U.S. sees long fight to oust Al Qaeda in Mosul

American soldiers say the battle for the northern Iraqi city is a complicated mix of counterterrorism, economic incentives, and political solutions.

Sam Dagher
Barricaded city: In Mosul, the capital of Iraq's Nineveh Province, US soldiers are engaged in a fierce fight with Al Qaeda in Iraq. To stop car bombings, the city center is pedestrian traffic only.
Sam Dagher
The US is spending $7 million dollars to improve fortifications around Mosul, a northern Iraqi city that has been called the last urban stronghold for Al Qaeda in Iraq. The city’s main market is restricted to pedestrians to limit the chances of a car bombing.
Sam Dagher
Security Focus: At a press conference, Iraqi leaders Maj. Gen. Riad Jalal (l.) and Mosul's governor Duraid Kashmoula (r.) discuss coordination between the Iraqi Army and police.
Rich Clabaugh

US and Iraqi troops are now repairing breaches in an earthen berm, a 20-foot high barricade built around this northern city in 2004. It's perhaps the most visible part of a grinding fight for control of the last supposed urban stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Baghdad and other parts of Iraq still face sporadic insurgent attacks – as they have in recent days. But in Mosul, the thump of explosions is almost as much a part of the daily soundtrack as cars honking. The city averages 60 to 80 roadside bombs – exploded or found – per week.

US officers here acknowledge that security is the No. 1 priority. But they quickly add that talk of a decisive battle in Mosul is misguided. This, they say, will be a protracted struggle in which US soldiers juggle an array of complicated tasks related to counterterrorism, economics, and politics. "In Mosul, based on what we have done in three months, we are at a turning point ... we need to be here long enough to build basic capacity in the government and basic systems in the [Iraqi] military," says Lt. Col. Bob Molinari.

While the US is spending $7 million to repair the Mosul embankment and add checkpoints along the barrier, it also plans more permanent US-Iraqi security stations, or garrisons, inside some of the city's toughest neighborhoods in addition to the 20 that are already in place.

But as Iraqi military and civilian leaders look on, they say that the security improvements alone will not end the cycle of violence in Mosul. A political solution is needed, they say, to end the struggle for power between ex-Saddam Hussein loyalists and newly powerful Kurds and Shiites. It's a solution, many hope, that will ultimately help drive Al Qaeda in Iraq elements from the city.

Political tinderbox

Nineveh Province is home to nearly 3 million people, half of whom live in the capital, Mosul. At least 60 percent are Sunni Arab with the rest divided among Kurds, Kurdish-speaking Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities. One Sunni Arab politician estimates that nearly 100,000 members of the former Iraqi Army are in Mosul.

This ethnic and religious mix continues to fuel Mosul's volatility and has turned the city into a political tinderbox.

Brig. Gen. Noureddin Tatarkhan, a Kurdish leader of the elite peshmerga unit here, now officially part of the Iraqi Army division stationed in Mosul, says Al Qaeda and its affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, continue to find a common cause with former regime elements and other insurgent groups like the Islamic Army by lumping the Americans, Kurds, and those supporting the Shiite-led government together as one enemy. He says this message continues to have an impact on many average citizens.

In a statement posted on its website last week, the Islamic Army – believed to be made up mostly of former regime elements – lamented the recent killings of two of its Mosul-based leaders, identified as Abu Fatima and Abu Ibrahim, at the hands of Al Qaeda in Iraq and called on its followers not to be distracted by this and to instead "focus all their energies on hitting the enemy: the Americans and the Shiites and peshmerga forces collaborating with them."

Indeed, the animosity toward Kurds, who some charge are trying to gain a foothold in the city, runs deep among many Sunni Arabs.

Osama al-Nujaifi, a member of the Iraqi parliament who is a Sunni Arab from Mosul, claims that "90 percent of the present resistance would die out if the peshmerga left Mosul," accusing General Tatarkhan's men of "committing unspeakable abuses" against Sunnis. "Kurdish parties want to take over Mosul, and we will confront them."

But Nineveh Province's deputy governor, Khasro Goran, says his fellow Kurds have a historic presence in the city, mainly on the east side. And, he says, nearly 1,600 Kurds in this area alone have been killed since 2003 and an estimated 100,000 have been forced to flee to the neighboring semiautonomous Kurdistan region.

Thafer Issam, a Kurd born in Mosul, fled two years ago to Kurdistan's capital, Arbil, and says he's too "terrified" to return.

