In this June 16, 2014 file photo, demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they carry the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad.

In jihadist-ruled Iraqi city, residents fear US airstrikes – and sectarian revenge

Mosul is the largest city in northern Iraq and its capture in June by Islamic State was a major blow to Baghdad. Some Sunni residents welcomed their new rulers, but tensions are rising over a future assault by US-backed troops. 

Four months after a band of Sunni jihadists captured their city with shocking ease, residents of Mosul are bracing for possible US-led airstrikes. As the US and its allies have stepped up a bombing campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State, Sunni residents of Mosul say militants have lowered their profile and switched up tactics. 

For these residents, some of whom cheered the retreat of Iraq’s unpopular Shiite-led military, the risk of a bombing campaign – and the limits of its effectiveness – is playing on their nerves, along with lingering fears of what could happen to them if the same Shiite-led forces recapture their city.    

“In the past 10 days, the presence of the Islamic State has changed in the streets. The Arabs who came in the beginning are back in more numbers, moving in normal cars rather than four-wheel drives to escape aerial detection,” says a Mosul-based journalist.

Yet the US envoy coordinating the anti-IS coalition said Friday that a full-bore offensive to retake Mosul could be up to a year away. Gen. (ret.) John Allen, a former Marine, told reporters in Baghdad that it would be a protracted task. “It’s not a single battle. It’s a campaign,” he said.  

Foreign fighters made up the striking force that swept into Mosul in June. But after taking the city, and looting US-supplied military hardware from abandoned bases, many of them pushed on towards Baghdad. Others returned to Syria, where IS also controls large chunks of territory. Iraqis loyal to the group, which has its roots in an al-Qaeda resistance to the US occupation, were left in charge to run everyday affairs.

“Nobody forced us to join the Islamic State but many people joined voluntarily,” says Sheikh Abu Abdelrahman, a tribal leader living in the city. “We have more freedom now – no curfew, no more checkpoints and no more anti-blast walls. The hospitals run all day. They relaxed things. Mosul looks as it did under Saddam Hussein’s time. We’re free.”

Many other Mosul tribal leaders have sworn loyalty to Islamic State. Refusing to do so is a risky move, as the group has been ruthless in silencing dissent, even within its own sectarian base.

An Imam was allegedly executed on Sept. 9 in western Mosul for failing to swear allegiance to IS. The group has also targeted former policemen and army officers to preempt potential threats, the United Nations said last week in a report.

This month alone, the group executed sixty men in Mosul, all sentenced to death by their self-appointed Islamic court. On Sept. 5, three Sunni women were executed, allegedly for refusing to treat IS fighters, and two more were summarily killed on Sept. 9, according to the UN report.

City spared by airstrikes

Airstrikes by Iraqi Security Forces and the US-led coalition have hit areas in the outskirts of Mosul but so far spared the city itself. Sunni militants there are still taking precautions. Mosul residents say they now move on bicycles to blend in with civilians.

Internet connections were cut after President Barack Obama’s Sept. 24 speech at the UN General Assembly where he pressed world leaders to join America in the fight against IS. He said “it is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of Al-Qaeda and [IS].”

The effectiveness of US-led airstrikes in Iraq is still up for debate. While Iraqi security forces and Shiite and Kurdish militia have made gains on some fronts, militants have also captured towns close to Baghdad. And the Iraqi Army hasn’t made any push on cities like Mosul, the largest in northern Iraq with a population of up to 3 million, of which some half million are estimated to have fled since June.

A former Iraqi intelligence officer aligned with Sunni insurgents downplays the impact an air campaign could have on IS in the long term. “They know this strategy, it was used against them in Iraq and Chechnya. It is very easy for them to adapt to air strikes. They just stop using network connections and cell phones. It is easy to avoid them.” 

When IS forces entered Mosul, sending the Shiite-commanded Iraqi Army fleeing without a fight, there was talk of a Sunni revolution in the predominantly Sunni city. There was also relief as military checkpoints were abandoned. The deal made with former officers of the Saddam Hussein regime and other militants in the city was that IS would leave locals in charge. 

Militants ruled by night

Sunni tribal leader Mohammed Faris Al-Duleimi says it was easy for the group to take Mosul because its sympathizers were already there. “Daash (IS), which was then called Al-Qaeda, has been present in Mosul since 2005. The government ruled by the day and Al-Qaeda ruled by the night,” he says.

The ex-intelligence officer in Baghdad says sleeper cells were ready to move months before the June offensive. He claims his warnings to the government in Baghdad – that Mosul would fall unless Sunni demands were met – went unheeded.

Yet the intolerant ideology of IS, particularly its ruthless treatment of religious and ethnic minorities has also stirred dissent in Mosul, especially among educated professionals. They say IS is another occupying force, one that has imposed stifling religious rule on the city and destroyed ancient shrines of Christians, Yazidis, as well as Shiite mosques and the shrine of the Muslim Prophet Younes (Jonas).

“The people of Mosul refuse to be put in the same category as IS,” says a doctor there. “The media claims there is cooperation between Mosul citizens and the IS and this is simply not true. The problem is that they are occupied. They can’t go to battle against IS when soldiers run away and left the city to them.”

Fuel and power shortages

For most residents, daily life continues largely as normal. Their main complaints concern the quality and price of fuel, as well as shortages in electricity and water. The best quality fuel from the Baiji refinery is only available to IS. Residents can only buy petrol from Syria, which is lower quality. As a result, they pay at least two times more than Baghdad residents to fill their cars.  

Others are struggling to survive. Some government employees no longer draw salaries. Women, especially health workers, are under pressure to observe draconian rules of Islamic decorum. IS has banned smoking and ordered all women to wear hijabs.

Children as young as 12 are receiving military training in Mosul City, according to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, cited in the same report released last week. 

The Mosul-based doctor says many residents initially hoped that the US air strikes in August heralded the “beginning of the end” for the militant occupation of Mosul. But now they are just concerned that civilian areas will be hit, and that militias from Baghdad will eventually roll in and kill without discrimination.

A lawyer from the city, who recently fled to Erbil, echoes this worry. “Most people are afraid that if the Islamic State is defeated it will be replaced by Shiite militias or the Iraqi army which already has a very bad reputation among the locals. The people of Mosul are stuck between two hells: the Islamic State and the air strikes,” he says.

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