The once and future Mosul

Rasha al-Aqeedi writes: On August 30, General Joe Votel of the U.S. Central Command told Middle Eastern reporters via a video call from CENTCOM Tampa that coalition-backed Iraqi forces could take Mosul back from the Islamic State before the end of the year. “[A]s the Prime Minister has said, it’s his intention to try to get through Mosul by the end of the year. My assessment over the course of my visits is that they are on track to achieve that objective…. We are at the point here where we are now really into the heart of the caliphate,” Votel said. Coalition forces have already begun “shaping operations” in the outskirts of Mosul.

The liberation of the town where I was born and raised seems to be at hand. So why do I have such mixed feelings, looking on from Dubai these days, about what is likely to happen by year’s end? Because I fear that the effort to retake the town will destroy much of it, and because I am skeptical that a post-combat governance arrangement will be easy to put together. Most of all, I fear that other Iraqis and some select group of non-Iraqis who may have a hand in trying to control Mosul in 2017 may not understand what makes the place tick. Mosul is not just any city. It has its own character, wonders, and distempers. To govern it requires first that one really know it. The details matter, but, alas, details are often ignored.

The aftershocks of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq included not least an overthrowing of the balance — or rather imbalance — of sectarian power that had characterized the country since the onset of its modern history. A minority of Sunnis governed a plurality if not an outright majority of Shi‘a. The invasion shifted that status quo almost immediately. In late April 2003, barely a month after the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously pulled from its pedestal in Baghdad, Iraqi Shi‘a marked the pilgrimage to Karbala. More than one million devotees marched toward their spiritual sanctuary in a ritual that had been suppressed by the Ba‘ath regime for decades. They carried colorful banners that bore names sacred to all Muslims: Fatima, Ali, and Hussein. My hometown of Mosul, like most Sunni-majority cities, observed the event with a mix of confusion and apprehension: Was the new Iraq a place that celebrated and implicitly acknowledged the ascent of a set of customs and beliefs foreign to Sunnis? [Continue reading…]

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