In early October, the commander of the northern province of Ninawa police force announced that a special security force – the Ninawa Liberation Force - was being formed to help fight Sunni extremists who had taken over Mosul. In early June, Mosul, the capital city of his province, was taken over by extremists from the Islamic State, or IS, group.
At the time he made the announcement, the commander, Khalid al-Hamadani, was at a camp used by Iraqi Kurdish special forces on the outskirts of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil; the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan borders on Ninawa province. And since then al-Hamadani has continued to make increasingly optimistic comments to local media about this special force as have other senior officials.
Local television news channels recently featured one young local who apparently stopped a military officer in an Erbil markets, asking how to join the special force he had heard about – the young man later appeared on local television asking politicians in Baghdad to provide weapons to this force he had then joined; in particular the appeal was addressed to Osama al-Nujaifi, a senior Sunni Muslim politician and Deputy President of Iraq, who has close links to Ninawa where his brother, Atheel, is the governor.
The two al-Nujaifi brothers have been the strongest supporters of this special force in public. Atheel al-Nujaifi, Ninawa’s governor-in-exile – he set up his offices outside of Mosul after the city fell – was regularly posting pictures of the camp where the force is being trained on his Facebook page. This is despite the fact that he has been criticised by other members of the military because his pictures show the faces of those working with the force and may also reveal other sensitive information.
Some of the al-Nujaifi brothers’ critics say that because Ninawa’s governor is seen to have failed in keeping his province safe, he is using this special force to boost his popularity and to find some way of fitting into the province’s future, after it has been liberated from the Sunni Muslim extremists from the Islamic State group. Al-Nujaifi’s critics say that, with all of his hype about it, the governor wants to pretend that he leads this new force.
In fact, as this story went to print news came out that al-Nujaifi was to be kicked out of his own political bloc on the Ninawa provincial council and would probably also lose his job as governor.
But how many fighters does this new force really have? And how much impact can it really have?
In a telephone interview, police commander al-Hamadani, who is responsible for the camp, said there were 4,500 volunteers onboard, with a further 560 waiting for security clearance before they can begin training. “They are getting intensive training in street fighting and they are being equipped with the weapons they need,” he told NIQASH.
In total, al-Hamadani says there are 7,000 fighters involved, the equivalent of seven police combat battalions.
“The Ministry of the Interior has agreed to pay the salaries of around 5,000 of them retrospectively – so they will be paid their salaries from June 2014,” al-Hamadani said
However speaking to one of al-Hamadani’s assistants in the camp, it was hard to know how accurate the figures were. This man, who spoke to NIQASH under condition of anonymity, said there were more like 2,500 fighters training at the camp. This was because the camp was so small and couldn’t accommodate any more men than this. And, the assistant, noted, the fighters can’t ever meet all at once, at the same time, because there is nowhere big enough for a group assembly.
Mostly the fighting force is apparently comprised of men who were actually working as policemen in Ninawa but who had fled with their families to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan. Had they stayed in places like Mosul they too may well have become targets for the Islamic State, or IS, group because they were representatives of government power.
This is considered by many as a positive aspect of the new fighting force: the former policemen are enthusiastic about taking the fight to the IS group, they want to fight those who looted their homes and killed their friends and relatives, and they know that while they do so, their families are safe in Iraqi Kurdistan. One other less discussed motive most likely concerns money: some of the volunteer fighters may be more interested in ensuring steady pay and providing for their families.
Not everyone is pleased with the new force. One of Ninawa provincial council’s senior members, Khalaf al-Hadidi, says that although his bloc strongly supports the liberation of Mosul and the rest of the province from the IS group, they oppose the current governor, al-Nujaifi. Of particular concern, al-Hadidi says, is the fact that former police officers who deserted the city of Mosul when the IS group approached are now being put in charge of these new forces. And this is despite the fact that al-Nujaifi and al-Hamadani have taken around 100 police officers off duty so that they could be investigated for dereliction of duty, al-Hadidi points out.
Additionally the US, which has proved itself by far the most effective force against the IS group so far, has said that any liberation of Mosul from the IS group shouldn’t start for at least a year.
Meanwhile al-Hamadani has announced that the new force may soon begin to attack the IS fighters.
None of this is very reassuring for the new volunteers who fear that politics could interfere with the fighting and with their roles in it. And while the people of Ninawa feel sure that the only force that should be in charge of their security in the long run is one made up of locals – such as this one under al-Hamadani – they also believe that any new force won’t be able to do its job if it is not supported by the Iraqi army, Iraqi Kurdish forces and the international coalition.