Losing Mosul?

Khalid Moustafa’s family has no idea who killed him, or why. Moustafa, a Kurd, was a yogurt seller and taxi driver, the husband of an Arab woman and the father of five children, with a sixth on the way. He was found in pieces, his head near his home, his body left by a highway.

Moustafa’s murder is part of a wave of targeted killings and beheadings that have hit Mosul in recent months. The bodies of two or three assassination victims arrive each day at Salaam Hospital, the city’s largest, according to doctors there. Most have been decapitated, the rest shot through the heart or head, they said. The morgue is the hospital’s busiest department, and it is completely full, according to the head of security. When Moustafa’s father reclaimed his son’s headless body from the overflowing morgue, he noticed that many of the other victims were women. “Mosul is a butchery,” the 63-year old man said, asking that his own name be withheld to protect the rest of his family.

These assassinations are the most visible sign of a growing insurgency that is turning Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, into the Falluja of the North — an incubator for terrorist groups in the region. Already it is a base for radical groups pushed out of Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq, and for foreign fighters crossing the border from Syria, according to American and Iraqi security officials. Among the groups that have set up shop in Mosul are some of Iraq’s most notorious: Tawid and Jihad, Ansar al-Islam, and its splinter Ansar al-Sunna. The terrorists have mixed in with Mosul’s homegrown fundamentalist Islamic opposition, and a potent Baathist resistance fueled by the city’s large numbers of unemployed soldiers (the majority of the old Iraqi Army’s officer corps hailed from Mosul). Besides attacking American and Iraqi security forces, they have targeted any individuals collaborating or
imagined to be collaborating with the American-led occupation.

It’s difficult to tell the extent to which these resistance and terrorist groups are gaining strength in the city. There are no longer any foreign journalists based in Mosul, and they visit infrequently. The roads to Mosul are perilous, and it’s too dangerous for foreign civilians to travel inside the city without a large armed-escort. Two weeks ago a Turkish television crew that tried to do so was promptly attacked by gunmen. Last week, a Time magazine correspondent traveled to the U.S. Army’s headquarters in Mosul with a Kurdish politician’s armored car convoy. The Army press officer on duty at the former Republican Palace said that the commanding officer, Brigadier-General Carter Ham, was out of town and that not a single American officer was available to discuss the situation in Mosul. She told Time to come back in a month.

Seen through the bullet-proof windows of fast-moving vehicles, daily life continues apparently as normal in many parts of the city, especially in the Kurdish neighborhoods on the eastern side of the Tigris River. Stores are open, traffic is thick, and Iraqi National Guards patrol the streets as they do in much of the country.

But residents of Mosul, interviewed over the telephone or in the safety of nearby Kurdish controlled territory, say that the basic institutions of civil society are under organized attack in their city.

“Many kinds of criminals and terrorists come into Mosul from Syria, it’s like the Super Bowl for them,” Salim Kako, a top official of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which represents many Christians in Mosul.”The government can do nothing for the defense of the people.”

Mosul’s professional classes have born the brunt of threats and assassinations. “Anyone who advocates freedom and democracy is considered to be publicly for America and a target,” said Rooa Al Zrary, a Mosul journalist who’s father, the editor of a moderate newspaper, was murdered last year.

Doctors are fleeing Mosul, starting with the most talented who are best able to find jobs elsewhere. “The situation is bad and getting worse,” said one surgeon. “If it continues, there will be no good doctors left in Mosul.” The head of Salaam hospital refused to be interview, saying that the last doctor who talked to the press had been murdered. One of his colleagues elaborated, under condition of anonymity. “We feel like there are eyes watching everyone, and that the resistance is growing stronger every day,” he said.

Mosul University has received more threats against its professors, staff and students than any other university in Iraq, according to its spokesman, Hassan Thannoon Al-Allaf. “Everyone who teaches here is risking his life,” he said. Three professors have already lost theirs: the head of the translation department, the head of the political science department, and the dean of the college of law, who was beheaded at her home along with her husband.

The resistance’s persistence in carrying out its threats can be chilling. Last week, a top Iraqi oil official who had survived two previous assassination attempts, was shot and killed outside his home in Mosul. The week before another oil official in Mosul survived a roadside bomb attack that killed five of his bodyguards and four other security officers.

