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True civilian death toll feared at 40,000
More than one million people have been displaced, it has been claimed. Credit: Reuters/The Independent
More than one million people have been displaced, it has been claimed. Credit: Reuters/The Independent

More than 40,000 civilians were killed in the devastating battle to retake Mosul from Isis, according to intelligence reports revealed exclusively to The Independent – a death toll far higher than previous estimates.

Residents of the besieged city were killed by Iraqi ground forces attempting to force out militants, as well as by air strikes and Isis fighters, according to Kurdish intelligence services.

Hoshyar Zebari, until recently a senior minister in Baghdad, told The Independent that many bodies “are still buried under the rubble”. “The level of human suffering is immense,” he said.

“Kurdish intelligence believes that over 40,000 civilians have been killed as a result of massive firepower used against them, especially by the federal police, air strikes and Isis itself,” Mr Zebari added.

Mr Zebari, a native of Mosul and top Kurdish official who has served as the Iraqi finance minister and prior to that foreign minister, emphasised in an exclusive interview that the unrelenting artillery bombardment by units of the Iraqi federal police, in practice a heavily armed military unit, had caused immense destruction and loss of life in west Mosul.

The figure given by Mr Zebari for the number of civilians killed in the nine-month siege is far higher than those previously reported, but the intelligence service of the Kurdistan Regional Government has a reputation for being extremely accurate and well-informed. Isis prevented any monitoring of casualties while outside groups have largely focused on air strikes rather than artillery and rocket fire as a cause of civilian deaths. Airwars, one such monitoring group, estimated that attacks may have killed 5,805 non-military personnel in the city between 19 February and 19 June.

Mr Zebari accuses the government in Baghdad, of which he was until recently a member, of not doing enough to relieve the suffering. “Sometimes you might think the government is indifferent to what has happened,” he said. He doubts if Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and other minorities, who have lived in and around Mosul for centuries, will be able to reconcile with the Sunni Arab majority whom they blame for killing and raping them. He says some form of federal solution for future governance would be best.

Reading from Kurdish intelligence reports, Mr Zebari says that a high level of corruption among the Iraqi military forces occupying Mosul is undermining security measures to suppress Isis in the aftermath of its defeat. He says that suspect individuals are able to pass through military checkpoints by paying $1,000 (£770) and can bring a vehicle by paying $1,500. He says corruption of this type is particularly rife in the 16th and 9th Iraqi army divisions and the Tribal Volunteers (Hashd al-Ashairi), drawn in part from the Shabak minority in the Nineveh Plain.

The ability of Isis militants to remain free or be released from detention by paying bribes has led to a change in attitude among people in Mosul whom Mr Zebari says “were previously willing to give information about Isis members to the Iraqi security forces”. They are now wary of doing so, because they see members of Isis, whom they had identified and who had been arrested, returning to the streets capable of exacting revenge on those who informed against them. Several anti-Isis people in Mosul have confirmed to The Independent that this is indeed the case and they are frightened of these returnees and Isis “sleeper cells” that continue to exist.

Civilians in Mosul say they do not fault the behaviour towards them of combat units that have borne the brunt of the fighting, such as the Counter-Terrorism Service, but they are concerned about what to expect from less well-disciplined troops. A belief that Isis fighters and officials detained in Mosul are later able to bribe their way free explains why soldiers, most of whom are not complicit in bribery networks, have summarily executed Isis prisoners, sometimes by throwing them off high buildings.

Corruption by the occupying military forces takes different forms, according to Kurdish intelligence information cited by Mr Zebari. Some people are “being charged $100 for removing a body from the rubble and others $500 to reoccupy their house”, where it is still standing. Iraqi army and militia units have always been notorious for exacting fees and protection money from civilians, with trucks moving goods on the roads being a particularly profitable target when they pass through military checkpoints.

Much of the blame for the calamitous level of destruction in west Mosul has been put on air strikes, but it is evident at ground level that a lot of the damage was caused by artillery shells and rockets. This is confirmed by an Amnesty International report issued last week titled At Any Cost: The Civilian Catastrophe in West Mosul, Iraq, which points to a greater and more indiscriminate use of its firepower by pro-government forces in the final stages of the attack on east Mosul, starting in January 2017 and continuing over the following six months during the assault on west Mosul. It says that Iraqi government and US-led coalition forces “relied heavily upon explosive weapons with wide area effects such as IRAMs (Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions). With their crude targeting abilities, these weapons wreaked havoc in densely populated west Mosul, where large groups of civilians were trapped in homes or makeshift shelters”. The UN estimated that Mosul had 1.2 million inhabitants at the start of the siege.

In addition, Isis snipers killed great numbers of civilians trying to escape. The militant group was using civilians as “human shields”, though in the event their presence shielded very little. Mr Zebari said that intelligence had even intercepted messages “from Isis fighters to their commanders saying they were tired of killing civilians”.

Mr Zebari says that he is disappointed by the lack of Iraqi government plans to reconstruct Mosul. As finance minister in Baghdad until late last year, he had made provision for $500m in the budget for rebuilding Mosul. He says: “I wanted $500m upfront to encourage other donors, but now the government has withdrawn from the fund and used the money elsewhere. This was not an encouraging sign.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Kurds 

Iraqi security forces kill Isis prisoners because they believe that if the militants are sent to prison camps they will bribe the authorities in Baghdad to release them. “That is why Iraqi soldiers prefer to shoot them or throw them off high buildings,” says one Iraqi source. A former senior Iraqi official said he could name the exact sum that it would take for an Isis member to buy papers enabling him to move freely around Iraq.

The belief by Iraqi soldiers and militiamen that their own government is too corrupt to keep captured Isis fighters in detention is one reason why the bodies of Isis suspects, shot in the head or body and with their hands tied behind their backs, are found floating in the Tigris river downstream from Mosul. Revenge and hatred provoked by Isis atrocities are motives for extrajudicial killings by death squads, but so is distrust of an Iraqi judicial system, which is notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional.

