Hauntings in Mosul

Anchal Vohra writes on the Middle East and Europe
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The dead and the missing in the ruins of this historical city merge into the larger narrative of the future of the Islamic State

‘FUCK ISIS’. It must have taken considerable anger to scribble these words on the dome of the Al Nuri Mosque, from where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his caliphate in 2014. But somebody did. Beheading would have been the self-proclaimed caliph’s way to deal with the offender, but since the victory of Iraqi forces in Mosul earlier this month, things have changed. On July 9th, Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, among other forces, prevailed over the Islamic State in the city and now stand guard outside the ruins of that historical monument. Ironically, the 12th century place of worship was brought down by men who claimed to be warriors of God.

Brigadier Abdul Amin al-Kazraji of the Iraqi army’s Golden Division says that ISIS used car bombs to demolish the mosque. This part of Mosul is littered with the burnt frames of cars. According to witnesses, ISIS men blew them up to take cover from US air strikes under their plumes of smoke. At a shop in front of the mosque, Brigadier Al-Kazraji points to a car planted with a bomb as proof. “Don’t go near it, we still haven’t sorted this out,” he warns as I move forth to take a photograph. A few days ago, he says, two journalists were killed in a nearby area. A Kurdish reporter named Bakhtiyar Addad and French journalist Stephan Villeneuve stepped on a landmine in a house while trying to escape the sniper fire of ISIS fighters still in the city. Ten days after Mosul’s liberation, sporadic fire exchanges between ISIS and Iraqi forces continue and the latter have barely begun to clear the city of explosives scattered around.

My eyes search for any sign of the 39 Indians abducted by ISIS in 2014, but find destruction as far as they can see. Bodies still lie under the mosque’s debris and the smell of rotting flesh around it is inescapable. Some of the locals who have returned to open their shops say that ISIS made small underground prisons for petty criminals but they haven’t survived the airstrikes.

The group’s black flags are gone, but in the operation that began nine months ago to regain control of Mosul, as many as 40,000 people are estimated to have been killed.

A half-hour drive leads me to Badush prison in a village about 16 km east of Mosul. According to India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, her deputy General VK Singh found out on a recent visit to Erbil that this is where the missing Indians were last seen, implying this is where they might still be held captive. I am baffled, however, to find the prison is nothing but a destroyed structure amidst a wasteland of mines. On June 10th, 2014, ISIS fighters—mostly Sunni—had taken over this jail to release their Islamist brothers and are reported to have killed a large number of Shia prisoners. By early March this year, Iraqi forces had positioned themselves in the desert near Badush to get to Mosul; they confirmed reports of the prison’s liberation, but it isn’t yet clear whether it was destroyed by ISIS, an airstrike, or them.

The information of the Indian Government, which claims to have been in constant touch with Baghdad on the issue, appears out of date. Iraq’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Eshaiker al-Jaafari, who was coincidentally visiting Delhi on the day a report of mine on the prison was raised in Parliament, has said there are no Indians in Badush but the search is still on.

Hundreds are missing in Iraq and tracing Indian citizens is not a priority of its government. While assurances are abundant, hope cannot be pinned on its measures to locate missing Iraqis or expatriates. Some may return, while the families of others may never find out what happened to them.

Back in Mosul, shop facades stand smashed and the streets are strewn with chunks of fallen concrete. The scale of destruction, though, varies widely between the old city and the rest of it. In most other localities, the looting is a bigger shock than the physical wreckage. On our drive past Erbil’s checkpost, crossing from the city’s east to the west, I observed that most homes were bare and shopshelves empty.

Inhabitants had fled in large numbers to refugee camps for safety and basic necessities, and over the course of two days in the city, I come across some of them making quick trips back to assess the damage and ascertain the cost of return. In the old city, there are some who returned to run their corner shops under the ISIS regime.

Suleman, who has returned from the refinery town of Baiji, says he wanted Sharia law in Mosul but not the way ISIS interpreted it. “At first they were okay and gave sermons about Sharia,” he says, “but later they asked for too much, so no one followed them.” He had joined the euphoria when the Islamic State was formed, but his idea of it was Sunni domination, not ISIS’s code of social behaviour.

A few shops away, Maher Jareela puffs out a succession of smoke rings. Smoking under ISIS could have got him incarcerated, perhaps even executed. “They killed and arrested people for smoking, or if their beard was not the right length,” he says. “I shaved mine off the day Mosul was liberated.”

With only a few thousand men, ISIS could not have dreamt of beating an Iraqi army backed by US forces, so the group’s likely strategy was to capitalise on its earlier success and survive as a legend

SMALL CONCESSIONS TOWARDS personal liberty may have kept support for ISIS intact, at least in Mosul’s old city, which was its hub, but locals found their lives so miserable that they gradually turned against it. The perplexing question, however, is what the group aimed to achieve by treating people badly and enraging the world with its barbarity in the name of Islamic rule. Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, argues in a recent piece for The Atlantic titled ‘How ISIS Survives the Fall of Mosul’ that the group’s real aim was never to run a government. He writes: ‘What if, more than anything else including territory, the group just wants permanence, to be the ideological hegemon of global jihadism? In this pursuit, the realization of ideological aspirations is far more important than the permanent administration of any piece of land, even if it comes at great material cost.’ Winter’s article rests on the analysis that ISIS had envisaged a defeat because it was aware of the numerical and military strength of its opponent. With only a few thousand men, ISIS could not have dreamt of beating an Iraqi army backed by US forces in the sky, so the group’s likely strategy was to capitalise on its earlier success and survive as a legend. ‘Seizing and administering the city for over a thousand days was more than enough for the group to make its mark as caliphate, and will be sufficient for it to boast in years to come of the jihadist utopia that once was. It alone will be enough to keep the true believers in its ranks in tow, even once it has lost everything else,’ writes Winter.

