Last week Ninawa locals celebrated becoming the first Iraqi state without US troops after Barack Obama's announcement that all would be gone by the end of the year. NIQASH went to the party and then on to Mosul’s airport, to see how Iraqis there were coping.
Sure and steady, the three women students in identical blue shirts and black dresses walked toward the flagpole. In a few short minutes the Iraqi flag had been hoisted and was fluttering in the sky above the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. It’s message: the full withdrawal of US troops was a cause for celebration.
The scene took place at the Khadija Girl’s Secondary School on Oct. 17 2011, where celebrations were being attended by local officials. On the same day similar occasions were taking place at schools and other institutions all around Mosul, the capital of the Ninawa province and one of the last pockets of serious ongoing violence in Iraq.
"Live so high, in the sky,” the students shouted as though they had never heard a rhyme like this before; after all, they are of a generation born and raised in war and conflict.
The state governor, Atheel al-Nujafi, attended the ceremony at the girl’s school and told NIQASH, “US combat troops have withdrawn from Ninawa. Only three have remained to finalize some administration with one of the Iraqi army regiments, before they too leave in the coming few days.”
After the ceremony at the school, al-Nujaifi’s motorcade sped to one of the biggest function centres in Mosul where other state officials and locals had gathered. All the seats were full.
Ninawa had been the last province to come under the control of the US, whose military convoys entered Mosul on April 12, 2003, without much of a fight after US military heads came to an agreement with some of the tribal elders in the area.
On that day rumour has it that not one bullet was fired. But thanks to the roar of F16 fighters overhead, armoured vehicles like Strykers and Humvees on the streets and Chinook helicopters, most Mosul locals felt sure there had been some kind of conflict and that their city was occupied.
However this ceasefire soon ended. Iraqis opposed to the US occupation of the country began to fight back and the violence escalated over the first two years of the US occupation. However such resistance has since faded significantly and in fact it seems almost to have disappeared as troops withdrew into their military bases and were only rarely seen on the city streets.
The withdrawal happened quietly and this was apparently how the US military wanted it. There are no official statistics on the number of troops who were there, and now are not. The process has been a gradual one and took place over several months.
The announcement that US troops had withdrawn was made at a press conference held alongside the flag raising ceremony. In making this announcement Ninawa became the first Iraqi state to have its sovereignty restored after US President Barack Obama announced a full pull out by the end of 2011. But the celebrations are hardly surprising. State politics are currently dominated by the Hadba party, which is mainly Sunni Muslim and has staunchly pan-Arab and nationalist tendencies. Observers note wryly that in Ninawa, and Mosul, it's fine to debate the pros and cons of having extremist groups, like al Qaeda in the area, or the Kurdish military, who are prevalent in areas dominated by those of Kurdish ethnicity. But when it comes to US troops in Ninawa, the most acceptable position is anti.
“I got into politics, and became a state governor, just so that I could witness a day like this,” al-Nujaifi said. “I expect the withdrawal to have a positive impact because in the future, the agendas will be purely Iraqi. There will be no external interests that could fuel internal conflict.”
Other officials declared that “there is no longer any room for armed conflict between Iraqis. Because now politics can decide any issue.”
Al-Nujaifi also announced optimistically that soon Iraqi government troops would not be needed in Mosul either and that the local police force would be ready to take over the city’s security.
“The withdrawal of the US troops will not lead to an increase in levels of violence in Ninawa,” the chief of the local police force told NIQASH confidently. “It may well have a positive impact on the security situation.” Major General Ahmed al-Jibouri said that “Iraqi forces have been in full control for 15 months. The US’ role was limited to some logistical and intelligence work,” he boasted.
However not everyone fully agreed with this kind of optimism. “The situation in the province will not change and the US’ political role in Iraq will continue as it is; it will have as much effect as it did before the withdrawal,” argued former MP, Nour al-Din al-Hayali.
And other al-Nujaifi allies also said that the governor should now be putting pressure on the Kurdish military who were deployed in areas of Ninawa heavily populated by Kurdish locals, and who continued to dominate those areas.
Mosul Airport: Putting Former US Base on Civil Aviation's Map
Mosul’s airport covers a lot of land on the outskirts of the city. It was built in the 1920s and ‘30s by the British as a base for their air force and as such lays claim to being one of the oldest, if not the oldest, airport in Iraq.
From the 1990s, up until the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the airport was only used for national flights due to the air embargo, which was imposed on Iraq by the United Nations for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and which effectively halted all international flights. In the early 1990s former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein paid for a new passenger terminal, and then after the US-led invasion that toppled his regime, the US began to use the airport as a military base.
Mosul is one of the nation’s three major airports that have been undergoing federally funded renovations and upgrades: the others are in Basra and Baghdad. Regional authorities have been working on multi-million dollar improvements at airports in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The airport revamp was funded by the US: US$10.3 million from the Iraqi Relief and Reconstruction Fund, which paid for a new air traffic control tower and then US$2.9 million from the Economic Support Fund which paid for the terminal to be upgraded. A Turkish company was given the contract for the airport renovation. And despite the fact that the first commercial flight – an Iraqi Air flight bound for Saudi Arabia and mostly filled with locals on a religious pilgrimage – took place at the end of 2007, Layth Jabbar, an information officer for the Civil Aviation Authority of Iraq, says that many essential parts of the airport were still controlled by the US authorities up until very recently.
NIQASH visited Mosul International Airport a day after the celebrations around the US troop withdrawal. From the outside things didn’t look very different: it still looked like a military base. The way into the airport was marked by a number of checkpoints and heavily armed security personnel. There were many safety barriers, mounds around three meters high as well concrete speed bumps and other barriers that would make driving straight into the airport impossible.
But inside the airport there were fewer military uniforms – internal security is the responsibility of a private contractor. And it was busy. Municipal sewage workers, telecommunications technicians and electricity company employees were all there, hard at work in a bustling campaign to rehabilitate the airport further.
“Without our combined efforts and expertise, we would have been forced to suspend flights because of the difficulties faced by the airport cadres after the US troop withdrawal,” Mosul airport director Sardar Hassan told NIQASH. “In the recent past, Iraqi staff was limited to taking care of ground services. They didn’t have anything to do with planes landing or taking off and they were mostly not allowed on the runway or into the control tower. US forces were quite deliberate in not involving us in work in the tower, or with navigational devices, for almost the whole time they were here. This has caused us problems after the withdrawal.” At one stage, he says, a plane was almost unable to land.
Jabbar said that he was trying to put Mosul on the international aviation map, even though currently it was only capable of having light and medium sized aircraft land – so that is, planes coming or going to destinations in the Middle East and Europe. The most common destinations for aircraft taking off from Mosul are Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Istanbul. And there are plans for further destinations with Iraqi Airways flying into other Turkish airports from early in November.
Tower director Ahmad Rashad Ahmed expressed confidence in the airport’s operations, saying that they had kept the airport running and had been managing daily flights appropriately. The next phase of work on the airport was to develop a framework of rules and procedures for the use of all the airport equipment, he said.
All in all staff at the airport are optimistic about running Mosul’s airport without US support, saying that they were sure it would soon be operating on a par with Iraq’s other international-standard airports.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: Nov 1, 2011
Ninawa was the first state from which US troops withdrew after US President Barack Obama made the announcement that all US troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year. However Karbala was actually the first Iraqi state from which American troops officially withdrew. This happened in May 2011. Five days afterwards though, there was a US commando operation in Karbala.