Members of volunteer Shiite Muslim militias give the victory sign after they pushed extremists out of Tikrit. But are the right people for the job in Mosul? (photo: أحمد الربيعي)
“Everyone says zero hour is coming closer. Some of the politicians – including the Prime Minister – have said that operations to liberate Mosul have already started,” a Mosul man, who still lives in the extremist-occupied city, wrote in a message sent to NIQASH on social media. “But this is all just propaganda. It is just posing for the media,” he concluded hopelessly, before requesting that his messages be deleted just in case the extremists could somehow read them. Many people in Mosul have been killed or arrested by the extremist Islamic State group, which has controlled the major northern Iraqi city since June 2014, just for sending messages about what's going on inside the city to those outside.
As a result of such harsh punishments – the man says that you can be killed or imprisoned in Mosul simply for posting information to Facebook – he feels it is highly unlikely that his city could be freed by any kind of popular revolution from the inside. Besides fear of certain death or harsh punishment for any kind of rebellious activity, most of the people in Mosul don't have weapons, he added. And thousands of former police and army members have been already been executed by the Islamic State, or IS, group, not to mention anyone else who could pose any kind of danger to the organisation, such as former politicians or community leaders.
So the question for this man, and many others in Mosul, is how exactly their city will be freed from the IS fighters? It's a question that has recently been being asked again with more urgency after the controversy about Turkish troops entering areas near the metropolis, via the neighbouring semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Some thought there might be plans for a military force that included Turkish and certain Iraqi Kurdish troops who might try and begin to push the IS group out of Mosul.
But this seems highly unlikely. Analysts say the controversy about the Turkish troops was most likely to have been the result of international political wrangling, resulting mainly from Russia's scrap with Turkey over the shooting down of a Russian fighter plane near the Syrian-Turkish border.
The Turkish troops are ostensibly in the area to help train volunteer fighters from the mostly-Sunni Muslim militia known as the Hashid Watani. This militia was formed by the former governor of Ninawa, Atheel al-Nujaifi, to train ex-policemen and other locals to eventually fight against the IS group in the area; al-Nujaifi, a prominent Sunni Muslim politician, has close ties to the Turkish and there had been a number of Turkish soldiers there before, training the would-be fighters. The Iraqi government was well aware the Turkish soldiers were there before the latest scrap and the Iraqi Minister of Defence had even visited the camp in recent weeks.
Sources close to al-Nujaifi say the controversy was partially due to a spokesperson for the Iraqi Kurdish military letting slip that more Turkish troops were entering the country via Iraqi Kurdistan. He was not supposed to do this and in fact, was arrested by the Iraqi Kurdish intelligence services shortly after releasing the classified information. The Turkish troops have since withdrawn, at least partially.
Some Mosul locals thought the arrival of extra Turkish troops meant that a multi-national assault on the city, which included Iraqi Kurdish military and members of the international coalition fighting the IS group, might finally be about to start. They thought Mosul might be liberated in a similar way to Sinjar.
But this would be highly unlikely. This would require a range of different parties to agree to the assault and, given the uproar about the Turkish troops, this clearly didn't happen.
But there are other theories about who might eventually vanquish the IS group from Mosul. “In about six months from now, the IS group is going to withdraw from Mosul and other areas in the Ninawa province in an organized way,” suggests Fares al-Bakouh, a local human rights activist and member of Iraq's Accountability and Justice Commission. “Just as the organisation did in Tikrit, southern Ninawa and in Sinjar.”
The issue of who gets to fight the IS group in Mosul has become a matter for international and regional concern and is out of the control of the Iraqi government in many ways, al-Bakouh says, with multiple parties all scrambling for a role. For example, the trainees from the camp founded by al-Nujaifi are not permitted to fight together with the Iraqi Kurdish military and the Iraqi Kurdish would not be allowed to advance further into Ninawa without international and national approvals.
The Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, generally considered to be a superior fighting force to the regular Iraqi army, are not welcome in Mosul either, as they are composed mainly of Shiite Muslims and most of the people still living in Mosul are Sunni Muslims. The locals in northern Iraq have grave concerns that should the Shiite Muslim militias enter these areas there would be many lawless acts of revenge committed. Additionally the Shiite Muslim militias are mainly focussed on the southern part of Iraq and protected Baghdad. When they have been advancing it has been into western areas of the country where the IS group are located.
An Iraqi expert on the country's minorities, Abdul-Illah Saeed, says that some Sunni Muslim politicians in Iraq have been talking about this too much. They constantly say that the Shiite Muslim militias should not participate in the liberation of Mosul and this can be politically dangerous, Saeed says, because many ordinary Iraqis actually support the militias and see them as heroes. After all, despite controversial behaviour, the militias have also sacrificed lives to rid some Sunni Muslim areas of the IS group.
It is going to be very difficult to bring all the necessary Iraqi forces together to liberate Mosul, Saeed says.
Another local researcher and writer, Jamal Abed, believes it is the Iraqi army that must ultimately free Mosul from the IS group. And most likely they will do this with the support of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias and the international coalition, he suggests. This would happen in a similar way to how Tikrit and Baiji had been freed of the IS group, he suggested.
“Anyway the Iraqi Kurdish military won't move too far outside of their zones of interest,” Abed argues. “For example with Sinjar – the area falls into the Ninawa province [rather than Iraqi Kurdistan] but for all practical purposes, it had been under Iraqi Kurdish control for several years already. The same goes for other parts of Ninawa known as the disputed territories.”
Over the past few months, this writer has had the opportunity to meet and speak with many Iraqis, some of whom still live in Mosul and cannot leave, and others of whom have managed to escape areas under the IS group's control. Ask them this question and most of them will say they don't actually care that much anymore, and that they are, or were, more concerned with staying alive under the difficult conditions in cities where the IS group rules, whether that is because of the IS group's rules and persecution of anybody who doesn't agree with them or because supplies of food and power are scarce and nobody has any money. And they have become increasingly cynical about the promises made by so many parties about Mosul's liberation.
Despite speeches made on June 2 this year where Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, flanked by the US' Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, said that the campaign to re-take Mosul had begun, the Iraqi army has not been back to the city since it fled a year earlier.
In fact, hearing news of the possibility that the nearby Mosul damn might collapse due to disrepair, many from inside the city believe this may well be their only way out. When the dam collapses and the waters flood the city, this will be the quickest, most reliable way to get rid of the IS group, many inside the city say, in a reflection of the state of despair in which they are living.