Mar 11th 2017
IN A series of lightning advances over the
past few days, Iraq’s army has seized control of most of western Mosul, the
last redoubt of Islamic State (IS) in the country. On March 7th, a day that may
have marked a turning point, army units took Mosul’s main government complex,
as well as the city’s famous antiquities museum and about half of the old city.
The airport had fallen a week or so earlier, and all roads in and out of the
city in which the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his “caliphate”
in June 2014 are firmly in government hands.
In the command centre responsible for the
eastern half of the city, which was liberated in December, Brigadier Qais
Yaaqoub was jubilant. “They are in full collapse now,” he said. “When an army
breaks it happens very quickly. Within a week or two, this will all be over.”
He may be speaking prematurely, but probably not by much. The liberation of
west Mosul, which started only last month, has proceeded much faster than
expected. That said, the last of the fighting could be a lot more difficult. IS
clings on in the oldest parts of the city, where streets are narrow, making it
hard to manoeuvre vehicles and increasing the risk of ambushes and civilian
casualties. However, tens of thousands have been able to make their way to
American officers working closely with the Iraqi
army estimate that as few as 500 IS fighters now remain in the city, the others
having fled or been killed in a devastating campaign of well-targeted air
strikes. The evidence is clear from a tour of east Mosul, on the left bank of
the Tigris river, which has split the city in two since IS blew up all its five
bridges as it fell back.
Residents point out building after wrecked
building that had been used by jihadists, only to be knocked out from above.
“This was a shopping centre, but Daesh [IS] took it over,” says Muammar Yunnis,
an English teacher. “Then the planes destroyed it.” The liberation, he reckons,
“could not have been handled better. Some have died. That happens in a war. But
the government and the Americans have been careful.”
Driving IS out of the city may come to be
seen as the straightforward part, however. Judging by what has happened in east
Mosul, rebuilding will be a slow process. Three months after their liberation,
east Mosulites is getting fed up. They are still without running water, and the
only electricity comes from private generators.
“We have security now, but no services at
all,” complains Muhammad Ahmed, a pharmacist. “There is no government here.”
The provincial governor lives in Erbil, a couple of hours’ drive away, partly
along roads ploughed up by IS that show no sign of being repaired. No
international agencies are to be seen in the recaptured city, bar a few clinics
and some empty school satchels donated by UNICEF. The central government has
failed to provide it with an emergency civilian administration, leaving it
either to the army, which is otherwise occupied, or to the local government,
which barely functions.
Mr Ahmed probably speaks for many when he
recalls that in the days immediately after IS took control of Mosul, the
jihadists were rather popular. The previous elected authorities had been
corrupt and incompetent, and unable to deliver the basics. Electricity, he
recalls, was available for just three hours a day. Under the caliphate the
lights stayed on, at least until coalition air strikes began and then, shortly
before losing control of east Mosul, IS blew up the city’s main power station
and its water-pumping station.
At Least They Kept the Lights On
If squabbling and corruption on the part of
the politicians hinder the provision of services, citizens will once again
consider supporting alternative groups. “What can we do?” laments the
brigadier. “The government does not have the resources to fix all this. It will
take 12 years or more. We need a lot of help from outside.”
Many will blame the inaction on insecurity.
But this is overblown. Although the chatter of machineguns and the crump of
mortar rounds can be heard from across the Tigris, east Mosul already looks and
feels reasonably safe. The Shia militias have been kept out of the city to
avoid sectarian killings, as have the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. There is no
curfew; policemen guard many street corners, and the IS “sleeper cells” that
some warn of seem to be soundly asleep, if indeed they exist. The last incident
in the city was a month ago, when a terrorist blew himself up in a restaurant,
killing three people.
Children are back at school, to the delight
of parents who had kept them at home after the city fell to IS rather than send
them off to be indoctrinated by homicidal zealots. But even though restaurants
and shops are open, business is slow. Muhammad Attar, who runs a falafel
restaurant, says this is because no one has any money. Iraq’s economy is
dominated by the state and most people with regular jobs work for the
government. Amazingly, it kept paying salaries for about a year after IS
conquered Mosul. But even so, most of the city’s workers have not been paid for
more than a year. Pensions, somehow, are still getting through, and families
are managing on those and on debt.
With Mosul recaptured, the rout of IS in
Iraq will be complete. Undoubtedly, though, some of its surviving fighters will
revert to suicide-bomb attacks. And, for a while, the group will live on in
Syria. But there too it is surrounded and shrinking back to its “capital”,
Raqqa. The caliphate’s short, brutal life is drawing to a close.
In the longer term, huge problems remain
for Mosul. Many of its people undoubtedly collaborated with the occupiers, and
scores will be settled. Sunnis will want to be sure that they are given a full
share of power in the city and its surrounding province of Nineveh, even though
it is a Shia-dominated army that liberated them. The Kurds will want some sort
of reward for their part in beating IS back. Much of the city will need to be
rebuilt. Getting the power back on and the water running as the roasting Iraqi
summer approaches would be a good place to start.