Once again, the ghosts of a violent past are stalking the people of troubled northern Iraqi city, Mosul. With its complicated mix of ethnicities and religious sects, Mosul saw its fair share of sectarian violence during Iraq’s most troubled years. Now there are two brigades of federal army soldiers posted here and around 20,000 local policemen. And it’s true that the security situation is far from under control and that Mosul remains a dangerous place - but recently a new wave of assassinations, extortion attempts and terror threats has been sweeping the city.
The circle of locals under threat from gangsters seems to have widened. Businesses in the gold market, in the city centre and the nearby stock market have become targets as have those working on a commercial street in west Mosul.
The vast majority of Mosul’s businessmen, doctors, pharmacists, contractors and factory owners have received threatening phone calls – and usually these are death threats. State employees responsible for assigning jobs to contractors also get death threats from individuals who negotiate with them openly as to how much they need to pay in order to stay alive.
One of the first victims of the latest wave of violence was Nathem Khalaf Mirza, head of human resources at Mosul’s local council. He was shot in the head by a gun equipped with a silencer, outside his own house on February 27. A source from within local security services told NIQASH that three men dressed in cleaners’ uniforms knocked on the victim’s door. His wife opened the door to give the cleaners the rubbish as usual but these men were assassins and they obviously knew their victim’s habits well.
The same source said that Mirza had previously asked for bodyguards after receiving death threats. Those who threatened him said he would only live if he paid them US$80,000.
The day after Mirza’s death, one of his colleagues at the local authority, the head of another department, was also attacked by gunmen with silencers on their weapons. He was lucky and escaped; but he also immediately left Mosul with his family.
Then while Mosul locals were still speculating what lay behind those incidents, another three civilians were murdered – an employee at the local university’s arts department and a young man and his wife, who were found dead in their car in the south of the city. The latter is noteworthy because the young victim was the son of Mosul’s former police commander, Watheq al-Hamadani, who’s now an adviser to Iraq’s Interior Minister.
The crime wave has also had an impact in other ways. Wealthier families continue to leave the city in droves, seeking a more secure situation in places like the semi-autonomous and increasingly prosperous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. And it’s also affected the way the upcoming provincial elections are being conducted here. Several candidates withdrew their applications to stand in April and others are promoting themselves very carefully. Often candidates avoid putting their pictures on posters; they only use their names and slogans.
The most recent murders are clearly supposed to serve as an example to others, who will then pay up in order to save their own lives. In less than two weeks 12 kidnapping cases were reported to security forces, a lieutenant from Ninawa’s police force, said. In four of the cases, the victims were released after ransoms were paid, said the police officer who preferred to remain anonymous.
Yet the police officer was also surprised by the number of successful kidnaps in Mosul. “It’s like a military camp here,” he argued. “No one can come in or out and there are checkpoints all over the city. Who dares to commit crimes like this under such tight security?” he speculated.
That question has caused controversy in Mosul. Some are now saying that the mainly Sunni Muslim protestors gathering in the city’s central Ahrar Square to demonstrate against the regime led by current Iraqi prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, are to blame. The protestors have been there for more than two months now.
However their spokesperson, Salim al-Jibouri, strongly denies those accusations. “The protestors are simply peaceful citizens demanding their legitimate rights,” he stated. “What is happening here is that the central government is attempting to tarnish the reputation of these protestors. The central government just wants to limit any support the protestors are getting by making them look bad,” al-Jibouri said.
Meanwhile investigations by local security forces seem to indicate that there’s no smoke without fire, in the case of these particular rumours. A security commander confirmed that the perpetrators of these crimes were Sunni Muslims – but that they were Sunnis from organisations connected with, or belonging to, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, an extremist religious group affiliated with al-Qaeda.
“Our forces have arrested a number of them,” one of Mosul’s police commanders said. “And investigators did find that one of them conducts criminal operations in the city, then he goes and joins the protestors on Ahrar Square.”
Ninawa’s governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Muslim, believes there are political motives behind the recent crime wave. The question of who holds power in Mosul also remains contentious. Al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Muslim politician, is the governor and Mosul is a electoral stronghold for him and his brother, senior MP Osama al-Nujaifi, who’s also the Speaker of the House in Baghdad.
But Iraq’s third largest city is also considered by many to be the last urban outpost of extremist Sunni Muslim groups like al-Qaeda. Because of this the city has remained under strict military control; security is run by the military and they take orders directly from the al-Maliki, also the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces.So arguably, power in Mosul is split.
Which is why, as the governor, al-Nujaifi, says, “there are those who want to blame the protesters in Ahrar Square for these crimes.” And he may well have a point.
As one local business owner told NIQASH, he knows that the bomb which exploded next to his fast food restaurant did so because he refused to negotiate with the man who demanded a ransom over the phone.
“I was planning to go to the police but then somebody else told me not to bother because they wouldn’t do anything to protect me anyway,” says the man who only wanted to be known as Jafar.
“I couldn’t believe it actually. I couldn’t believe the bomb exploded either,” he says aghast. Part of the reason for his shock is the location of his store – it’s in the Josaq neighbourhood, which is also home to the Turkish embassy, the governor’s house and many other politicians’ homes and the city’s airport. It remains under very tight security at all times and has been likened to Baghdad’s Green Zone, the high security zone where various embassies and government buildings can be found in the Iraqi capital.
The whole area is closed to the general public. There is only one entry and exit point and it’s guarded day and night. Security personnel won’t allow anyone who doesn’t have the right credentials into the area and those credentials must have been issued by them. And even if those going in do have the right credentials they must still undergo a number of security checks before they can enter.
This is why Jafar, who has since closed his business and relocated to a safer place, in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, finds it so hard to believe somebody brought a bomb into the area. His inference is clear though.