Iraqi translators for American soldiers and officials all across northern Iraq are resigning in large numbers, or taking month-long “vacations,” out of fears of reprisal, according to an American security official in Erbil. A former translator for the American Army in Mosul, interviewed by e-mail, said he resigned after three of his friends working as informants were murdered. Only two translators remained on the job in at the U.S. Army’s headquarters in the Palace, he said.

Mosul is one of the most diverse cities in Iraq, but its cosmopolitan character is coming under attack. Minority groups seen as likely to be sympathetic to the Americans are particularly vulnerable. A Christian church was bombed in early August, and resistance groups have been distributing a DVD showing two kidnapped Christian men from Mosul and an Egyptian man confess to collaborating with Americans before they are beheaded by their captors.

“The mosaic of Mosul is a miniature Iraq: there are Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen, Assyrian Christians, Nestorian Christians, Muslin Sunnis, Mulsim Shias, Yezidis, and Armenians,” said Sadi Ahmed Pire, the Mosul chief of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, of one of Kurdish Iraq’s two governing parties. By attacking this mosaic “the Syrians and the resistance are trying to create anarchy in the city, and trying to get the Americans to resign and leave the country to looting and destruction.” Pire himself has survived several assignation attempts.

If ignited, an ethnic conflict inside Mosul could spread through the rest of Northern Iraq. The neighborhood is already tense. In early September, the U.S. Army laid siege to Tal Afar, a city 30 miles west of Mosul populated almost entirely by Iraqi Turkomen, an ethnic group related to the Turks, that had been taken over by terrorist groups. For some two weeks, the battle was fierce enough that the Turkish government protested that Americans were killing innocent Turkomen civilians. When the Turkish Foreign Minister said Turkey would stop cooperating with America in Iraq unless they lifted the siege of Tal Afar, the Americans obliged. Many Mosul residents worry that the hostile takeover of Tal Afar was a dry run for a takeover attempt in Mosul.

The sad irony is that Mosul was once a model of American involvement in Iraq. The city was under the command of the 101st Airbone Division, led by Lt. General David Petraeus, who was considered to be particularly sensitive to local concerns. Several Muslawis, residents of Mosul, fondly mentioned particular soldiers by name. “Tell Mr. Anderson of the 101st Airborne that a Muslawi girl salutes him,” said one teacher who was too afraid to give her name. The 101st devoted itself to economic development projects, including restarting a cement factory which was one of the city’s largest employers. But now, the city’s economy has stalled as foreign companies have fled the city. A new multi-million dollar luxury business hotel (a “Sheraton” if it passes the franchise test) that opened in early August is almost totally empty, according to one of its managers. Of the 280 rooms, only one or two are filled. (Though the hotel is just a 2 minute walk from U.S. Army headquarters, he warned against making the trip on foot. “You might make it the first time, but they’d be waiting for you on the way back.”) Meanwhile, about 600,000 Mosul families are without employment, according to the PUK’s Pire. This in city of somewhere between 2.6 million and 3 million people.

Bombings and shootings escalated in Mosul even before the 20,000-strong 101st Airborne returned to the U.S. in February, replaced by the 8,700 soldiers of Task Force Olympia, a multi-national brigade of coalition troops that includes large numbers of U.S. National Guard reservists. Since then American soldiers have taken a backseat to the Iraqi National Guard, but as in the rest of Iraq, the performance of these new units have been mixed, according to residents.

“The current invisibility of American soldiers has made people happier. People feel more comfortable with Iraqi soldiers,” said Dindar Doskar, head of the Kurdish Islamic Union’s Mosul office. “But there are not enough Iraqi soldiers and police, and the terrorists have better weapons.”

The consequences of Mosul’s security crisis are becoming graver as time passes. With the approach of Iraq’s national elections in January, American officials have stated that it may not be possible to organize polling in the troubled cities of Sunni central Iraq. But politicians in Mosul say that elections will be turbulent there as well.

“Who is going to vote under these conditions?” said the KIU’s Doskar. The offices of the major political parties have already been attacked and “there will be car bombs at voting stations just like there are now car bombs at police recruiting stations.”