currently stationed.

"The Kurds are powerful and they are trying to seize these territories that are not theirs," said Bassim Yacob Jarjo, the mayor of Tal Keyef, a mixed Arab-Kurd town on the northern edge of Mosul. "For the past six years the Kurds controlled Ninewah because they won the elections. They won legally and we had to accept that. This time Najafi won the election and the Kurds are refusing to recognise it. If you believe in democracy, you have to respect the results."

Inside Mosul, residents warn that the impasse is hindering progress in improving security and the basic quality of life, such as electricity and water provision, and economic revitalisation. "The political situation is not good and I don't think we'll see security get any better," said Abu Omar al Musli, a Sunni Arab from Mosul. "It's not just a local issue or a Kurd issue; there are also problems between the provincial government and the government in Baghdad. The Mosul government is very Sunni and there are problems between them and the Shiite-controlled national authorities in Baghdad.

"When the [Baghdad] government sent troops here to help with security, they were seen by some not as saviours but as agents of the pro-Iranian Shiites who killed former Iraqi army officers." Mr al Musli said he saw little prospect of change for the better. "The Kurds are still trying to take over, the Hadba are opposed to them and Baghdad has its own, separate agenda here. Who pays the price for all of this? The ordinary people. We are still in distress."

Col Gary Volesky, commander of US military forces in Mosul, was more upbeat. "The fact we are now all talking about complex political problems and issues of governance is a sign of progress," he said. "Before all we talked about was al Qa'eda and the insurgency." US troops stopped combat operations inside Mosul on June 30, in line with the status of forces agreement between Baghdad and Washington. Some predicted a surge in attacks after the US pullback, something that has not happened, nor has a feared rise in violence against the city's Kurdish citizens, many of whom live harmoniously with Arab neighbours, apparently unaffected by the political arguments raging around them.

"The Iraqi army has not asked us to come in and help them since June 30," said Col Volesky, who served on previous Iraq deployments in Baghdad. "When we took over here [in January] we had a battalion commander killed by a 1,000-pound car bomb. I also had six soldiers killed by a 10,000-pound car bomb. "Now in Mosul we are dealing with five-pound pipe bombs, small arms fire, it's a different and lower magnitude. The Iraqi army I see today is the one we wished for in 2004. They are much more capable."

The US military is still involved in some joint patrols inside the city, overseeing US-funded reconstruction projects, sending in soldiers with Iraqi army escorts and attack helicopter air cover. Millions of US tax dollars have been spent on efforts to kick-start the economy and improve sanitation levels, a critical financial lifeline given that US$500 million (Dh1.8 billion) in central government funds allotted for Ninewah in previous budgets was never spent - another consequence of the province's political dysfunction.

US forces have now shifted the majority of their missions outside of Mosul. It is in these same areas that mass casualty attacks have taken place since the summer. A series of huge bombs has killed hundreds of civilians in poorly defended towns and villages, the kind of attacks that used to happen inside the city limits. "The security situation in Mosul certainly hasn't worsened lately," said Yasser al Jubouri, a professor of ecology in the city's university. "But it is still more than bad enough. Mosul still feels sometimes like it will collapse at any moment and there is no real employment for most people.

"We live with the threat that the Mosul dam will break and flood the city and in the meantime the air, the water supplies, the streets are all dirty and getting more polluted." Mosul dam, upstream of the city on the Tigris River, was built by Saddam Hussein's regime and is an engineering disaster. The foundations, constructed on water-soluble gypsum rock, are unstable and require continual reinforcement. Experts warn that if the dam were to break, Mosul would be destroyed by a wall of water and concrete that would also devastate Baghdad, 500km further south.

Abdul Rahman, the police officer who fled from Mosul after his brother's murder, said he doubted he would ever return to the city he grew up in. He expects to continue his work with the police in a small, quieter area of Ninewah. "It's not just the violence; corruption is also choking Iraq everywhere," he said. "There's corruption at every level: the politicians are the worst. They are all stealing money. They sit around talking. They've got their personal security detail so they're safe. And there are people out here, there are children, with no shoes, there are children who have never seen a toy. It's disgusting. Where is all the money going?

"This is such a rich country. A terrorist should be offering a $5,000 bribe to a police officer and the officer should be getting paid enough to say I don't need your money. Instead, he needs it." Corruption and the understrength police force were serious concerns, acknowledged Col Volesky, the US military commander. But he remained optimistic about Mosul's future, insisting all issues could be resolved.

"I was here for the 2005 elections and everyone was saying Iraq couldn't do that successfully and they did it," he said. "Then they predicted Ninewah would burn at the last elections and the election was very successful. People voted and they have a legitimate, credible government. "When we pulled out on 30th June, some people said the problems were going to start, but they did not. The national elections are my focus now. After those, you will see these problems are dealt with. That's a big one. After the election I think you will see Iraq is on the glide path to solving the harder issues."

psands@thenational.ae nlatif@thenational.ae