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Frenemies United:
Security Problems, Scrappy Militias Delay Fight Against Extremists In Western Mosul

Mustafa Habib
The biggest problem in eastern Mosul, post-extremists, is security. The Iraqi army needs to move on, to fight in western Mosul, but they cannot leave the eastern city to a variety of militias, fighting among themselves.
Iraq's counter-terrorism forces in Mosul, holding the IS flag upside down. (photo: موقع الجيش العراقي)
Iraq's counter-terrorism forces in Mosul, holding the IS flag upside down. (photo: موقع الجيش العراقي)

The praise for the hard fighting that Iraq’s pro-government forces have done to free the eastern side of Mosul had hardly died down when it was announced that the military – and their enemy - was moving into position to begin the next stage of the battle. This will involve trying to push the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which has controlled the northern city since mid-2014, out of the western side of the city.

But before security forces even go any further – and by all accounts, there has been a high casualty rate among them as a result of the hard fighting in Mosul – the question of how to secure and stabilize the eastern side of the city remains. There is a need for urgent societal and political measures as well as state services and reliable security.

Police stations will be essential in keeping Mosul neighbourhoods safe. But the Iraqi government has yet to announce when they may re-open. 

According to a member of the counter-terrorism forces, Saif al-Rubaie, the fighting in Mosul is different because of all the civilians who stayed in their homes during the battles. In other parts of the country, such as in Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit, most of the civilians left their homes and went to camps for displaced people. The majority only returned again once the fighting was finished and, al-Rubaie says, they were vetted before they were allowed to return.

“There are now patrols roaming the liberated neighbourhoods of Mosul and they are going house to house verifying IDs and searching for IS members who might be hiding among the civilians,” al-Rubaie told NIQASH. “We’ve been able to arrest a number of them and we have found weapons stores in abandoned houses too – the extremists would have used these later, to attack liberated neighbourhoods.”

Al-Rubaie’s unit was involved in the fighting to push the IS group out of the central Iraqi city of Fallujah and after this task was more or less completed they were sent to join the fighting in Mosul. But he and his colleagues have been upset with the news coming out of Fallujah, about the fact there are still bombings going on there; there have been seven car bombs in the city, with the latest attack on Saturday.

His unit’s biggest fear now is that after they cross the Tigris river to start fighting the IS group in western Mosul, the eastern side will be attacked again, and possibly they will have to fight a  rear guard action too. The counter-terrorism forces are trying to prevent this happening by ensuring that the eastern side is secure.

Currently there are five different security forces in eastern Mosul. These are the counter-terrorism forces who led the fight against the IS group, the federal police, the local police of the province, the Iraqi army’s quick response forces and the volunteer militias made up of locals. These forces, who are supposed to be in charge of maintaining security while more elite troops move on to battle in the west of the city, are varied, with a wide range of experience, armaments, strength among them, as well as differing ideas about how to interact with the civilians of the city.


A short documentary by PBS Frontline, The Guardian and Mongoose Films on the fight for Mosul. 

Counter-terrorism forces are in charge of security in the central areas of eastern Mosul, federal and provincial police are in the eastern neighbourhoods of the city along with the quick response troops while local militias and other Iraqi army units are in the north.

Additionally, and unfortunately, the different groups don’t always get along well. Last Friday Sunni Muslim politician, Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Ninawa who is allegedly in charge of the locally-created militias, said that the Iraqi government had given them the mandate to maintain security in certain neighbourhoods in Mosul, while the counter-terrorism troops were withdrawn to prepare for the battle for western Mosul.

But the Iraqi government backed off that plan within hours and said they would pull the local militias, made up of former police officers in Ninawa and Sunni Muslim tribal fighters, out of the city after complaints from Shiite Muslim politicians and Shiite Muslim militia leaders. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence also said that if al-Nujaifi tries to enter the city again he will be arrested.

Part of the reason for this is that the militias that al-Nujaifi has marshalled are backed by Turkey and both the federal police and Shiite Muslim militias in the area say they are not to be trusted. An official statement from a local Christian militia, the Babylon Brigades – made up of Christian Iraqis but also closely associated with two of the more forceful Shiite Muslim militias, the League of the Righteous and the Badr brigades, both of which have strong links to Iran – demanded that the government check the Sunni Muslim militia for any terrorists in their midst. The Christian militia’s statement also demanded that al-Nujaifi be arrested and that the Shiite Muslim militias be allowed to participate fully in the fighting for Mosul.

These kinds of political conflicts between the different forces led to Abdul Amir Yarallah, the commander of the military campaign in Mosul, to decide that it was best that the Iraqi army stay in charge of maintaining security in Mosul. But clearly the Iraqi military, and their elite counter-terrorism troops, cannot stay there forever and guard eastern Mosul if western Mosul is to be fought for. This means any further operations in Mosul could be delayed.

The other option for security in eastern Mosul comes from the local police. Before the IS group took control of the city in June of 2014, there were around 25,000 local police and 40,000 federal police. After the IS group arrived though, the local police force collapsed and today there are only about 8,000 police in action in Mosul – and many of these officers are not ready for the job.

Obviously police stations will be essential in keeping neighbourhoods safe and preventing the emergence of IS sleeper cells as well as to prevent reprisals against those locals accused of IS membership. The Iraqi government has yet to announce when any police stations will be re-opening in Mosul though.

So it seems those living on the western side of Mosul will continue to have to deal with the same issues civilians in other cities that the IS group has left, are – that includes Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, Heet and Rutba. All of these towns and cities are among those where security is being controlled by a variety of militias with different attitudes, arms and military experience, none of which are under the direct control of Baghdad - and where killings and kidnappings continue, except now nobody knows who is behind them. 


Iraqi PM, Haider al-Abadi, with Abdul Amir Yarallah, the commander of the military campaign in Mosul.

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