Perhaps it's not so surprising to discover that, under the rule of the extremist group known as the Islamic State, the northern Iraqi city of Mosul has become a much tidier place. Rubbish is cleared regularly, street sweepers are hard at work and holes in the roads and pavements are being fixed; there are hardly any traffic or parking violations either.
“It's like a busy bee colony,” local journalist Saad Khader told NIQASH during a phone interview. “The employees of the Mosul municipal authority go to the streets every morning to find that all the rubbish trucks and street cleaners have already arrived. From the moment they get to work until the end of their shift, they work with extraordinary enthusiasm.”
The reason? “The municipal services staff are now supervised by the city's new rulers – the Islamic State – and those who neglect their work or who disobey orders are severely punished,” says Khader.
According to one of the municipal service's engineers, who could not give his name for security reasons, the department is now supervised by a member of the Islamic State, or IS, group called Abu Obaidah, who is 30 years old and an Iraqi originally from Diyala.
“All employees abide by his instructions because they are under the strict and close control of the department,” the engineer explained, adding that Abu Obaidah frequently visits work sites and holds meetings with department heads. “And the cruelty of the IS group is now well known. Everybody knows they won't hesitate to punish anyone who makes even a small mistake – punishment can be anything from flogging to the amputation of hands to beheading.”
As a result of this kind of management Mosul's streets have become very clean. The various workers have started to pave unkempt streets, maintain local sewers, collect the garbage and even to organize local markets. They are even doing unheard of things like putting up street signs – something many Iraqi cities don't have – and street lights.
The municipal services officers have also constructed a number of covered markets around the city and ordered all street vendors who were plying their trade out in the open, to work from there. Once there, the vendors have to pay rent annually, as much as US$1,500. The best known of these markets is one in the centre of the city, on top of the ruins of the oldest police station in the province of Ninawa.
This sense of order in Mosul climaxed with the return of electricity to the city. Power had been interrupted for almost five months thanks to destroyed power lines after fighting between the IS group and the Iraqi Kurdish military.
“But Abu Obaidah has been very enthusiastic about getting the power back on,” another city engineer told NIQASH, on condition of anonymity. “He sent the maintenance teams out to the lines, with IS fighters to protect them. In fact, the technicians were able to get the power back on after the Iraqi Kurdish military allowed them to enter the power station in the Mosul dam area.”
The return of regular electricity to the city was considered a “victory” for the IS group, locals say. The extremist group is continually trying to prove that it can do a better job running the city than the previous government and competing with the city's administration-in-exile.
In fact the Iraqi government is still paying the salaries of employees of local services departments. But the IS group is reaping the rewards – Mosul's citizens pay IQD10,000 (around US$8) a month for each residential dwelling towards the cleaning of the city, and rents from cafes, factories, shops, parking lots and market stands are also paid to the IS group.
In all this, the most important thing for the IS group is to gain legitimacy in the eyes of Mosul's citizens. They want people to be satisfied with their rule over the metropolis, formerly home to around 2 million Iraqis. None of this will impact ballot boxes – the IS group doesn't believe in democracy because they say it is “against God's rule”. But they hope to get the people to accept them by running the city well.
Along these lines one of the boldest things the IS group did recently was re-open the city's luxury hotel, the Ninawa Oberoi, renaming it Al Warithin (in English, The Heirs). The IS group celebrated the hotel's opening with a party on May 1 attended by dozens of members' families, as well as other local families. A week later the city administrators opened up Saddam Hussein's former palaces to the people of Mosul – they could now use the grounds for tourism and entertainment and, according to the journalist Khader, many are doing exactly that.
It feels as though with every move like this, the IS group is pushing it's feel good campaign in Mosul, with a canny subtitle: “The city is thriving in the Caliphate”. And that message has certainly got across, at least partially. Locals are increasingly convinced that the IS group will stay in Mosul for a long time. Ten months have passed since the extremists took over the city. But with a few exceptions, it's terrifying and cruel methods have not convinced everyone in Mosul to join them, or even support them. The question now is this: will clean streets and empty garbage bins win them the battle for local hearts and minds? They obviously hope so.