A bullet-marked street sign in Mosul: The city is caught between Erbil and Baghdad. (photo: جيتي)
Given its proximity to the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan and the fact that it is an Arab-majority city, there is always concern in the northern metropolis of Mosul whenever Baghdad and Erbil disagree.
And obviously that has been happening recently as authorities in the south and north of the country tussle over whether the Iraqi Kurdish region should have been holding a referendum on independence. So people in Mosul are worried.
Our city is busy healing its own wounds and hardly wants to enter into a conflict like this.
“I am just so tired of the fear and the terror and being displaced,” complains Nashwan al-Zubaidi. “I used to live in Zamar with my family [a district about 70 kilometres west of Mosul city] and we left when the Islamic State group came. But when the town was liberated by the Iraqi Kurdish military, they wouldn’t let us return. So now we are living in the Ayadiyah area, which is right on what would be the front line between the Iraqi Kurdish military and the Shiite Muslim militias from Baghdad. I am afraid we will be burned by the fire of war yet again,” he laments the rising tensions between Baghdad and Erbil over the referendum.
In Baghdad this week, the Iraqi parliament made a number of demands on Iraqi Kurdistan that has seen tensions ratcheting up.
Some parts of Ninawa province, of which Mosul is the capital, are controlled by forces that take their orders from Baghdad, including the Shiite Muslim militias and the Iraqi army. There is a line where the two groups, who had been united in their fight against the extremist Islamic State group up until now, meet, that extends for about 150 kilometres.
The other major concern for the people of Mosul and Ninawa are supply lines. Iraqi Kurdistan ships a lot of food, oil, and other goods back south into Ninawa and the city; that includes power in some cases. It is only about 80 kilometres from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to Mosul. If the borders to Iraqi Kurdistan close and the region is blockaded by Baghdad then Mosul will need to depend on supplies from Baghdad, around 400 kilometres away.
This would also badly impact on the reconstruction of the city, some parts of which are in terrible shape after fighting to drive out the Islamic State, or IS, group took place there.
Because Ninawa is such a large province with many ethnic groups, and because many parts of it are still recovering from the security crisis that saw the IS group take control of their towns, it is difficult to get a good grasp on how the province’s population is feeling about the Kurdish referendum. In short, reactions are mixed.
Anti-referendum protests in Mosul.
The first public reaction was a rejection. Three days before the referendum was to be held on September 25, dozens of young men marched through the centre of Mosul. At their head were leaders of the Shiite Muslim militias, the previously-volunteer force that has been integral in fighting back against the IS group. One of those leaders was Rayan al-Kildani, a Christian fighter who leads the so-called Babylon Brigade, a militia made up of both Christian and Muslim fighters.
Also present were members of local Arab tribes who were opposed to the referendum. The demonstration was far from spontaneous, having been organized by Christian and Shabak members of the militias, most of whom are associated with the federal government in Baghdad, and who get their salaries from there.
The Babylon Brigade members also called upon locals in Tal Kaif, a town north of Mosul that was formerly mostly Christian and Arab, to demonstrate. Tal Kaif is one of the country’s disputed areas – that is, areas that the Iraqi Kurdish say should belong to their semi-autonomous region but which authorities in Baghdad insist belongs to Iraq proper.
One of the Tal Kaif demonstrators, Mohammed al-Hadidi, says he attended the march together with his three children after hearing about the protest from members of the Babylon Brigades. He went because he doesn’t want the Iraqi Kurdish to rule his town.
At the opposite end of the spectrum in Ninawa were the kinds of events that happened in towns like Rabia, a town near the Syrian border and currently under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish military. There a group of men in traditional Arab clothing were spotted, lining up to vote in the referendum, and carrying an Iraqi Kurdish flag.
The referendum on Kurdish independence was held in Rabia and seven other districts that are controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish, even though the population in these is mixed, with Arabs, Yazidis, Kurds, Turkmens and Shabaks all living there. Reports indicate that there was certainly some pressure exerted on non-Kurdish locals in those areas to take part in the referendum, and indeed, to vote “yes” for independence.
The anti-referendum protests in Mosul were hardly spontaneous.
Inside Mosul though, there was another story again: There, what may best be described as a silent majority say they do not want to get involved.
“They do not represent our city’s position and most of them come from the districts and the sub districts around Mosul,” said Younis Hamid, as he looked out at a group of people protesting the referendum outside his office window, in Mosul. The demonstrators are chanting slogans about waging war against Iraqi Kurdistan. “Our city is busy healing its own wounds and hardly wants to enter into a conflict like this,” Hamid concludes.
“Most of the people in Mosul are completely neutral about this,” confirms Mahmoud Azzo, a professor of political science at the University of Mosul. “They are too worried about wounds inflicted by the IS group and most of the Kurdish rhetoric around the referendum has not been sectarian in nature, it has targeted Baghdad,” he explains.
Of course, that doesn’t mean people are not interested in the topic, Azzo continues. Many locals in Mosul fled from their homes once the IS group took over and ended up in much safer Iraqi Kurdish areas; or else, they fled their homes when the Iraqi Kurdish military took over and these locals are looking on, wondering when they will be able to return.
Ninawa’s local politicians are also in an unenviable position, trapped between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad, authorities with whom they must usually maintain good relations. The issue of the disputed areas in Ninawa is bound to increase the pressure on them too, as some of these districts are large and have oil.
Most of the locals in this scarred city want to avoid any more fighting. The Iraqi Kurdish have held their referendum on independence and the Kurds have the obvious and expected answer to their question. Should conflict increase and tensions continue to rise, the Kurds will have problems. But many in Mosul worry that their city, caught between the two opponents geographically and politically, could be the biggest loser in any ongoing conflict.