Mosul: Iraq in Microcosm


Maria Fantappie | Thur 15 Jul 2010

“Mosul is a microcosm of Iraq. All the communities and the problems of Iraq are present there,” says Ammar, an Iraqi soldier born there.

Many Iraqis refer to Mosul as a ‘miniature Iraq’, where all communities and social groups are represented. Mosul has been an intersection where Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Yezidis and Turkomans meet, and the hometown of prominent tribes, families of merchants, as well as Iraq’s administrative and military elite. Situated at the crossroad between Syria and Turkey, Mosul, ‘The Pearl of the North’, is the northern portal of Iraq.

The history of ancient and modern Iraq passes through Mosul. Seized first by the Safavid dynasty, the city became an important economic centre of the Ottoman Empire, during the 16th century. The administrative and military elite of modern Iraq were nurtured there. The city produced Baathist officers, Saddam Hussein’s loyalists.

Mosul continues to be the laboratory of Iraq today. After the invasion of 2003, the city was the centre for revenge by Kurds against the Baathist regime. The Baathist insurgency that grew afterwards was centred there, as was the insurgent resistance against the US troops.

Following the fall of Saddam’s regime, the city became the main focus of Kurdish expansionist ambitions in the disputed territories.

“In 2003 we entered Mosul. It was a historical moment for all Kurds. For the first time, Peshmerga entered the headquarters of the Baathist regime,” says the Kurdish General Natheer Issam, who led the Mosul operation. Relying on the support of the US Army, Peshmerga forces took over the city. This control was augmented after the 2005 provincial elections, which were boycotted by most Arab parties, when the New Iraqi Army’s Kurdish battalions were deployed in Ninewa.

Al Maliki’s project to rebuild a strong and centralised Iraq also began in Mosul. Starting from 2008, the Iraqi Prime Minister gradually replaced Kurdish battalions of the Army and called for the retreat of the Peshmerga forces. With the Arab parties competing in the 2009 provincial elections, the Kurdish parties’ share of power fell of dramatically and Ninewa fell in the hands of the Arab nationalist coalition, al-Haadba.

“In 2005, I took command of the 5th brigade of the second division of the Iraqi Army. At that time 80 percent of the security forces in Mosul were Kurds and the remaining 20 percent Arabs. Three Brigadiers were Kurds and one was an Arab. Since 2008, the situation has dramatically changed: three Brigadiers are Arabs, and I am the only Kurd,” explains General Natheer.

Mosul has been fertile soil for international and local Islamists and nationalist insurgent groups. It was the base for the Iraqi resistance against US forces. They first joined their efforts with the ex-Baathists who were excluded from the new Iraq, although many Baathists left to join the Arab nationalist coalition. Jihadist groups turned their weapons towards civilians, particularly the area’s minorities. With the city falling apart, they built urban gangs, recruiting from the deprived youth from the villages around Mosul.

“At first, their objective was to fight the Americans. Later, they started on Christians, and now they find excuses to persecute anyone,” complains Nada, a Mosul citizen.

Today, while civilians are fleeing the city, different armed corps are refilling Mosul. In the same city, the US forces established their northern headquarters, the New Iraqi army and Police deployed, and the Peshmerga forces held their positions in Kurdish areas.

As armed forces proliferated, a thick network of checkpoints has junked Mosul.

Under US patronage, a network of ‘combined checkpoints’ was proposed to ease the security situation. According to this project, Arab and Kurdish battalions of the Army and Peshmerga forces will cooperate. Recently, negotiations between President of the KRG Masoud Barzani and the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki started to discuss the project.

General Vandal, who is in charge of the US army in the north, explains, “The system of combined checkpoints will be an essential step to ease the security system of Mosul and Ninewa governorates. It intends to put an end to the redundant checkpoints and restructure the current checkpoint network that Al Qaeda has already become familiar with.”

Beyond the security advantage, the checkpoint system in Mosul could become the ground to resolve the main political issues of Iraq.

“Combined checkpoints will improve the cooperation between Iraqi battalions with different affiliations and Peshmerga forces against Al Qaeda. It also stands as the first step towards the integration of Peshmerga in the Iraqi forces,” Vandal continues.

US officials see in this project the potential to turn Mosul from a battleground to a platform of compromise between the Kurdish region and the central government on the issues of the disputed territories. It could create the circumstances in which Iraqi security forces can reassemble and unify against external threats.

However, the implementation of the project presents several challenges. As security can be the ground for resolving political issues, to be effective, the military cooperation must be backed up by political will.

Kurdish authorities are still cautious to collaborate in a project that they consider a dangerous experiment. KDP officials deeply distrust the intentions of the al-Haadba coalition. Since they came to power, al-Haadba has been pushing for the withdrawal of the Peshmerga forces from Mosul and Ninewa governorates.

“We could discuss the project of combined checkpoints from a strategic point of view but there are no guarantees that al-Haadba will not push the Peshmerga away from even the Kurdish areas,” says Aziz Weyzi, commander of the Peshmerga forces.

if the plan is implemented poorly, the project could also lead to a serious deterioration of the security situation in Mosul. The different armed groups are operating under two different and distinct military hierarchies. One reports to Baghdad, the other to Erbil.

Officers in the New Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga are politicised to a high level and this risks the future cooperation and good will between the two forces. If that were to break down, the whole city could find itself in chaos.

Mosul, the city of the two springs, is a paradise in the mind of many Iraqis where autumn is as mild as spring. The road to a harmonised Iraq passes through the centre of the city. Once Mosul turns from a battleground to a playground, the rest of Iraq can pass from its current state to somewhere much nearer paradise.