Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes: From Baghdad, Mosul is viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility. Its people – educated, relatively wealthy and religiously conservative – had dominated both state bureaucracy and the officers’ corps since Ottoman times. In the sectarian politics of post-invasion Iraq, in which the farmers of Diyala, the tribesmen of Ramadi and the merchants of Mosul were all treated as like-minded Sunnis, squeezed into a corner and challenged to provide a coherent political programme, Mosul was the only place where an indigenous Sunni political identity took root, helped along by an old social structure that had survived the invasion relatively intact. In the civil war that followed, a brutal and highly effective urban insurgency emerged in Mosul. Unlike the tribe-based insurgencies in Ramadi and Falluja, crushed when tribal elders and commanders were bought off and converted into pro-American militias, the insurgency in Mosul was never defeated.
Maliki, who worked to dismantle Sunni power and believed that demonstrations in Sunni cities were a plot financed by Turkey and Qatar to create a Sunni province, fuelled the animosity between Shia Baghdad and Sunni Mosul. He unleashed his police and security forces to suppress any opposition in the city and they behaved like an occupying army, detaining at will, disappearing, torturing and humiliating the people. So in June 2014, when the triumphant jihadis paraded their pick-up trucks through the streets of Mosul, many saw them as liberators, or at least as the lesser evil.
Ahmad, an engineer who once owned a thriving computer business in Mosul, was visiting friends in Erbil that month when his wife called him to say that something was happening. ‘I drove back quickly,’ he said. ‘The roads were blocked and the situation was tense. When I arrived I started hearing from friends and neighbours that the insurgents had been battling Iraqi troops on the outskirts of the city and had taken over a neighbourhood in the west.’ At first he thought nothing of the news: such clashes were common in Mosul. The insurgents were the de facto rulers after dark, levying taxes, imposing protection rackets and controlling the roads in and out of the city. Like all owners of businesses, he had to pay them, on top of the usual bribes he had to pay the army and the police to be left alone.
The next day rumours were spreading, and when the government imposed a curfew he realised the situation was serious. Then came unbelievable reports: the rebels were in full control of the western part of the city, and the governor and all high-ranking officials had fled. The army was in disarray and officers had abandoned their men, who were deserting en masse. ‘We started seeing the poor soldiers running through the streets, some in their underwear. They begged us to tell them how they could leave the city. In my street I showed two soldiers the way out. Some of my neighbours said we should attack them, take their weapons, but I said no, they hadn’t harmed us. Truly, no one in the city harmed the soldiers. Those who fled survived, those who were captured were killed. No one could believe that the army that had oppressed us for so long, that had treated us so badly, had vanished so quickly.’
‘I have to be honest,’ he added. ‘When the Islamic State first entered Mosul everyone was happy. People started clapping for them. They allowed us to remove the concrete blocks the army had installed to close the neighbourhoods. Before, it would take an hour to go from one area to the other, afterwards the roads were open and we felt free. They let the people alone and didn’t mind if people smoked, if people prayed or not. You could go anywhere, do anything you wanted, as long as it didn’t hurt them. I would go to the woods with a friend, sit in a café, smoke a nargileh, and they would turn up. Tall, muscled and mostly foreigners, they wouldn’t dare say a word to you. In the early days we said this was the life.’
Unlike their previous incarnations, the jihadis didn’t just promise the people of Mosul a Sunni resistance to the injustices inflicted on them by the American invasion or the sectarian politics of the Shia government in Baghdad. They went further: they promised a state, a just state based on the principles of Sunni Islam, military strength and effective bureaucracy. In their literature and sermons the jihadi ideologues used different names: the Caliphate, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, the Islamic State. All these names were eventually superseded and one name remained: the State, al-Dawla. It signified to the people of Mosul the nature of the new rulers, who were going to provide them with a strong, non-corrupt and functioning administration, just like the one they had before the Americans came and messed everything up.
‘They conned the people,’ Ahmad said. ‘They brought prices down and reimposed order. People from the heart of Mosul, from its oldest houses, would join them because they said this was the true Islam. Doctors and university professors joined them, my son’s teacher became a preacher for them, carrying a pistol and grenades on his belt. The whole city joined them.’
This new state took on all the familiar qualities of the ancien regime: it was narrow-minded, pathologically suspicious and phantasmagorical in its call for a return to a glorious past. This wasn’t because it was all a conspiracy on the part of the former regime to enable it to come back to power but because – apart from the novel possibilities afforded by social media for the dissemination of messages and propaganda – the jihadis had no new vision when they came to govern beyond the rotten practices they had inherited from the totalitarian regimes that ruled and still rule the region. [Continue reading…]