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The liberation that awaits Mosul

The real battle for this key Iraqi city starts when the guns fall silent and it is clearer whether Mosul will remain a predominantly Sunni city

“I was driven to the ‘yellow house’ at night and put in a room of about 4m x 5m with tens of others. There was blood on the walls. Torture started immediately. They hit us with anything they could lay their hands on, metal rods, shovels, pipes, cables. They walked on top of us with their boots. They insulted us, and said that this was payback for Speicher massacre... I saw two people die before my eyes. On the second day, I saw [relative, name and relationship removed upon request] die; he was hit with a shovel on his head several times. Others died from the conditions. They didn’t give us anything to drink for the first day; on the second, they brought a small bottle for 10 people. They took about 300 of us to the truck...They handcuffed us two by two. One man died right there, I think from thirst and suffocation... Others were taken out and then I could hear gunshots. Later I could also smell burning.”

This is one survivor’s account of what it is like to be liberated from the Islamic State (IS) group by men wearing Iraqi army and police uniforms. The testimony was given to Amnesty International last year near Fallujah, at al-Sijir and also at Saqlawiya where 643 men alone went missing. 

There is a reason why Amnesty released this testimony in the week in which Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched their offensive to retake Mosul. Based on interviews with 470 former prisoners of Shia militias, Amnesty lays bare the fear of every refugee who, in the next few days and weeks, will be streaming out of Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city and a predominantly Sunni one. If indeed they do so voluntarily. The UN says that up to a million could flee their homes.

A sectarian tinderbox

Arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance and unlawful killing are nothing new in post-Saddam Iraq. Tikrit, Fallujah and districts such as Muqdadiya in the Diyala Governorate, which has been under government control since January of 2015, have now established a pattern, which could now be repeated on a larger scale in Mosul. Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch reports are not just allegations of war crimes. They are evidence of them.

Arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance and unlawful killing are nothing new in post-Saddam Iraq

The victims of the overwhelmingly Shia Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU)s cite three reasons given by their attackers: revenge for IS sectarian attacks on Shia; the belief that all Sunni men of fighting age are IS fighters, or their families, in disguise; and an overtly religious motive to change the ethnic balance in the major cities of Iraq.

The sectarianism is stoked by the statements of Shia militia leaders themselves. Qais al-Khazaili, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, called the liberation of Mosul revenge for the killing of Imam Hussein and “preparation for a state of divine justice”.  He said :"The liberation of Mosul will be the revenge against the killers of Hussein, because these are their grandsons. Allah willing, the liberation of Mosul will be vengeance and retribution against the killers of Hussein.”

This takes the motivation for the current campaign back to 680 AD, when Hussein’s death triggered the schism between the two branches of Islam. Khazaili is not marginal figure. He is in charge of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous, the second largest militia formed by Iran in 2006 to attack US troops in Iraq. Try though they might to portray the government-funded PMUs as opposed to sectarianism - one PMU went to the lengths of producing a cartoon portraying themselves as defenders of the Christians - Khazaili’s words were unambiguously sectarian. 

On Tuesday, Khazaili surfaced again in a reconciliation meeting with one of his main rivals powerful cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Easy recruiting conditions

The history of attacks by Shia militias during the prime ministership of Nouri al-Maliki, and his systematic efforts to cut Sunni leaders out of power, was the main recruiting sergeant for IS.

But the attacks and the dominance of militias have continued under his successor Haidar al-Abadi who has vowed repeatedly to share power. They allowed IS to take Mosul with a handful of fighters in 2014. It was against the rafidah or rejectors - a derogatory word for Shia - that the IS leader al-Baghdadi offered the Sunni in Anbar province “protection”.

The question is how effective Abadi is, and whether the forces that these PMUs represent are more powerful than Abadi himself

Under pressure, Abadi established a committee on 5 June last year to investigate the crimes of the battle of Fallujah and announced the arrest of an unspecified number of people who had committed “infractions”.  The committee’s members included PMUs and Federal Police accused of these crimes, so little surprise that the Iraqi government are reticient about providing details to Amnesty about it.  