Three years ago, mainly Sunni Arab western Mosul was regarded as the most violent part of the city, but many parts of the east side have now matched that description. Several bombed structures are completely on the ground, graffiti glorifying the Islamic State is seen everywhere, and public buildings there are ringed with both concrete and earthen barricades. A major bridge and many streets in the center are cut off to vehicle traffic for fear of car bombings.

In an effort to dispel rumors on the street, especially among Sunni Arabs, that Kurds were behind a high-profile bombing in January that killed almost 60 people, Maj. Gen. Riad Jalal, a Sunni Arab ex-Army officer and ranking member of the former ruling Baath Party, gathered local media to parade in front of them three men who allegedly carried out the attack.

Cameras rolled as the men, including the owner of a popular local teahouse, confessed their guilt and expressed their regret in the presence of General Jalal's US military advisers.

Iraqi reporters seemed skeptical about the men's guilt, but their prodding questions were met with this comment from the general: "Leaders do not bother with details."

When told that Mosul's residents were growing skeptical of his ability to restore security in the city, especially given the fact that the much-touted "decisive battle" against Al Qaeda in Iraq never materialized, he said, "There is no military operation in the traditional sense in Mosul because the enemy is amongst our sons and brothers, taking advantage of social and religious sympathies.... The terrorists are like an octopus."

Despite doubts by residents and political leaders alike about his abilities, the US has embraced Jalal, appointed in January by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to coordinate the activities of the Iraqi Army, police, and border guard in the province, as a "bright hope" in the city.

But the US military says the January explosion, which blew up dozens of 55-gallon drums of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse basement here, was an accident, triggered when an Iraqi explosives expert accompanying a contingent headed by Tatarkhan detonated a small amount of explosives at the warehouse, not knowing what was stored in the basement.

Economic development

The US military says another crucial piece of the puzzle in Mosul is employing military-age males and providing basic services to residents.

On Saturday, Iraq's Minister of Planning and Development Ali Baban came to Mosul to survey the province's economic needs. They are staggering and range from chronic power shortages, destroyed highways and roads, overflowing sewers, and insufficient schools. The province does not get its fair share of fuel and food rations from the central government due to chronic inefficiencies and corruption.

Add to this the threat that a major dam in the area is in danger of collapsing and flooding big parts of the province. The cost of repair ranges from $2 billion to $6 billion, according to Mr. Goran.

"There is no question I support the resistance," says Taha Khalaf, a Sunni Arab resident of the violence-ravaged west side.

"I live on 'death road' and my neighborhood looks like it was hit by an earthquake. I do not have a job and the Americans run our provincial government."

The US military is not only having to combat Al Qaeda in what's described as its last urban stronghold, but it's also building residents' trust in their own government and security forces, pressuring Baghdad to spend money on the provision of the most basic services, easing bubbling sectarian and ethnic tensions and preventing the province from bursting at the seams by cracking down on the flow of fighters through the Syrian border and forging alliances with tribes in outlying areas.

All of this takes place in a city where no day goes by without attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces, kidnappings, and assassinations.

On Tuesday nine people including four policemen were killed in an attack on a checkpoint in the city and a prominent academic escaped an assassination attempt. A police station was leveled in a bombing on Friday that killed four, and eight Kurds were assassinated on the city's east side last week.

'Shuttle diplomacy'

The US military has been working on easing political as well as ethnic and sectarian tensions through what it calls "shuttle diplomacy."

It recently flew Goran, who also heads the Nineveh branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and other provincial officials to meet with Sheikh Abdullah al-Yawar, a powerful chieftain from the powerful Shammar tribe at his fiefdom in Rabiah in western Mosul near the Syrian border.

The US needs the sheikh's support to win his people away from Al Qaeda's sway. It also needs to maintain good relations with Kurds. But a bitter disagreement between the two camps illustrates the difficulties that America faces in appeasing all sides in Iraq.

Goran says 90 percent of the residents of the district of Sinjar, nearly 70 miles west of Mosul, are Kurdish-speaking Yazidis who must be given the option to join Kurdistan in a referendum mandated by the Constitution. The Yazidis were victims of devastating bomb attacks in Sinjar that killed nearly 500 people last summer. Tal Afar, halfway between Sinjar and Mosul, has been the scene of bloody sectarian battles between its Sunni and Shiite residents.

The sheikh says the Kurds are "dreaming" if they think they will get Sinjar and he hopes that Sunni Arabs who, in sharp contrast to Kurds, shunned local elections here in January 2005 will have a chance to assert "their rights" in the next round of voting.

Goran, however, is hopeful that the US can help broker some kind of deal. "We must find solutions to these problems and secure everyone's rights. We must not be afraid."

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