Paranoia at the end of a very violent war partially explains why so many Iraqis are convinced that dangerous Isis members can always bribe their way to freedom. Dozens of posts on social media from Baghdad allege that suicide bombers who blow themselves up killing many civilians had previously been detained by the security forces and released in return for money. “We die in Baghdad because of corruption,” reads one post, frequently shared with others. One tweet says: “Daesh [Isis] pays the government and kills us in Baghdad.”

Fears may be exaggerated, but are not entirely without substance. Isis may have suffered heavy losses in Mosul, but can still operate. A senior Kurdish official said that “recently, during the funeral of a leader of the Shammar tribe in Rabia, no less than 17 Isis suicide bombers were discovered. This shows they can still plan and carry out operations even if they are weaker.”

Anti-Isis residents in Mosul are now making the same allegation. “I know two men in my neighbourhood notorious for being members of Daesh who have just been released by the government,” complains Saleem Mohammed, a resident of the Nabi Yunus district in east Mosul. “One of them used to go on Daesh patrols in the markets here to look for people who were smoking cigarettes.” He added that people were frightened that the suspected collaborators, who had been freed, were members of Isis “sleeper cells” or had now been recruited as Iraqi government spies.

Saleem says that an important cause of distrust between those who had always opposed Isis and those who had joined it or collaborated with it is that the latter had often developed prosperous businesses during the three years that Isis was in power. He said that “many of these collaborators have shops in the markets and people buy from them, though they may shun the owners”. He knew one man who had been poor before Isis arrived, but made money working as a security man at Isis checkpoints where large bribes were often paid for free passage. The man had been arrested, was released and has now moved with his family to Turkey.

Isis commanders and militants often came from impoverished Sunni villages on the outskirts of Mosul that look like a collection of huts. While they controlled Mosul there was hostility between them and the traditional inhabitants of the city. “What is provoking particular anger in Mosul is that well-off Daesh families are being released and coming back to live in well-furnished apartments, while poor people are still living in the camps,” says Saleem.

The situation in east Mosul is far better than in the west of the city because it was always wealthier, saw less destruction from air strikes and artillery, and has been free from Isis control for six months. Though the Iraqi government claims to have won a complete victory over Isis in the Old City in west Mosul, there is still the occasional sound of gunfire and air strikes. There is an exodus of people across the Tigris river from neighbourhoods in the west that are damaged but not totally destroyed to east Mosul where there is electricity and water. A shortage of accommodation for those moving within the city has led to a tripling of rents.

A crucial boost to the economy of Mosul is that the government is paying back salaries for public employees that were not paid under Isis rule. Education, health and municipal workers are getting their salaries leading to much more activity in the local markets. People have started buying cars and property again and there are long queues of trucks bringing goods from Irbil and Kurdish controlled areas into the city.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 

Northern Iraq is one of the most fought over places on earth. Ancient and modern fortifications are everywhere. Just outside Erbil is the site of the battle of Gaugamela where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian army in 331 BC. Saddam Hussein’s soldiers fought the Kurds here for decades. But the nine-month long struggle for Mosul between Iraqi government forces and Isis, which just ended, is probably the most important and decisive battle ever fought in this region.

It is ending with a victory of historic proportions for the Iraqi government which will go far to shape the political future of not just Iraq, but the region as a whole. Isis, which for three years had an army, administration and territory making it more powerful than many members of the UN, has been defeated. It will revert to guerrilla warfare, but it will no longer be in control of a state machine through which it exercised its monstrous rule.

The decisive nature of what has just happened needs to be emphasised, because the likelihood of continuing violence in Iraq may give the mistaken impression that nothing much has radically changed. Iraq also has a long tradition of over-confident rulers declaring victory, such as President George W Bush in 2003, only to see their supposed gains evaporating within a few months or years.

There will be more fighting and Isis still holds enclaves in Iraq at Tal Afar, west of Mosul, and Hawaija near Kirkuk, but these are isolated and will be overrun; in Syria, Isis fighters are holding out in the city of Raqqa and towns further south along the Euphrates. Overall, Isis in future will hide in the deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria, capable of raids and terrorist attacks, but nothing like the threat it posed to whole populations in 2014 -17.

The Iraqi government is not quite getting the credit it deserves internationally for defeating Isis. Some of the scepticism is not its fault, but reflects worldwide disbelief in claims of military success in the wider Middle East after seeing these disproved in Afghanistan after 2001, Iraq after 2003 and Libya after 2011.

But the Iraqi government is often its own worst enemy here. Other governments have slick PR operations pumping out information and disinformation favourable to themselves. Iraq, for its part, has a sort of anti-propaganda machine geared to denying the undeniable and grossly exaggerating or prematurely announcing very real successes with a consequent lack of credibility at home and abroad.

Over the last week, the Baghdad government and media kept on announcing with embarrassing frequency the final elimination of Isis in the Old City of Mosul. There is no doubt about who had won the battle,but Iraqi Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi ended up making his triumphal visit while the boom of bombs exploding and the rattle of gunfire could still be heard in the background. Official over-optimism was fuelled by different military units – Counter-Terrorism Service, Emergency Response Division and Federal Police – competing to be the first to announce that victory was theirs.

Who are the real winners and losers coming in this battle? The Iraqi government is the biggest winner and Isis the biggest loser. The people of Mosul got rid of Isis, but at terrible cost to themselves. Great stretches of west Mosul lie in ruins, some areas so badly hit that it is impossible to even visit them because the streets are choked with debris. I was in al-Jadida district where local people all complained that there had never been many Isis fighters, but, whenever a sniper fired a shot from a large building, the troops on the ground would call in airstrikes to demolish it.