In public, Abadi and his foreign minister have stuck to the rotten apple theory. The Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari, a former resident of Mosul himself, said in London earlier this month: “I do not deny the actions by one person here or there or a small group of people here or there”. Mosul, he said, would be a military operation of the Iraqi forces, would not be driven by a religious or sectarian agenda. 

Atheel Nujaifi, former governor of Mosul and now leader of the Sunni militia known as Hashd al-Watani, said that if Hashd al-Shaabi militia were deployed in Mosul and faced with the choice of whom to fight with, many would choose IS.

"Neither the Iraqi government, nor the US, nor parts of the [international] organisations have done anything against the oppression of Sunnis…They even refute us, saying nothing is done against the Sunnis.”

Nujaifi said: “If they do not take these matters into account, there will be a significant amount of violence in Sunni areas after ISIS is gone.”

Abadi, under US pressure, has replied with promises to keep the most notorious of the Shia PMUs away from the frontlines in the battle. It has been enforced by a refusal of the US to provide air cover when these units became bogged down under IS fire. The question is how effective Abadi is, and whether the forces that these PMUs represent are more powerful than Abadi himself.

Mass evictions 

Reconquest is only half of the story. The greater fear lies in what happens to these cities after the IS have been kicked out.

Fallujah has not been a good omen for what could yet take place in Mosul. Three months after its liberation, the city is empty. Only a trickle of families have been allowed back, and some of those have left again. 

Plainly, a new Iraq is not being built in the rubble of these cities. An ethnically cleansed urban landscape could emerge instead

Again, there could be more than one reason for this. In the villages around Mosul, Kurdish fighters have found a network of mined tunnels, which IS use to mount suicide attacks behind Iraqi government lines. The Iraqi government forces have dug a moat around Fallujah to prevent this from happening. Three months on, the benefit of the doubt is starting to wear thin.

If the Shia militias remain in control of the captured city, how many of 300,000 residents of Fallujah who are now displaced will return?

From the Mediterranean to Baghdad, from Deraa, where the uprisings started in Syria to Mosul, Sunni Arabs are being evicted from their cities. The bulk of the population which inhabit these lands have become refugees, exiled or internally displaced. Either at the hands of the Bashar al-Assad, the Russians and Iranian-backed militias, in the case of Aleppo, or the hands of Iraqi government forces in Tikrit and Ramadi. Since IS took over, 3.3 million Iraqis have been displaced. Until now, the vast majority of residents from these cities have not returned to their homes. 

Over the past three weeks, three towns on the outskirts of Damascus - Qudsaya, al-Hameh and now Moadamiyat al-Sham - besieged and bombarded by the regime even while mere kilometres from stocked aid warehouses, have been emptied of rebels and their families after they agreed to what have been called 'kneel or die' truces. They have been shipped to Idlib on buses and are unlikely to ever return. Under the truce in August made in Daraya, another long besieged Damascus suburb, even residents - 4,000 reportedly in total - were to be sent away from their homes to government shelters.

Mosul is home to a plethora of ethnicities and religious minorities. Apart from Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens, there are also Christian, Yazidi, Shabak and Kakai religious minorities. The only way the conflict in Syria and Iraq will stop, and the only way to prevent the IS monster from reproducing itself ad infinitum, is to make sure that a liberated Mosul reflects the same ethnic and confessional balance as pre-IS Mosul. To make sure that all Iraqis of whatever confession or ethnicity have access to power and protection, with leaders and politicians they choose. 

Plainly, a new Iraq is not being built in the rubble of these cities. An ethnically cleansed urban landscape could emerge instead.   

No one knows how well dug in IS is, how long the fight to regain Mosul will take and how many more innocents have to die before the city is retaken. If the experience of recapturing Tikrit and Fallujah are anything to go by, the real battle for Mosul will only start when the fighting stops. The recapture of Mosul will not determine the outcome of this war. The resettlement of Mosul, however, will.

David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former associate foreign editor, European editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European correspondent, and Ireland correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Displaced Iraqis from the Bajwaniyah village, about 30km south of Mosul, who fled fighting in the Mosul area carry a white flag as they approach security forces on 18 October 2016 after they liberated the village from Islamic State (IS) group (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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