In Mosul's enduring rubble, fertile soil for an ISIS revival?

Why We Wrote This

The battle against ISIS has always been more than military. As the fighting winds down in Syria, there are concerns Iraq's too-slow recovery leaves an opening for resurgent pro-ISIS sympathies.

Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters
Marwa Khalid walks with her children, Mustafa and Muhaymen, in the old city of Mosul, Iraq, on March 3, 2019.

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When ISIS was forced from the Iraqi city of Mosul, polls in “liberated” Sunni-dominated regions found 75 percent support for the idea Iraq was going in the right direction. But nearly two years later, much of Iraq’s second city is still in rubble, with few services and little rebuilding. In October, according to polling by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), support had fallen to only 24 percent.

“Why is this happening? Because military gains have not been met by political reform, by economic reform, by services, by creating jobs,” says Ancuta Hansen, the NDI’s Iraq resident director, speaking at a security conference in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. “And as ISIS has been defeated, people start thinking back to those everyday issues and see that their lives … are not changing.”

Today there is growing concern among Iraqis and Western officials that the lack of palpable progress risks rekindling the anti-government, pro-ISIS ideology. “The people of Mosul cannot wait any longer,” says Ramon Blecua, the European Union ambassador to Iraq, at the conference. “People need to see some real success stories on the ground and have hope that things are going to change.”

Nearly two years after the liberation of Mosul from Islamic State militants, what hasn’t changed is that much of Iraq’s second city remains rubble, with limited services and little rebuilding.

What has changed is that the high expectations from that July 2017 liberation – of a post-ISIS renaissance in Mosul bolstered by an infusion of Western and Iraqi government cash and goodwill – are receding as frustration sets in.

Instead of hope, in fact, there is growing concern among Iraqis, Western officials, and aid groups alike that the lack of palpable progress in Mosul and in several Sunni-dominated provinces risks rekindling the anti-government, pro-ISIS ideology.

Soon after capturing Mosul in June 2014, ISIS made it the capital of its self-declared Islamic caliphate. Starting more than two years later and backed by U.S. air power, the rebuilt Iraqi security forces took nine months to recapture Mosul. The battle killed thousands of civilians and leveled portions of the city.

Today Mosul needs $2 billion for reconstruction, the Iraqi government estimates, including a reported $50 million project to rebuild the historic Great Mosque of al-Nuri, funded by the United Arab Emirates.

But the effort has been slowed by bureaucracy, by corruption, by political infighting after elections last year that have required many months to form a new government, and by security threats from remaining ISIS cells in Sunni areas of Iraq.

“We are two years after Mosul was liberated, and we see a steep increase in pessimism,” says Ancuta Hansen, the Iraq resident director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes democracy around the world. She cites multiple polls since 2017 that she says amount to an “alarm signal.”

Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters
Scrap and remnants of war lie near the destroyed Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 2, 2019.

Back when ISIS was forced from Mosul, 75 percent of Iraqi respondents in “liberated” Sunni-dominated regions said the country was going in the right direction, according to NDI polling. By April last year that figure had fallen to 50 percent. And by October only 24 percent said Iraq was still on the right path.

“Why is this happening? Because military gains have not been met by political reform, by economic reform, by services, by creating jobs,” says Ms. Hansen, speaking at a roundtable discussion last week at the Sulaimani Forum, an annual regional security conference convened by the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.

“And as ISIS has been defeated, people start thinking back to those everyday issues and see that their lives, although their expectations are high, are not changing now that ISIS is not around,” she says.

Detainees in camps

At the roundtable, Ali Al-Baroodi, a photographer, activist, and former professor at the University of Mosul, points to another problem that may have even more profound and long-term consequences: the presence of at least 100,000 Iraqis affiliated with ISIS, kept at remote camps, among the 1.8 million Iraqis still displaced by the conflict with the jihadists, according to U.N. figures.

“Do you know the first caliphate ever founded in Iraq? It was in Bucca,” says Mr. Baroodi, referring to the U.S. military’s Camp Bucca detention center in southern Iraq. There, in the mid-2000s, jihadist and ex-Baathist inmates met, exchanged expertise and ideology, and formed the eventual core of ISIS.

“Now the same thing is being repeated in the isolation camps in [mostly Sunni provinces of] Saladin and Nineveh,” says Mr. Baroodi. “If you don’t want the same vacuum to happen again, if you don’t want another Yazidi genocide, if you don’t want [thousands] of people’s names put on the walls of the morgue…. You need to do more [for] the people on the ground.”

The U.N. estimates that at the peak of the jihadists’ control of one-third of Iraq, some 6 million Iraqis – 15 percent of the entire population – were displaced. So far 4.2 million have returned home, though 2.5 million still face hardship, according to Bradley Mellicker, the coordinator of the Return and Recovery Unit in northern Iraq of the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Of the 1.8 million Iraqis still displaced, 600,000 remain in camps, 600,000 have a house “completely destroyed,” and most face “severe social cohesion issues,” says Mr. Mellicker, speaking at the Forum.

In addition to the problems posed by multiple armed militia groups and a patchwork of ethno-religious minorities, some 100,000 Iraqis or more “have perceived affiliations to ISIS, whether that means actual … or a more distant affiliation, perhaps the widow of a fighter or relative of a fighter,” he says. “The returns of some of these people have, up to now, not been allowed.”

Wanted: A plan from Baghdad

Crucial to improving the dynamic is leadership from Baghdad, which has still not produced a strategic plan for Mosul and other liberated areas, says Ramon Blecua, the European Union ambassador to Iraq.

Western donors “have been slow to respond,” says Mr. Blecua, speaking at the roundtable. Yet the EU has projects ready for Mosul and beyond, which include job creation, reconstruction, and political dialogue, he says, “but we need the government to take the lead with a proper action plan, with clear priorities.”

Mr. Blecua says the symbolic value of Mosul has not been highlighted enough and that on a previous visit soon after liberation he saw how the militants ruled with a surprising degree of effectiveness despite their brutality and inhumanity.

He says he was especially struck by a defense industry that ISIS created in a year and a half to manufacture weapons and explosive devices. It included a quality-control system in which every item had an ISIS stamp on it.

“In contrast, after the liberation, the question of reconstruction, and the question of how to revive Mosul as the hub of Sunni areas of Iraq, has been lacking in determination and effectiveness,” says Mr. Blecua of lackluster government efforts. “So that creates frustration.”

So far EU money has gone to the IOM and the U.N.’s stabilization fund, “but the real investment, the real international contribution, has not yet arrived,” says Mr. Blecua.

“The people of Mosul cannot wait any longer,” he says. “People need to see some real success stories on the ground and have hope that things are going to change.”

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