x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tension and fear grip Mosul residents who dread retribution

Residents must not show allegiance to ISIL in case security forces reclaim Mosul and indict them for supporting terrorism. On the other hand, they are afraid of supporting the security forces in case there is retribution from ISIL.

A man looks at burnt vehicles belonging to Iraqi security forces a day after radical Sunni Muslim insurgents seized control of city of Mosul on June 11, 2014. Reuters
A man looks at burnt vehicles belonging to Iraqi security forces a day after radical Sunni Muslim insurgents seized control of city of Mosul on June 11, 2014. Reuters

A day after Mosul was taken over by Al Qaeda-inspired militants, Ghanoun Younis went for a drive to examine the damage.

The air was still filled with smoke on Wednesday as fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) burnt buildings that once housed security forces. Concrete barriers erected by the military and police to slow the militants entry into the city had been removed.

Gunmen on the streets, masked and cradling weapons, tried to calm residents, claiming that they had taken over Mosul to protect them from “your cruel army”, a reference to Iraq’s military, commanded by the Shiite-led government of prime minister Nouri Al Maliki.

But even though the black flag of Sunni ISIL could be seen in the city, Mr Younis said he was unsure that all the militants belonged to the group.

“I don’t think all of them are ISIL,” he said. “They don’t [all] have beards.”

Mr Younis said his brother was approached by the gunmen, who told him they were members of Saddam Hussein’s former army.

Rumours circulated in Mosul on Wednesday that Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri, the most senior member of Hussein’s inner circle who was not captured or killed, was leading the group that spoke with Mr Younis’ brother.

“They say we are here to free you from Maliki’s army, because Mosul suffered a lot of cruelness and hostility,” Mr Younis said.

Tikrit, home to Al Douri and Saddam Hussein, also fell to the militants.

Despite claims by the militants that residents should return to their normal lives, a tense air of uncertainty dominated Mosul on Wednesday.

The city was calm and some shops had reopened. Announcements were made over mosque loudspeakers for people to return to work, especially public servants.

Water and electricity had returned to some areas of the city.

But with Mr Al Maliki likely to order the military to march on Mosul, residents were unsure about staying in their homes. Fallujah, another city outside government control, had seen the military drop barrel bombs on populated areas and its main hospital shelled.

“They’re going to target everything,” said Ahmed Al Farooqi, 35, who fled Mosul for Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.

“When I spoke to our friends who stayed they say there’s fear,” he said. “They can’t show allegiance to ISIL in case the security forces reclaim Mosul … by showing their allegiance they can be indicted for supporting terrorism. On the other hand, they are afraid of supporting the security forces in case there is retribution from ISIL.”

Mr Al Farooqi chose to flee on Sunday night, before ISIL was fully in control of Mosul.

He said he drove through the city under military escort along with 30 families from his neighbourhood. Despite the dire situation, they were stopped at a checkpoint and questioned since there was a curfew imposed on the city. Most roads north were closed, but they found a way out of the city, reaching Erbil after a 24-hour journey. The trip normally takes an hour and half.

“I’m one of the lucky ones because I actually left with my car. Many others were on foot,” Mr Al Farooqi said.

“On the road, I saw an elderly man die from the heat.”

As ISIL continues its offensive in other Iraqi cities, thousands of displaced people like Mr Al Farooqi are fleeing to Kurdish Iraq.

Muna Matti Darman, a Kurd living in Erbil, described standing in a long queue to do her shopping on Wednesday.

“We are back to 2003 days,” she said, referring to the days before the US invasion of Iraq.

She said people were rushing to buy groceries, but supplies were low because Erbil receives a majority of its meat and produce from Mosul.

People are “doing this in case there’s a curfew, or in case produce from Mosul gets stopped. I felt sad to see that.”

halsayegh@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press