David Sheppard — Reuters June 25, 2014
Two weeks after Sunni insurgents overran northern Iraq’s biggest city Mosul, shrines lie smashed, non-Sunnis have fled and armed men have warned women not to walk in the streets unescorted.
Residents who welcomed the expulsion of the Shi’ite-led government’s soldiers and police from the mostly Sunni city are now asking what life will bring under the al Qaeda offshoot calling the shots, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Ahmed Khalil, an engineering student in Mosul, said the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had felt like an occupying force, and he was glad to see it go. But the rise of ISIL has put him on guard.
“The first impression was like the prison gates were broken, and we started to taste freedom,” Khalil said.
“But after the spread of too many armed groups, including al Qaeda, I’ve gotten cautious about what’s next.”
His concerns were repeated in over a dozen interviews with Mosul residents, although most said ISIL had acted with more restraint than in Syria. Men still smoke in the streets, women drive cars, and no one can confirm any beheadings or floggings.
Yet there has been plenty to presage a different future. After Mosul’s fall, ISIL issued a “city charter” outlining its vision: Tobacco, drugs and alcohol would be banned, “pagan shrines” destroyed, and women were to dress modestly and stay home.
Last week militants got to work, smashing statues of musicians and poets and desecrating the tomb of a 12th century philosopher.
And ISIL has previously shown no compunction about using violence. In parts of Syria, where the group controls swathes of territory, it has imposed a rigid vision of Islam by force, carrying out beheadings and lopping off hands.
In a massive show of strength late on Monday, thousands of their fighters paraded through central Mosul, brandishing assault rifles, anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
“The Islamic State is here to stay,” men chanted as families gathered to watch and fighters posed for pictures with children.
“We’re here to reassure the people of Mosul that we are here, and that we are here in force,” said one fighter who said he was Syrian and that he was about 17 years old. “From here we will go to Baghdad, and from there to Damascus.”
FRICTION AND COMPROMISE
ISIL’s rule has already started to disrupt commercial life in Mosul – if only in subtle, specific ways.
A cigarette vendor who asked not to be named said four men approached him recently and, although they spoke politely, their message was firm: Finish your stocks and stop selling tobacco.
“I’m really feeling down because I don’t know what I’ll do for work after that,” he said.
A shopkeeper who sells women’s underwear also said he had been asked to stop his trade and leave it to women. At a clothing shop, the owner said he had put headscarves on all the mannequins after men warned him not to leave them uncovered.
Many are worried by the precedent of Raqqa in Syria, the first and only major city to fall to rebels during that country’s three-year-old uprising.
Within a year, ISIL pushed out rival insurgents and the city soon became a byword for its uncompromising rule, so loathed by some residents that it led even some staunch opponents of President Bashar al-Assad to say they regretted the revolt.
Ahmed al-Saffar, a 22-year-old computer shop owner, said he thought some of ISIL’s moves in Mosul so far were positive – like banning tobacco and stopping the display of women’s underwear in shop windows – but he was pained by the destruction of shrines and the Syrian example worried him.
“Definitely, we’re afraid. The future is dark and unknown,” he said.
As in Syria, there has already been friction between ISIL and other constituents of its coalition of Sunni militias – in Hawija, near Kirkuk, 170 km north of Baghdad, ISIL has clashed with the Naqshbandi Army, a group that includes former army officers and loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
“PEOPLE ARE WAITING FOR PASSPORTS”
ISIL has cast itself as liberator during a two-week campaign that has shocked Iraqi and Western officials by swooping up cities and threatening the collapse of the country.
Supporters have posted videos and photos online of crowds welcoming insurgents and life in Mosul continuing normally after the city’s fall.
But while the group enjoys support from some Sunnis who sympathise with its aim to restore an Islamic Caliphate or who simply despise the Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, it has evoked mostly fear in minorities.
Nearly all of Mosul’s Christians have fled, as have smaller groups like the Shabak Shi’ite Muslims and members of the syncretic Yazidi sect. Others are leaving as they fear Baghdad will bombard the city in a bid to win it back.
Father Bools Mate Afrem, head of the Orthodox Church in Bashiqa, a town about 10 km (6 miles) east of Mosul, said 10 Christian families arrived in his town from Mosul after it fell on June 10. Now there are 44.
“For me, personally, I am not afraid,” he said. “But of course the people of this town are scared of ISIL.”
Ghasan Salem Ilias, a 40-year-old Yazidi who runs a non-profit arranging shelter for people of all sects fleeing to the town, said the future would be “disastrous” for Christians under ISIL, even if media reports had exaggerated their behaviour.
“Many people are waiting for passports so they can leave Iraq,” he said.
ISIL has made little effort to reassure these groups. Its openly sectarian fighters often describe their hatred of Shi’ites in terms that recall long-extinct Persian empires and Muslim conquests from the era of the Prophet Mohammad.
Abbas Fadel Hamid, a 41-year-old Sunni, said ISIL had stopped him and his family at a roadblock on Monday morning and told them they must leave their mixed hometown of Shemsiyat near Mosul because his wife is Shi’ite.
“Initially when ISIL came it was like there was an amnesty, but now they have made all the Shi’ites leave,” he said. Thirteen children sat in the back of his flat-bed truck, which was piled high with mattresses, gas canisters, and a wheelchair.
“More than 200 families, gone. That is half of Shemsiyat.”
(Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Ahmed Raheem and Isra’ al Rubei’i in Baghdad, David Sheppard in Bashiqa and a reporter in Mosul whose name has been withheld for security reasons; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; editing by Anna Willard)