Victory at a price
Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi declared the city of Mosul liberated last month. But that doesn't mean life has returned to normal for its residents — or for the men who fought to reclaim it from ISIL
On a hot summer night in west Mosul, Colonel Muntathar Al Shammari sits on a sofa near the air conditioning unit and watches ISIL propaganda clips on his tablet.
"Qannas," he mutters, 'sniper', as he streams video of extremist sharpshooters in action in the deadly battle for Mosul, which was declared won earlier that day, July 10, by Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi after almost nine months of fighting.
One clip shows an ISIL sniper gunning down a soldier of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, the elite counterterrorism force to which Col Al Shammari belongs.
The officer, who commands the Mosul Battalion of ISOF's Second Brigade, lays down the tablet and reaches for a cigarette. A tall, portly man sporting the sort of moustache that has become fashionable among Iraqi soldiers over the course of the battle, he sits relaxed in denim shorts reaching below his knees, and a black T-shirt with a print of Austrian pistol manufacturer Glock.
The spacious family home in the Mosul Al Jadida neighbourhood has been Col Al Shammari's base since his battalion helped liberate the area. The unit's final task was to spearhead the attack into the Old City, Mosul's historic core. It swiftly achieved its objectives and has now halted its advance — the reason why the colonel is kicking back.
His quiet evening is interrupted by a group of men in the distinctive black uniforms of the special forces, who have entered the house through the adjacent kitchen. They step into the living room one by one, politely shaking the hands of everyone sitting on the sofa that curves around one side of the room in a horseshoe shape. The platoon has come straight from the devastated Old City, where their position abuts the final pocket of ISIL resistance.
The soldiers have come to honour their commander. They throng around the 37-year-old colonel to present him with an ancient bolt action rifle they found somewhere in the rubble, then wrap an Iraqi flag around his neck before launching into an Iraqi victory chant. When the chanting recedes, Col Al Shammari addresses his troops.
"You are the ones who should be celebrated. You are the ones who have been fighting this battle," he praises them.
Col Al Shammari is referring to a self-congratulatory victory speech made earlier in the day by Mr Al Abadi, who travelled to Mosul for the occasion. The colonel has little time for the politicians basking in the glory of the military's achievement. But he cares deeply for his men, who adore him.
"The ones who are celebrating, like the prime minister, they lead normal lives. But we have fought for a long time, and we lost a lot of men. We might celebrate the victory, but in our hearts we are sad," he says once the platoon has left.
Since the assault on ISIL-held Mosul began on October 17, ISOF has been in the thick of it. The elite troops flushed the militants out of east Mosul almost single-handedly, and then plunged into the grinding battle to liberate the west bank of the Tigris river, which bisects the city.
The price of success has been high. A US government report released in May — two months before the end of the fighting — put the casualty rate of the special forces in Mosul at 40 per cent. The army, federal police and the Emergency Response Division, another elite group, also took heavy casualties.
A reminder of the civilian suffering in Mosul walks through the door a little later. Propped up by Col Al Shammari's assistant, an old man in a dirty white thobe is hunched over a crutch as he slowly makes his way across the room.
The frail old man is from Al Zinjili, a neighbourhood in west Mosul that was liberated by Col Al Shammari's battalion after bitter fighting.
The battle for west Mosul, which commenced in February, was more bloody and destructive than the contest for the east bank. To overcome stiff resistance with depleted forces, the Iraqis increasingly called on air support and artillery fire by the US-led coalition. While in east Mosul life pulsates through the streets today as though the war was a distant memory, western neighbourhoods like Al Zinjili are heavily battered and emptied of most inhabitants.
After greeting Col Al Shammari, the old man begins his lament: one of his four daughters was seriously injured by an explosive booby trap while running towards Iraqi lines and is now in a hospital in nearby Erbil. His house is destroyed, and the family displaced.
"You rescued us from hell, but now we are in financial difficulties," says the man.
Col Al Shammari knows the story. He helped the daughter get to hospital, and the old man has previously been around to beg for food. The officer says a few words to his assistant, who leaves the room and returns with 500,000 Iraqi dinar (Dh1,571). Col Al Shammari hands the bundle of cash to the man, who receives it gratefully and shuffles off.
The colonel's close ties to Mosul help explain his generosity. His battalion was stationed in the city when ISIL attacked in 2014 and the unit had to beat a fighting retreat as the army and the police force collapsed. Before ISIL, the commander spent several years in the city rooting out terror cells, the counterterrorism work that ISOF specialises in.
Because of his intimate knowledge of the city, Col Al Shammari is more aware than most of the need to help its inhabitants rebuild their homes and livelihoods.
