The Calm Before
Under an ISIS Flag, the Sons of Mosul Are Rallying
Though ISIS is known for its brutal rule in Syria, many residents of the Iraqi city it just captured are so hostile to the Shia-led government in Baghdad, they have welcomed the group.
As life returns to an uneasy version of normal in Mosul, the response from local residents to the city’s capture by ISIS, a radical Islamist group, has been surprisingly positive. Multiple Sunni residents inside Mosul who spoke with The Daily Beast by phone reported being glad to be rid of the predominantly Shia government security forces, and so far pleased with life under the ISIS occupation. That may change soon if ISIS begins to rule with the brutality they have displayed in Syria, but by keeping the residents of Mosul happy for now ISIS is buying time to increase its power and local support, which will make things even harder for the Baghdad government if it tries to take the city back.
In response to the recent news from Mosul, an Iraqi citizen recalled the story of a friend from Diyala Province. “He told me, ‘It was the same for us in 2007. We were very happy when ISIS took over the area and drove the Iraq Army out and at first they behaved very well. It was only after a month that they started killing us.’”
One sign of local support for ISIS in Mosul is that many Sunni families who fled the initial fighting are streaming back into the city and, according to sources there, are happy to see the Iraqi Army gone.
The city is quiet for now and no fighting is heard anywhere, sources inside Mosul tell The Daily Beast. ISIS fighters have dismantled the checkpoints and dividing walls that had become symbols of Baghdad’s oppression to the residents, while ISIS fighters were conspicuously avoiding the abuse of civilians that has become their hallmark inside Syria. This may be due to the fact that most of the rank and file of the ISIS forces inside Mosul, by the reports of numerous sources, are natives—young Sunni Arab residents of the city. Sources inside Mosul believe the ISIS forces are native based on their accents and the fact that the fighters cover their faces to conceal their identities. The local character of so many ISIS units may help account for both their current popularity with residents and the ease with which they navigated Mosul’s neighborhoods to rout Iraqi security forces.
While the past week has been a nightmare for the rest of Iraq, many Mosul residents, who have felt oppressed by the government in Baghdad, felt it was a long awaited reprieve. Constant fighting and harsh security measures under a mostly Shia security presence since the American withdrawal made Mosul feel like an occupied city for many Sunni Arabs residents. Many Moslawis, as Mosul residents are known, compared the current relaxed atmosphere in the city to what life was like before the U.S. invasion in 2003, when Saddam’s government ruled and Sunnis still held political power in Iraq.
Outside of Mosul, ISIS is already bragging about a campaign of mass killing. On Sunday, ISIS announced it had slaughtered 1,700 Shia soldiers in the city of Tikrit—if true, the deadliest act yet in Iraq’s war, though the the veracity of its claims could not be verified. What’s clear is that ISIS is touting the carnage in Tikrit, and targeting Shia soldiers, in the hopes of igniting a full-scale sectarian civil war in the country.
Mixed reports are emerging regarding to what degree life has returned to normal in Mosul but many basic services appear to be in working order. Electricity has remained as before, but a disruption of water services was reported Sunday. Gas stations are open with a limit of 20 liters a day at regular prices as fuel trucks are returning to the city, while bread and regular staples remain stocked in stores. Cellphone service remains throughout the city, however, the Internet has been cut off, which citizens blame on Baghdad. Even the city hospitals were reported to be open. Traffic has also been allowed to pass freely in and out of Mosul and throughout the city for the first time in years.
It is clear that a coalition of Sunni Arab groups has come together to build this offensive led by ISIS, some of them strange bedfellows. Sunni leaders with contacts in Mosul have been keen to stress the grassroots Iraqi nature of this movement, yet it is clear that all forces in this Sunni rebellion—which includes both nationalist and Islamist elements—have accepted the ISIS banner, its rules, and its leadership.
Mosul is swirling with rumors about the presence in Iraq of Izzat Al-Duri, Saddam Hussein’s former vice president and current head of the exiled Ba’athist party, as the new authorities in Mosul are filled with old Ba’athist faces. How long this opportunistic alliance of former Ba’athist, Islamists, and Sunni nationalists can hold together is uncertain, but the prospects for the return of Mosul to the rest of Iraq without a terrible cost seem grim.
In the east Mosul neighborhood of Al-Sumer, a call for recruits to support the new rebellion brought hundreds of young men to the streets to sign up. With the vast trove of government arms collected and more recruits joining the ISIS offensive, the Iraqi Army, if it tries to retake the city, may find an even larger and more entrenched force in Mosul than the one that threw them out in the first place.
Residents in Mosul seemed very worried about the city being bombed by the Iraqi Air Force and the return of the Iraqi Army from the south, but most did not see this prospect as imminent. But many sounded untroubled by the fearsome reputation of life under ISIS after observing them for a few days as even the foreign fighters appeared to be leaving the people of Mosul alone. New announcements are being broadcast throughout the city from the speakers of mosques, but these primarily concerned people returning to work.
Most said they had not observed or heard of the new ISIS authorities enforcing their announced bans on smoking cigarettes or water pipes, immoderate dress, and public gatherings, but most residents said they have been very careful to comply with the new rules. A few women had returned to work wearing the hijab, but most are staying home, uncertain of how they would be treated by the ISIS fighters in public. Even low-level government employees who were forced to swear oaths against the government in Baghdad were reportedly allowed to return to work unmolested.
From the public statement ISIS released three days ago and its actions to date, it seems clear that they see Mosul as being useful to them only if it remains a functioning city with a supportive population, which may be the result of lessons learned from their widespread defeat during the Sunni tribal ‘awakening’ of 2007 when Sunni tribal militias with American support all but ejected them from Anbar province.