One aspect of the war does not come across in much of the media reporting. It is clear, looking at wrecked streets towards the centre of the city, that much of the damage has been caused not by airstrikes, but by artillery and rocket fire that have knocked chunks out of buildings in a haphazard way. One can see the artillery of the Federal Police, a paramilitary force, near the airport road to the south of Mosul. Much of the bombardment of west Mosul, as opposed to the east, was in the shape of shells and rockets fired in the general direction of the enemy rather than at specific targets.

Nobody knows how many people were killed, but, talking to survivors, the number must be very large. One unconfirmed report says that civil defence workers have already pulled 2,000 bodies from the rubble. The Airwars monitoring group says that 5,805 civilians may have died in west Mosul between 19 February and 19 June. The authorities may not be trying to very hard to find out the true figure: one observer caustically noted that hundreds of planes, drones and artillery pieces were mobilised to bombard Mosul, but, on one day last week, only a single bulldozer could be found to aid the search for bodies buried under the ruins of the Old City.

The horrific civilian loss of life is explained in part by the merciless determination of Isis to prevent civilians from escaping and depriving them of human shields. Isis snipers shot people who tried to flee and Isis officials welded shut the metal doors of houses with people packed inside. It is difficult to think of any other example of a siege in which civilians have been herded together like this to deter air or artillery attack.

There is a compelling and meticulous account by Amnesty International of the bombardment called At Any Cost: The Civilian Catastrophe in West Mosul. Out of thousands of attacks in west Mosul, it investigates and documented 45 attacks that “it had reasonable grounds to attribute to Iraqi government or US-led coalition forces. These 45 attacks alone killed at least 426 civilians and injured more than 100.” The report should be read by everybody interested in why so many died in west Mosul.

“Pro-government forces relied heavily upon explosive weapons with wide area effects such as IRAMs (Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions),” it says. “With their crude targeting abilities, these weapons wreaked havoc in densely populated west Mosul, where large groups of civilians were trapped in homes or makeshift shelters.” This is important because the government officials and the western media sometimes contrast the indiscriminate Russian and Syrian government bombardment of East Aleppo with the accurate and discriminating Coalition backed assault on west Mosul.

The crass response of the leaders of the US-led coalition who orchestrated the attack on west Mosul is telling and shows that we are back in the Vietnam era when American officers were happy to volunteer that they were destroying populated areas in order to save them.

In the face of all the evidence, General Stephen Townsend, the senior U.S. general in Iraq, said: “I reject any notion that coalition fires were in any way imprecise, unlawful or excessively targeted civilians.” Reading this, I was reminded of the old Israeli military saying about one general: “He was so stupid that even the other generals noticed.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 

“The people of Mosul will receive their salaries, while the people of Basra will receive the bodies of their martyrs,” runs a bitter comment on Iraqi social media. Many Iraqis see the inhabitants of Mosul as willing collaborators with Isis during its three years in power in the city. In particular, there are calls for the punishment of “Daesh [Isis] families” whose male members had become Isis fighters or officials.

The desire for revenge runs deep among the victims of Isis in the wake of the fall of Mosul, which is scarcely surprising given the cruelty and violence of Isis rule. “I can always tell members of Daesh families when they ask for medical treatment,” said a volunteer medical worker in west Mosul. “They have plump faces and look well-fed, while everybody else in Mosul is thin and malnourished.”

Grounds for suspicion that a person was associated with Isis may be flimsy, but they are deeply held. “When women and children appear without any male relatives with them, it is assumed that the men were with Isis and have been killed, arrested or have fled,” says Belkis Wille, the senior researcher in Iraq for Human Rights Watch. “They may say that the men were killed in the bombing, but nobody knows what the truth is.” Young men from Mosul and Nineveh province, of which it is the capital, find it difficult to persuade the victorious Iraqi security forces that they spent years under Isis without doing some form of military service.

Revenge killings of suspected Isis activists and collaborators are still limited in number away from the battlefield, where few prisoners are taken. There have been some abductions and killings in the Sunni Arab villages south of Mosul, but no mass killings along the lines frequently carried out by Isis in Iraq and Syria. As many as 1,700 air force cadets, singled out because they were Shia, were massacred by Isis in June 2014, leading to the execution of 36 convicted perpetrators by the Iraqi government last year.

Yazidis who once lived to the west of Mosul, and Christians, are convinced that their Sunni Arab neighbours, with whom they had previously lived peacefully, were complicit with Isis in murdering, raping and stealing. They say they cannot return to their villages and towns if Isis collaborators are allowed to live there. In addition, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government and the Kurdish authorities have an interest in rounding off or expanding the territory occupied by their communities at the expense of the Sunni Arabs whose fortunes, willingly or unwillingly, have become linked to Isis and the foundering Caliphate.

Communal punishment in the shape of the forced expulsion of “Daesh families”, which may mean sanctions against whole villages, is taking place in different parts of northern and central Iraq. Ms Wille says that at the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps in Khazar and Hassan Shami in Kurdish controlled territory east of Mosul, Sunni Arabs in the camps can “see their former villages, but are not being allowed to return there. On the other hand, they are being told that they are free to take the bus to east Mosul any time they want to go.”

She adds that Sunni Arab tribal authorities are often taking the lead in expelling Isis families from their villages and sending them to IDP camps because they want revenge, saying they cannot protect them, or see them as tainted. She believes that a further motive is that “the Sunni community wants to show Baghdad and the world that they are not all Isis.”

Sectarian and ethnic cleansing by state authorities or militia groups in Iraq may have long term political objectives, but they also fulfil popular wishes. For instance, in the aftermath of the recapture of Mosul earlier this week, two hashtags in Arabic went viral on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The first one was a variant of either “Mosul is ours” or “Mosul is ours and we took it”. The second hashtag read “People of Mosul Deserve”, accompanied by photos of the destruction in Mosul. There are hundreds of social media accounts evidently from Iraqi Shias, accusing the people of Mosul of supporting Isis. One post has two photographs, one showing people celebrating in the streets as Isis seizes Mosul in 2014 and similar scenes of celebration when the Iraqi armed forces retook it this month. The writer comments: “This is ridiculous.”

