Stabilizing Iraq: Why Mosul is a special case

The fatal shooting of a young man on a crowded downtown street illustrates why Americans could have trouble completely leaving this troubled provincial capital.

Saad Shalash/Reuters
US soldiers patrol in Mosul, Iraq, on June 17. With the June 30th deadline looming for US troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities, the daily violence in the city illustrates why Americans could have trouble completely leaving Mosul.

As the June 30 deadline approaches for US troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities, the murder of a young man on a crowded downtown street illustrates why Americans could have trouble completely leaving this troubled provincial capital.

He was shot in mid-morning, on a street crowded with shoppers. His name was unknown but his family will likely identify him by the butterfly tattooed on his foot with the inscription 'Oh Sorrow'.

"Mosul is a special situation... it is unstable here," explains an Iraqi security officer who did not want his name to be used.

US commanders say the number of reported attacks in Iraq's second biggest city have been cut by more than half with far fewer of the devastating suicide bombs and car bombs that have been the hallmark of Sunni insurgents. But smaller attacks – three to four a day – have become the backdrop of daily life here.

"What we typically see are small arms attacks, pipe bombs and hand grenades. Those are 'normal' attacks," says Col. Gary Volensky, commander of the 3rd Heavy Combat Brigade Team responsible for Mosul. "Anytime you have a vehicle-born IED, because we don't have those every day, those are insurgents wanting to demonstrate that they're still viable and that is not ordinary."

'It happens all the time'

Shootings have are so common they seem to barely faze residents here.

On Monday, customers leaving the Rafadain bank on Maidan street in West Mosul stepped around the body of the young man, which had been laid out on the sidewalk after he was shot a few blocks away.

"It might have been a revenge killing," speculated one of the Iraqi security officers at the circle where his body had been brought to the traffic police stationed there.

His killing didn't make it into the daily report of attacks compiled by Iraqi security forces and used by the US military. About half a mile away and less than an hour later two Iraqi National Police were killed when their checkpoint was attacked near the Provincial Council building. One of the suspected insurgents and a shop owner caught in the cross fire was killed. Two Iraqi soldiers were killed in a separate attack on a checkpoint.

The drumbeat of violence unsettles residents and deters investors in a city that desperately need jobs to prevent young men from turning to the insurgency.

"It happens all the time," shrugged one of the Iraqi Emergency Response Brigade (ERB) officers responsible for the area where the young man has shot.

Gen. Ray Odierno said earlier this month he was "more comfortable" than he had been in April with the prospect of US troops withdrawing from Mosul. US soldiers within the base on the edge of the city and those remaining in joint security stations within Mosul though are expected to have an active supporting role in helping the Iraqis maintain security.

The security pact stipulates that US troops will get involved only if the Iraqis ask for assistance.

"They're doing everything they're supposed to be doing. You can see we're not doing anything," says Capt. Ben Ferguson, a company commander for the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment as he watched the ERB deal with the shooting.

'Our biggest problem is assassinations'

An hour earlier at the ERB's company headquarters, Captain Ferguson came by to pick up Iraqi officers for a foot patrol in Ras al-Koor, where the ancient narrow streets wind their way to a crowded market.

"You interrupted the movie – now I won't get to see the end of it," the ERB company commander jokingly complained. Outside it was more than 100 degrees. Inside, in the air-conditioned cool of his office in the school they'd taken over, 'Wayne's World' – subtitled in Arabic – played on the television screen.

"Our biggest problem is assassinations," said the Iraqi company commander, a former Iraqi Army officer from Mosul with a degree in political science who did not want his name to be used.

He said they needed more officers and more resources and complained that in the densely packed neighborhood they were responsible for, they couldn't shoot at insurgents because they might hit civilians.

"And even then we're only supposed to shoot them in the legs," he said.

"I think we're doing the same job that we're doing now – it's just the frequency might change," said Ferguson, who has received three purple hearts for being wounded here and in Afghanistan since 2004. "We're at their beck and call."

'Is anything normal here?'

An Iraqi lieutenant led a dozen of his men out into the street with the US soldiers to walk through the twisting alleys. It was just before they reached the rows of stalls with wooden carts displaying fresh fish, shots rang out and a radio call came through that the young Iraqi man had been killed.

At the traffic circle where the young man's body had been brought, security people had their own view of what had happened. "This happens daily – I think it's all Iranian," said an Iraqi officer named Khalid.

Shopkeepers stood on the sidewalk to get a better view, many of them looking sullenly at the American soldiers.

"We leave home in the morning and don't know if we'll return at night," said restaurant owner Ali Wadallah. "You see the situation – is anything normal here?"

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