The costs are gigantic. The United Nations estimates it will take US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) to repair the basic infrastructure of Mosul: roads, electricity supply, water pipes, schools. More will be needed again to replace the family homes and businesses that are now piles of rubble. Experts doubt the government will stump up the cash required to revive the city.
"The cost of rebuilding Mosul is beyond the budgetary capacity of the state, nor could Iraq effectively project-manage such a huge venture without huge waste and corruption. This suggests a slow, partial rebuild with a major international role," says Michael Knights, a Lafer fellow of The Washington Institute, a US-based think tank.
Around 900,000 people — half of the city's pre-war population — have been displaced by the battle, says the UN. They live in decrepit camps that have sprang up in the dusty plains around Mosul, or have moved in with relatives. Many have no homes left to return to.
While shops, mechanics, and restaurants are reopening even in the city's desolate western sector, money remains scarce. In the bombed-out Al Shifa neighbourhood, 12-year-old Hossam and his five-year-old brother Bassem dive in and out of the craters and collapsed buildings that make up the urban terrain on the western shore of the Tigris. Under a scorching sun, the boys pull at any wiring, engine parts and other scraps of metal they can detach from ruins and vehicle carcasses and heave them on to a donkey cart.
Hossam, Bassem and other young boys scavenging for metal in the brutal summer heat sell their finds for a few dollars to provide for their families.
"We start early in the morning, and sometimes we work until it gets dark," says Hossam. "Sometimes we make 10,000 dinar, sometimes 5,000, sometimes just a thousand."
Like many Moslawis (as Mosul natives are called), the boys' father was a civil servant when ISIL stormed the city. When the government stopped sending money to Mosul, he lost his salary. The family was struggling to make ends meet even before Iraqi forces cut off Mosul from the outside world, driving up food prices, and their house was destroyed in the fighting. They are still waiting for Baghdad to reinstate his father’s salary, says Hossam.
Some reconstruction is under way in the city. Work has begun on repairing water pipes that lie smashed at the bottom of bomb craters torn into roads leading through west Mosul. The bustling markets and bright lights of new shops lining busy streets in east Mosul show that private enterprise has thrived in the aftermath of the battle, cushioning the government's tardy response.
But the destruction on the west bank is much heavier. Over 800,000 civilians were trapped on the west bank; the destruction of all the bridges that could allow for an escape meant that they remained stuck.
The old city was both heavily congested and witnessed bloody street battles. As ISIL fighters hid in underground tunnels thousands of meters long, and the international coalition escalated air strikes from the air, destruction levels reached new heights. West Mosul had suffered from armed gangs and Al Qaeda affiliates for close to a decade, that side of the river.
Neglect of Iraq's Sunnis under former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki fostered the rise of ISIL, both in providing a security vacuum and leaving some disenfranchised young men to be lured by militants.
Further neglect could pave the way to a resurgence of the terror group, whose dense network of cells challenged government control even before the collapse of security forces in the face of the militants' advance in 2014.
Experts believe there is time for the government to prevent the city from slipping from its control again.
"It will be very hard for ISIL to immediately restart at 2014 level due to the antipathy of the population towards them and due to the killing of so many of their personnel and the unmasking of many of their support elements in Mosul," says Michael Knights.
The military has been criticised for the torture and extrajudicial executions of ISIL suspects in Mosul. But the security forces now are less likely to mistreat Mosul's inhabitants to the same extent as pre-2014, when Mr Maliki's discriminatory, anti-Sunni politics led to widespread abuses in the city and fanned the flames of sectarian hatred.
"The security commanders on the ground now are a different group from Maliki's crew, and contain a much higher proportion of Ninawa natives," says Nate Rabkin, managing editor of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter, referring to Nineveh, the governorate in which Mosul lies.
A key challenge for police, army, intelligence services and special forces is to work together to root out terrorists in Mosul before they grow in strength.
"The post-Saddam Iraqi government has never been very good at intelligence. If they can improve, they can prevent a new insurgency from re-emerging. If not, it would seem almost inevitable," says Mr Rabkin.
Once it has helped eliminate the remaining ISIL strongholds in Iraq, Col Al Shammari's battalion will resume its pre-war work of hunting down terrorists in Mosul. The colonel insists he can still call on a network of informants in the city and is well equipped to prevent Mosul from falling to the extremists again. But the officer has been fighting ISIL and its extremist predecessors for too long to be complacent.
"It is like a disease: there is a chance this will happen again," he says.
Words - Florian Neuhof
Images - Florian Neuhof, AFP
Graphics - Ramon Penas
Video - Florian Neuhof, Reuters
Video Editing - Andy Scott
Editing - Laura Mackenzie
Copyright The National, 2017