Since the US invasion of 2003 Iraq has witnessed politically significant demographic change. The Shia-Sunni sectarian war in and around Baghdad in 2006-7 saw the Sunni compressed into smaller enclaves and mixed areas become wholly Shia. Since the counter-offensive against Isis began in 2014, Sunni Arabs have been forced to leave villages and towns in strategic areas south of Baghdad and in northern Hilla province. They are unlikely to be allowed to return because they could attack the roads between the capital and the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala.

The Sunni Arab community of Iraq, some six million strong, has suffered badly with all its main cities in addition to Mosul being heavily damaged by war. These include Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji and Tikrit, many of whose inhabitants have been forced to flee at different times along unsafe roads through checkpoints manned by hostile Shia militiamen. There are still some 500,000 Sunni Arab IDPs in Kirkuk province, who are being allowed to return to wholly Sunni centres but not to those where Shia also live.

In both Iraqi and Kurdish controlled areas there are camps that are little better than “open prisons” says Ms Wille, where IDPs cannot come and go from the camp freely, receive visitors or even own a mobile phone. Enforced demographic change may be one motive for this, but there is also genuine, though probably exaggerated, fear of Isis “sleeper cells” waiting to strike. An Isis raid on Kirkuk in 2016 led to the destruction of villages from which the raiders were believed to have come.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Shias and Sunnis 

“There were very few Daesh [Isis fighters] in our neighbourhood, but they dropped a lot of bombs on them,” says Qais, 47, a resident of the al-Jadida district of Mosul. “We reckon that the airstrikes here killed between 600 and 1,000 people.”

He shows pictures on his phone of a house that had stood beside his own before it was hit by a bomb or missile that had reduced it to a heap of smashed-up bricks. “There were no Daesh in the house,” says Qais. But there were seven members of the Abu Imad family living there, of whom five were killed along with two passers-by.

People in west Mosul say that the intensity of the bombardment from the air was out of all proportion to the number of Isis fighters on the ground. Saad Amr, a volunteer medic, worked in both east and west Mosul during the nine-month siege. He says that “the airstrikes on east Mosul were fewer but more accurate, while on the west there were far more of them, but they were haphazard.”

Nobody knows how many civilians died in Mosul because many of the bodies are still buried under the rubble in 47 degrees heat. Asked to estimate how many people had been killed in his home district of al-Thawra, Saad Amr said: “we don’t know because houses were often full of an unknown number of displaced people from other parts of the city.”

Some districts are so badly damaged that it is impossible to reach them. We heard that there had been heavy airstrikes on the districts of Zanjily and Sahba and, from a distance, we could see broken roofs with floors hanging down like concrete flaps. But we could not get there in a car because the streets leading to them were choked with broke masonry and burned out cars.

Local people accuse the US-led coalition of massive overuse of force, though they agree that Isis forced people into houses in combat zones and murdered them if they tried to flee. The sighting of a single sniper on a roof, would lead to a whole building being destroyed along with the families inside them. A sign that Isis was not present in any numbers is that, while there are bombed out buildings in every street, there are surprisingly few bullet holes in the walls from automatic rifles or machine guns. In cities like Homs in Syria today or Beirut during the civil war, wherever there had been street fighting of any intensity, walls were always pock-marked with bullet holes.

The accusations of Mosul residents interviewed by The Independent are backed-up by an Amnesty International report called At Any Price: The Civilian Catastrophe in West Mosul. It says that civilians were subjected “to a terrifying barrage of fire from weapons that should never be used in densely populated civilian areas.” AI researchers interviewed 151 west Mosul residents, experts and analysts, and documented 45 attacks in total, which killed at least 426 civilians and injured more than 100. This was only a sample of thousands of air attacks on the city, some of which are still going on. Throughout the day in Mosul there has been the periodic thump of more bombs landing in the corner of the Old City still held by Isis.

Even where bombs hit their targets, they were often more likely to kill civilians than Isis fighters. For example, AI says that “on 17 March 2017 a US airstrike on the Mosul al-Jadida neighbourhood killed at least 105 civilians in order to neutralise two Isis snipers. Regardless of whether – as the US Department of Defense has maintained — secondary explosions occurred, it should have been clear to those responsible that the risk posed to civilians by using a 500lb bomb was clearly excessive in relation to anticipated military advantage.” This is the only such incident Mosul to be investigated by the US military, although the US say they always take precautions to reduce civilian casualties.

The Isis defended Mosul for nine months instead of the two months expected by the US military by adopting special tactics. Isis commanders relied heavily on snipers who would move swiftly from house to house. The three Iraqi government elite combat units, the Counter-Terrorism Service, Emergency Response Division and the Federal Police, that bore the brunt of the battle, had too few troops to fight house to house. When faced with resistance, they invariable called in air attacks.

The consequence of this was explained to AIby Mohamed from al-Tenak neighbourhood in west Mosul: “The strikes targeted the Isis snipers. A strike would destroy an entire house of two storeys.”

Civilian loss of life was so horrific in west Mosul because Isis was merciless in using civilians as human shields. Thousands were herded from their villages in the outskirts into the combat zones and shot or hanged if they tried to escape. Metal doors were welded shut and other exits booby trapped. Those who were caught escaping were hanged from electricity pylons. As Iraqi government forces advanced and Isis retreated, the civilians were squeezed into a smaller area where a single bomb would kill the large numbers of people crammed together.