Not everyone agrees with Winter’s analysis. The group, some believe, does not have the strategic acumen being ascribed to it. The big concern for many observers is whether ISIS will now disintegrate, with its survivors joining other ihadist networks, or emerge stronger with its banner of global jihad held higher.

Lighting a fresh cigarette, Jareela laughs when I ask him what he makes of ISIS’s defeat. “Defeat? They have already started returning,” he says. “There are many ISIS sleeper cells.”

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Dutch journalist who has been on the ground in Erbil and Mosul since 2009, says ISIS hasn’t yet been crushed, but when it is, the attraction of joining the group amongst Europeans will reduce. “Already many [foreign fighters] are trying to escape and return to Western countries and repent for their actions. I think definitely the number of recruits will go down,” he says. But that does not mean ISIS would stop attacking the West. “It’s a possibility that ISIS could carry out attacks [there] to take attention away from its losses on the ground.”

Georg Heil, a German journalist who has worked extensively on ISIS’s threat to Europe, says that the group has not yet been eliminated and has simply gone in hiding. By his information, many ISIS members are living in camps meant for internally displaced people. European countries and Iraq need to cooperate, he believes, on a wider programme now. “Europe must support Iraq in the reconstruction of public services and infrastructure, send supplies and demand that human rights are observed. This is in Europe’s core interest with regard to security and refugees,” he says.

The quick restoration of public utilities would only be part of the solution, though. Iraq is deeply divided along sectarian lines and the balance of power has shifted yet again.

Besides a few child beggars and shops selling water, Mosul is a ghost town. The only humans are the 18-27 year old armed boys with different security forces or militias. My travel documents have been examined at several Iraqi federal police checkpoints. After crossing a checkpoint that marks Mosul apart from Erbil manned by Kurdish forces of the Peshmerga, I encountered a Nineveh Plain Protection Unit, a force guarding the property of Christians in the Hamadaniya district. But my vehicle has had to stop mostly for the go-ahead of men in military fatigues who belong to the Hashd al-Shaabi , an Iran-sponsored militia.

Also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the Hashd al-Shaabi derives its motivation from the sermons of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the pre-eminent religious leader of Iraq’s Shia majority which began to assert itself after the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussain’s Sunni-led regime. Hashd men not only guard key points in Sunni-dominated areas, but periodically also hoist the banners of Shia imams like the revered Ali, Hussain and Hassan. In the battle of Ramadi that ended last year in ISIS’s ejection from the town, they reportedly used Shia chants. Such expressions of faith evoke concerns among the Sunni minority, who fear domination by the majority.

Iraq’s elected government is led by Shias, who form 60 per cent of the country’s population. Almost all the rest are Sunnis, including Kurds. With the Kurdistan regional government demanding a referendum on the region’s independence, the anxiety among Sunnis across Iraq could worsen.

In Heil’s analysis, unless dealt with, the sectarian division could result in the return of ISIS. “The question [of whether] ISIS will have a comeback in Mosul depends on the question [of whether] Iraqi security forces can establish a safe environment for the whole population,” he says.

The influence of the Najaf-based Ayatollah Sistani could play a role in how sectarian relations turn out. He speaks of Iraqi nationalism and is opposed to the rule of clerics (a la Iran) in Iraq. The Ayatollah may be well meaning or might be using the veneer of nationalism to solidify Shia influence, but some Sunnis have bought into it.

On my way back to Erbil from Mosul, I stop at Namaniya to meet Jasim al Bayati, a Sunni leader of the Hashd al Shaabi. His post too has flags of Shia imams. “I have placed [these]. Shia imams are also Muslims. We have won the battle against ISIS because of Shaabi, because of support from Iran. What’s wrong with that? But we don’t want a state run by religious figures. We want it to be like India. You have many religions, but you are not run by religious law.”

Even among Sunni civilians, the Shia militia appears to be gaining a reputation of being non-sectarian. Many acknowledge the militia’s sacrifices in freeing Mosul of ISIS control. Suleman, a Sunni resident of the old city, is one of them.

As Van Wilgenburg sees it, “Iraq will never be free of terrorism. But maybe there is hope that Sunni Arabs are tired of jihadists and will stop seeing them as a solution to the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.”

It is unclear if the real project of the Shia leadership in Iraq is nationalism or the co-option of Sunni tribes to keep power. But there is no uncertainty over Tehran achieving its ‘arc of influence’ that goes all the way from Iran to Syria through Iraq. This gives Iranian ayatollahs and their Iraqi allies a greater say in a region where sectarianism is as old as Islam.