Mosul Reduced to Ghost Town

IWPR-trained reporter returns to find grim, desolate city, barely recognisable from the “fabulous” place he last visited 12 years ago.

Mosul Reduced to Ghost Town

IWPR-trained reporter returns to find grim, desolate city, barely recognisable from the “fabulous” place he last visited 12 years ago.

When we arrived on Mosul’s outskirts at an Iraqi army checkpoint, my impression was of a place without government. The checkpoint was chaotic, with soldiers firing into the air to clear the road.

The city itself was very dusty and the people on the streets looked haggard. All the hotels were closed. Most of Mosul’s wealthy citizens had left in 2004.

The curfew began at 10 pm but most people had gone home by dusk. Gunfire could be heard sporadically throughout the day, something the locals regard as normal.

While the Nineveh governorate has been willing to implement construction projects, contractors are afraid to work here. Insurgents blow up new schools and buildings.

I first went to Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, in the summer of 1996, when I was 15 years old.

At the time, Iraqi Kurdistan was isolated both by the United Nations sanctions on Iraq and by the former Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein.

There was a fuel crisis in the Kurdish region, so my father used to go the city every day to fill his 1988 Volkswagen with petrol. He would sell the petrol on his return to Kurdistan.

I was really excited about visiting Mosul. Iraq’s third largest city was big and fabulous, and I felt it was in a different country to my hometown of Erbil, some 70 kilomtres away.

After a 12-year gap, I recently returned to the city – which has been violent and unstable since the collapse of the former regime in 2003 – to report on the situation.

I traveled with a member of one of the two main Kurdish political parties in a beat-up car. "We use old cars so that we won’t attract insurgents and kidnappers," the driver said.

On my second day, Iraqi police drove me around the city. The people have renamed Mosul’s streets, crossroads and neighborhoods. No one dares to walk through “Death Street” at night because insurgents will kill them. Several car bombs have exploded at “Burnt Intersection”.

There are several areas that people now refer to as “assassination neighborhoods”. Here, insurgents have been killing security officers and members of political parties in broad daylight.

A policeman said insurgents give 50,000 Iraqi dinars (45 US dollars) to teenagers to plant roadside bombs.

Many Mosul residents were loyal to Saddam Hussein and the city also provided most of the officers for his military.

Nineveh governor Duraid Mohammed Kashmula told me his was the most dangerous province in Iraq – with its wide, unprotected border with Syria, it had become a magnet for insurgents from all over the country.

Syria’s government denies United States accusations that it allows militants to enter Iraq, saying it has done everything in its power to secure the border.

Kashmula said unemployment was a major factor in the unrest here. He said its outskirts are more secure than the city centre, where most official and government establishments are located. He also said most of the insurgents lived outside Mosul, but strike at inner city neighbourhoods.

Nineveh’s deputy governor Khasro Goran said there is lack of trust among security forces in the province, which consist of Sunni and Shia Arabs and Kurds.

Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is attempting to replace Kurdish forces, which serve under the Iraqi defence ministry, with forces that are loyal to the central government. This is because of concerns that the Kurdish troops inside Mosul are loyal to Kurdish leaders rather than to Baghdad.

Maliki ordered the transfer of Kurdish forces to the central and southern provinces, but the soldiers rejected the order, claiming it was politically motivated.

They described the order as an insult, arguing that they were the first to be sent there to fight the insurgents in 2003. They said many of their comrades had lost their lives in attempts to secure the province.

Now, however, Sunni Arabs and officers from Saddam Hussein’s army are joining Iraqi army units in Nineveh province, fighting side by side with Kurds against insurgents.

Lieutenant Colonel Fuad Muhammad Ali is a Sunni Arab and former military officer who now heads 5th

brigade operations in Mosul.

On the day that Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad was toppled, marking the end of the Ba’athist era, he recalls being in Baiji, north of the capital, guarding a weapons warehouse.

Ali did not join the new Iraqi army when it was first established. In 2005, after a long period of unemployment, he and his family went to Erbil, where he signed up to serve with the Iraqi army in Mosul.

"Former officers are returning to the army because they are tired of insurgents and they are tired of being jobless," said Ali. He says there are no differences between Kurds and Arabs in his brigade.

Goran, a Kurd on the Kurdistan Alliance list, also known as the Nineveh Brotherhood list,

says around 1.5 million people in the province have the right to vote in the upcoming provincial elections. He believes one million people will cast their ballots.

The election is expected to bring more Arab leaders into power. Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted the 2005 provincial council poll, will participate in the ballot.

Goran said as many as 37 lists have registered in Nineveh to participate in provincial elections, which will be held on January 31, 2009. Some of the lists belong to former Ba’ath party members, and some to tribal leaders.

Goran believes many Sunni Arabs here will vote along tribal and national lines rather than religious ones.

It is unclear if Mosul will be any safer after the elections. That will depend, in part, on whether the vote itself is fair and whether all the parties accept its results.

After a mere two days in Mosul, I was looking forward to going home. Our driver chose to use a different route to leave to the one we had taken on the way in.

He said it was better to pass directly through the neighbourhoods where many insurgents lived because the likelihood of being attacked there was lower.

Driving out of the city, he said, "Let's leave this ghost town and go back to Erbil to have some life.”

Qassim Khidhir is an IWPR-trained journalist in Erbil.
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