Isis will be even further weakened after the loss of Mosul if fresh reports turn out to be true that its leader Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi was killed earlier in the year. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that it has “confirmed information” that he is dead as the Russia’s Defence Ministry had claimed in June. It said that it might have killed him when one of its airstrikes hit a gathering of Isis commanders on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa.

“We have confirmed information from leaders, including one of the first rank who is Syrian, in the Islamic State in the eastern countryside of Deir al-Zor,” said Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the British-based group. The source did not say when or how Baghdadi had died.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 

Iraq’s Prime Minister formally declared victory over Isis in the northern city of Mosul, saying their defeat marks the “collapse” of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

“I announce from here the end and the failure and the collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terrorism which the terrorist Daesh announced from Mosul,” Haider al-abadi said in a speech shown on state television, using an Arabic acronym for Isis.

His Iraqi government is greatly strengthened by its defeat of Isis which three years ago launched the Caliphate in the wake of its unexpected capture of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Iraqi security services could not have succeeded militarily without being able call in air strikes at will to destroy any Isis defensive positions. This has led to very heavy civilian casualties and immense destruction.

Mr Abadi has hitherto refused to work on a political plan for Mosul after the defeat of Isis, probably calculating that his leverage would be much greater after victory than before and that of the Kurds will be much less.

For several years after the US invasion of 2003, the Kurds were central players in controlling Mosul where there was a substantial Kurdish minority. They also took advantage of the Isis advance in June 2014 and the collapse of Baghdad government forces to seize territories long disputed between them and the Arabs.

The offensive to recapture Mosul could only be launched in October last year after there was an agreement on what would happen between the Iraqi and Kurdish leaders, orchestrated by the US.

This probably caught Isis by surprise because relations between Baghdad and Erbil had been very cool. The US was then expecting the battle to take the city would last two months rather than the nine months it has in fact taken.

The Iraqi government, which is essentially Shia, must now decide how it will cope with the largest Sunni Arab city in Iraq which it has always seen as an obstacle to its rule. The fall of Mosul is not just a defeat for Isis but for the Sunni Arabs, who were the dominant community in Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, although they were only a fifth of the population.

A large part of the officer corps of the Iraqi army came from Mosul and the Iraqi defence minister came from the city.

The US says that the reconstruction of essential facilities in Mosul will cost at least $1bn (£780m) and there is no provision for this in the Iraqi budget, which is already under strain because of low oil prices.

Much of the oil revenue is spent on paying salaries and pensions for seven million public employees and or paying for the war. Shia political leaders in Baghdad are unlikely to give priority to rebuilding a city they have always seen as being the heart of Sunni resistance.

Overall, the fall and devastation of Mosul is only the latest and most calamitous event for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. Their other main cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit and Baiji have all been badly damaged by war.

At least 900,000 people from Mosul city are in camps, but those from the Nineveh Plain east of the city find that they are not being allowed back to their home villages, many of which are being bulldozed. The battle for Mosul has opened the door to ethnic and sectarian cleansing and counter-cleansing, as the winners in the war seek to create a new political landscape.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 

Iraq is declaring victory over Isis in Mosul as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, wearing black military uniform, arrived in the city to congratulate his soldiers at the end of an epic nine-month-long battle.

Elite Iraqi government forces raised the country’s flag on the banks of the Tigris River this morning, though Isis snipers are still shooting from the last buildings they hold in the Old City.

The magnitude of the victory won by the Iraqi government and its armed forces, three years after they suffered a catastrophic defeat in Mosul, is not in doubt.

A few thousand lightly equipped Isis fighters astonished the world by routing in four days an Iraqi garrison of at least 20,000 men equipped with tanks and helicopters. The recapture of Mosul now is revenge for the earlier humiliation.

The devastation in the city is huge: the closer one gets to the fighting in the centre, the greater the signs of destruction from air strikes. Wherever Isis made a stand, Iraqi forces called in the US-led coalition to use its massive firepower to turn whole blocks into heaps of rubble and smashed masonry.

A volunteer medical worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said that on bad days “some 200 to 300 people with injuries had turned at my medical centre. I hear stories of many families dying, trapped in basements where they had been sheltering from the bombs.”

Isis gunmen have slaughtered civilians trying to escape from areas they held.

Jasim, 33, a driver living behind Isis lines in the Old City, died when an Isis sniper shot him in the back as he tried to cross the Tigris over a half-destroyed bridge.

Two months ago, he was in touch with The Independent by phone after he had been wounded in the leg by a coalition drone attack.

“After a while, I felt a severe pain on my leg, and after few moments I realised I was injured,” he said. “I partly walked and partly crawled to a small temporary clinic nearby, but they could not treat my leg properly.”

Abdulkareem, 43, a construction worker and resident of the al-Maydan district, where Isis is making its last stand, spoke to The Independent last week about the dangers facing him and his family.

“We can hear the roar of the bombing and the mortar fire,” he said. “But we don’t know whether it is the Iraqi army, the coalition air strikes or Daesh [Isis].”

A few days later, an air strike hit his house. Friends said he was badly injured.

Away from the present battle zone in Mosul, many districts are deserted and only passable because bulldozers have cut a path through the debris.

In a side street in the al-Thawra district, where some buildings were destroyed, a crowd of people, mostly women in black robes which covered their faces as well their bodies, were this weekend frantically trying to obtain food baskets donated by an Iraqi charity.

“These women are from Daesh families, so I don’t have much sympathy for them,” said Saad Amr, a volunteer worker from Mosul who had once been jailed by Isis for six months in 2014.

“I suffered every torture aside from rape,” he recalled, adding that men from Isis families had been taken to Baghdad for investigation, but evidence of their crimes is difficult to obtain so most would be freed. The prospect made him edgy.

Asked about popular attitudes in Mosul towards Isis, Saad, who works part-time for an Iraqi radio station, said that three years ago in June 2014, when Isis captured Mosul, “some 85 per cent of people supported them because the Iraqi government forces had mistreated us so badly. The figure later fell to 50 per cent because of Isis atrocities and is now about 15 per cent.”

Ahmed, Saad’s brother who lives in East Mosul, said later that he was nervous because so many former Isis militants were walking about the city after shaving off their beards.

In a medical facility in a converted shop in al-Thawra, a wounded Isis fighter who had been hit in the face by shrapnel from a mortar round, was lying in a bed attached to a drip feed.

“You cannot talk to him because he is still under investigation,” warned a uniformed guard. A further 30 Isis suspects were being held in a mosque nearby, though these are more likely to have been administrative staff rather than fighters.

Saad said that the behaviour of Iraqi combat troops, particularly the Counter-Terrorism Service, also known as the Golden Division, towards civilians was excellent and “the soldiers often give their rations to hungry people”. He was more dubious about how incoming Iraqi army troops and police would act towards local people.

The Iraqi government victory is very real, but it also has its limitations. The weakness of the Iraqi forces is that they depend on three elite units, notably the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), the Emergency Response Division and the Federal Police, backed up by the devastating air power of the US-led coalition.

The CTS combat units, perhaps less than 3,000 men, have been the cutting edge of the military offensive in Mosul and have suffered some 40 per cent casualties.

This shortage of effective military units may make it difficult for Baghdad to consolidate its victory. This became clear during our five-hour drive to Mosul from the Kurdish capital of Irbil 60 miles away to the east, as we tried to find a road where the innumerable checkpoints would let us get through.

Driving across the Nineveh Plan east of Mosul, a land of ruined and abandoned towns and villages, most of the checkpoints were manned by Hashd al-Shaabi, the Shia group much feared by the Sunni Arabs of Mosul.

We crossed the Tigris by a pontoon bridge near Hamam al-Alil. Here there are camps for some 100,000 displaced people from Mosul. A few days earlier some 160 Isis fighters had staged a surprise counter-attack in Qayara district, killing soldiers and police along with two Iraqi journalists.

Travelling north towards Mosul, the police posts would not at first permit us to pass, so we circled round the city to the west travelling on a winding track through rocky scrubland where there were a few impoverished hamlets in which the houses were little more than huts and from which their inhabitants had fled.

For half a dozen miles not far from Mosul, there were no Iraqi security forces and we became nervous that US planes or drones might mistake our two vehicles for an Isis suicide bombing mission and attack us. We turned back to the main road and finally persuaded a police post to let us to use the road running past Mosul airport and a row of bombed out factories.

Our journey showed that the Iraqi government may have the won the nine-month struggle for Mosul – the battle of Stalingrad was only five and a half months long – but the war is not quite over. Isis may be able to regroup as it did before in 2007-11. Out in the vast desolate deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria, its fighters can still hide and plan their revenge.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 

Iraqi soldiers have started celebrating their defeat of Isis in Mosul after a nine-month siege, even before the last resistance has been extinguished. An Iraqi commander called on a loudspeaker for surviving Isis fighters to surrender, but this was rejected by their commander.

“It may take another two or three days,” said an Iraqi observer, but the Iraqi government is right in saying that the greatest battle in its war against Isis is effectively over.

Iraqi troops were beginning to look more relaxed as they moved through the shattered streets in the centre of Mosul. Air strikes have turned every building into a jumble of broken beams and masonry. There was the sound of shooting just ahead and a civilian ambulance sped past. There had been heavy fighting the previous day in which snipers were very active and there were repeated air strikes by the US-led coalition.

This may have been a last desperate counter-attack by 50 to 100 Isis fighters which drove back three Iraqi government units that were advancing on the last Isis strongholds. Iraqi commanders now say that their forces are “tens of metres” away from eliminating Isis and the Joint Operations Command said “our units are still continuing to advance … Not much is left before our forces reach the river”.

Iraqi military and government spokesmen have repeatedly claimed successes prematurely in the past, but there is no doubt that they are now very close to winning. It has been an epic struggle which started 265 days ago on 17 October with no expectation that Isis would be able to resist for so long in the face of superior numbers and devastating air attacks.

Isis fighters have held out and inflicted heavy losses by adopting a fluid defensive system, snipers moving quickly from house to house through holes cut in the walls and through a network of tunnels.

Air strikes and Isis snipers have killed many civilians, particularly in the last few days. Whole streets in the centre of the city have been reduced to heaps of twisted wreckage. One man, called Abdulkareem, trapped behind Isis lines and with whom The Independent has been in touch by phone over the last week, was badly injured in an air strike. Another man, who was wounded in the leg by a coalition drone strike two months ago, was shot in the back and killed by an Isis sniper when he tried to escape across the Tigris River which runs through the centre of Mosul.

The US-led air coalition has stepped up the level of its attacks during the battle for west Mosul, which has been more badly damaged than in the east of the city. A UN study based on satellite photographs shows that 5,536 buildings in the Old City have been damaged of which 490 have been destroyed. Destruction along the main streets in the city centre is almost total with enormous bomb craters at cross roads. Isis has shot any civilians trying to leave their shrinking stronghold.

East Mosul, by way of contrast, has rapidly revived with most of the people displaced to camps during the fighting last year returning to their homes. Almost all the shops are open and there is a continuous supply of electricity. Traffic is very heavy and jams frequent because many people in badly damaged west Mosul have crossed the river to the eastern part of the city. Rents for houses and apartments have tripled.

There are very limited signs of reconstruction with a few mechanical diggers at work, mainly replacing water mains where the pipes were broken by bombs. Only municipal and health workers are being paid by the government at the moment and there is no other employment aside from shopkeeping. “There is food in the shops but no money to buy it,” said one resident.

Though the Iraqi armed forces are triumphant, Isis is by no means out of business, launching serious counter-attacks outside Mosul, including one in Qayara district south of the city on 5 July in which 160 Isis fighters seized four villages. Two suicide bombers were killed at Hamam al-Alil camp for people fleeing Mosul.

Isis will have long foreseen its loss of the city and put in place sleeper cells and detachments of fighters who can carry on the war. Even now, within districts captured by Iraqi security forces there is fear of Isis members who have shaved off their beards and changed their dress so they cannot be identified. In the forecourt of one mosque, an Isis suspect was being roughly interrogated by half a dozen Iraqi security men who were shouting questions at him.

Among the reasons why the battle for Mosul has taken so long is that effective Iraqi government combat forces are limited in number. Most of the fighting has been carried out by the Counter-Terrorism Service, the Emergency Response Division and the Federal Police which together number less than 10,000 men. They have suffered heavy losses in the fighting in Mosul from snipers, suicide bombers, booby traps and mines.

Because the number of reliable combat troops is limited, the government has difficulty occupying and holding territory it has captured. There are few solders or police to be seen in the city away from the areas where fighting is going on. In the countryside outside, often arid and rocky semi-desert to the west, one can drive for miles without seeing any Iraqi security men. Isis has suffered a great defeat in Mosul, but it will be able to survive and fight again.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 

In the early dawn of 5 July, a 200-strong force of anti-Isis fighters launched a surprise attack on the Old City of Raqqa, which is the last big urban centre held by Isis anywhere in Syria and Iraq. Recruited mostly from survivors of a tribe that Isis massacred three years ago, the five-man assault teams, into which the attackers were divided, at first made quick progress and reached a well-known local mosque in the Old City called Othman bin Affan.

But Isis is still a formidable force, using expert snipers, suicide bombers and great numbers of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to inflict casualties. Abu Imad al-Sheity, the commander of the anti-Isis group, told The Independent in an interview by phone from the front line, that “the Daesh [Isis] militants learned that the local civilians were telling us the position of their snipers. They targeted them and killed dozens. It was a horrible massacre.” The UN says that there are between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians still left in Raqqa.

Sheity says his fighters “retreated to the Baghdad Gate at the entrance to Raqqa’s Old City”. He adds the pull-back was to protect those civilians who were still alive, but the hard-fought battles this week are a sign that Isis is still capable of defending this isolated city on the north bank of the Euphrates river which is now besieged by Kurdish-led (though sometimes ethnically Arab) units which are backed by the immense firepower of the US Air Force and its allies. Since the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive to take the city started on 6 June, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that 224 civilians have been killed by US-led airstrikes.

The group that tried to fight its way into Raqqa this week is known as the Syrian Elite Forces, which belong to the Syrian Free Army umbrella group. But Sheity says that he and most of his men come from the al-Sheitaat tribe that lives mainly in Deir Ezzor province further south along the Euphrates. In 2014, the Sheitaat resisted the rising power of Isis and were massacred with at least 900 of its members shot, crucified, beheaded, thrown down wells and buried in mass graves that are still being unearthed. It was the worst single atrocity carried out by Isis in the war in Syria.

​Sheity, a young man with long dark hair, says that the losses of his tribe were even greater: “We lost about 1,700 tribesmen, including those who disappeared as well as those killed.” Isis, then at the height of its power, wanted to show that it would mercilessly punish any individual or tribe which resisted the newly established Caliphate. The places where the Sheitaat live is one of the diminishing number of enclaves where here Isis is still in control.

Raqqa is now under heavy attack by the SDF, which are led by Syrian Kurdish troops, but also contain Arabs who are often from local tribes. This is politically important because Raqqa and this part of the Euphrates Valley are populated by Arabs who would resent Kurdish occupation. Though the Syrian Kurdish forces, the YPG, are committed and experienced soldiers, what makes it impossible for Isis to resist in the long term is the massive US air strikes.

SDF fighters say that Isis defensive tactics in Raqqa are different from those in earlier battles where there was greater reliance on suicide bombers and car bombs. Probably in order to avoid being targeted from the air, Isis in Raqqa is relying more on a vast network of tunnels, often dug by civilians and by prisoners sentenced to forced labour. Isis is making more use of small drones to drop explosives, which unnerves attacking Arab and Kurdish troops who are used to their side enjoying complete control of the air.

Raqqa, with a population of 300,000 is much smaller than Mosul which had some 1.4 million inhabitants before Iraqi forces started their attack on it almost nine months ago on 17 October 2016. Sheity, the commander of the Syrian Elite Forces, says that in some parts of the city Isis had evacuated people before the fighting began.

When Isis fighters later withdraw, they left the area behind them heavily seeded with mines. “Daesh planted mines even in the shops and bins on the corners of the streets and buildings,” says commander Sheity. “They used a lot of drones dropping explosives.” He thought that the clashes over the last month were the most intense since the operation against Raqqa started last year. More than anything else, Sheity says it is the Isis snipers that hold up his advance, quickly changing their positions and moving through tunnels or holes in the walls of houses.

As in Mosul, where Isis blew up the al-Nori mosque last month, Isis in Raqqa has destroyed shrines to the companions of the Prophet Mohammed. Advancing from the east, commander Sheity and his men found that every trace of the tombs was gone.

At the height of their power in Raqqa, Isis had a well organised administration staffed by well-trained experts. In a phone interview with The Independent, Jasim, 25, a graduate of an institute of accounting in Raqqa, described how he had worked for two years for Isis in Mosul and Raqqa. He and his two teenage brothers (aged 14 and 16) had taken advantage of an SDF amnesty and surrendered earlier this year. He joined the force attacking Raqqa two weeks ago.

Jasim says that all the managers in the Isis accounting office where he worked were Iraqi, confirming that Isis was always essentially an Iraqi movement. “We Syrians were second-class employees or servants,” he says. He was paid $300 a month compared to about $400 for a fighter, though both got a free monthly supply of fuel, flour, rice and some kinds of food basket. He finally fled in May this year after several abortive attempts. “I managed to flee through a smuggler, an Iraqi who was a fighter with Isis,” says Jasim. “It cost me and my family members about $5,000.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Syria 

President Trump has told a crowd of cheering Polish nationalists in Warsaw that the great threat to the world is from “radical Islamic terrorism”, which should make it good news for him that Isis is losing Mosul, the heart of its self-proclaimed Caliphate and its de facto capital in Iraq. At the same time, US-backed Syrian-Kurdish forces are closing in on Raqqa, the last big Isis-held city in Syria, which they will capture in the coming weeks or months.

Isis has been the most powerful enemy of peace in the Middle East and beyond over the last three years, so why is its defeat in its two largest strongholds not making the region feel a safer place? Instead, the mood is edgy and fearful, bringing to mind the atmosphere in Europe in 1914 when many different conflicts were escalating and cross-infecting each other. It is not so much that the great powers are itching to fight each other in the Middle East, but, as in the period before the First World War, there are so many “wild cards”, in the sense of inputs or ingredients of uncertain value in the political mix, that almost anything could happen.

The “wild cards” are of two different kinds, though both are dangerous. One source of uncertainty revolves around deeply flawed leaders like Donald Trump himself, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All have a great appetite for power at home and abroad, combined with a reputation for arrogance and poor judgement. Ominously, all are leading players in potentially explosive confrontations and crises that could easily turn into serious wars, where they have not already done so.

The current situation in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, where Isis is on the retreat, is a good example of this. The implosion of Isis creates a vacuum leading to further conflicts over who will fill the gap left by its defeat: as regards Syria, Turkey is deeply alarmed by the rising power of the Kurds, who, backed by US-led air power, have established a de facto state along the southern Turkish frontier. Syrian Kurds, for their part, fear that the Turkish army will invade northern Syria and end their quasi-independence once the US no longer needs their 50,000 fighters to combat Isis.

What is US policy in the struggle for eastern Syria which has drawn in their own country, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Syrian government, al-Qaeda, Isis, Kurds and many others? The US has already fired missiles at a Syrian government airbase and shot down a Syrian military aircraft, but otherwise nobody knows what Trump intends to do. Will he betray the Kurds once the US has no further use for them against Isis in order to get back on good terms with Turkey? Alternatively, the US could limit its role in Syria and Iraq once Isis is defeated or see both countries as the future arena for a confrontation with Iran.

“We don’t have a policy in Syria,” said one former State Department official. “Everybody in the Middle East knows that whatever is said by the Pentagon, State Department or National Security Council lacks authority because whatever assurances they give may be contradicted within the hour by a presidential tweet or by one of the factions in the White House.” The ex-official lamented that it was like living in an arbitrary and unpredictable dictatorship.

Donald Trump’s genius for spreading chaos was displayed in May during his visit to Saudi Arabia, when his fulsome endorsement of Saudi policies encouraged Riyadh to blockade Qatar and seek to turn it into a Saudi vassal state. The US President gave his support to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has since taken over as Crown Prince, and has been the effective ruler of the Kingdom since 2015. His record since then is of undiluted failure: he backed a rebel offensive in Syria that precipitated Russian military intervention; he started bombing Yemen in a war that is still going on and is devastating the country; and he is destabilising the Gulf by trying to crush tiny Qatar.

Crises have always been erupting in the Middle East, but today there is a sense of them spinning out of control. US policy is to be redirected to supporting its own interests, comically supposing that it was previously a model of altruism and self-denial.

Under Trump, the US is to focus more on repelling the advance of Iranian influence, something much encouraged by Israel and Saudi Arabia. But the US needs a degree of cooperation with Iran if there is to be a de-escalation of the violence in Iraq and Syria. Confrontation with Iran is a recipe for fighting the Shia community as a whole and is a guarantee of instability.

A more aggressive policy towards Iran is conceived with dangerous frivolity. Media pundits and think tank luminaries have little idea of what they are talking about, any more than they did when invading Iraq in 2003. They speak of the US supporting guerrilla war by ethnic minorities against the central government in Iran, a tactic that is likely to get a lot of people killed but without worrying the authorities in Tehran too much.

US military action in Iraq and Syria is largely continuing so far along the same lines as under President Obama, because nobody in the Trump administration knows what to put in its place. It has become more militarised with officers in the field deciding on what and when to bomb. The US-directed bombardment of Mosul has become noticeably more devastating under Trump than it was under Obama last year.

The analogy between the Middle East today and Europe in the years leading up to 1914 is illumination. There are strong parallels between Trump and Kaiser Wilhelm II, or “Kaiser Bill” as he was known derisively in Britain, in the way in which both men have stumbled into situations they did not understand. Both were the egocentric and ill-informed advocates of a bombastic nationalism in which they portrayed themselves as defending their nations – America or Germany – against the plots and self-aggrandising policies of foreign states. In 1896, the Kaiser suddenly shot off a notorious telegram offering support to the Boers against a British intrusion, much as Trump was to tweet his support for Saudi Arabia against Qatar over a century later.

Trump and the Kaiser behaved with the same blend of hubris and self-pity, seeing themselves and their nations as eternal victims, often blaming the media for malign misrepresentation. In 1908, the Daily Telegraph published a notorious interview with the Kaiser in which he made various offensive remarks about the English, whose suspicions of himself are “quite unworthy of a great nation”. He concludes with a very Trump-like bleat in which he insisted that “I am the friend of England, and your press – at least a considerable section of it – bids the people of England refuse my proffered hand and insists that the other holds a dagger.”

The Kaiser did not invent the phrase “the Yellow Peril”, but he used it to warn of the threat that China and other East Asian states posed to Western civilisation much as today Trump rants on about the dangers of “radical Islam”.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.

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