City In Ruins, Attempts To Start Over: How Iraq's Mosul Lives After Liberation
The Iraqi northern city of Mosul still lies in ruins year and a half after the liberation from the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, which is banned in Russia and in a number of other countries
The bridges and the old city, including the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, where the IS proclaimed "caliphate", have been destroyed. Politicians have warned that the conditions for the spread of extremism persist in Mosul, whose locals are trying to start a new life.
One can learn the political map of modern Iraq and the balance of power between the main political forces from the roadblocks on the road from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to Mosul, the center of Nineveh province and the former capital of the terrorist "caliphate."
Despite the fact that these two Iraqi cities are only 90 kilometers (55.9 miles) away, it was recently impossible to cover this distance the front line between the IS and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia lay in the area.
For many people, these 90 kilometers are insurmountable even now. Journalists and researchers come to Kurdistan using a visa issued by the authorities of the autonomous region, but to go to Mosul one needs a visa issued by the Iraqi central authorities. Over the years of its autonomy, Kurdistan has become a safe haven for Kurds from all over the world. They use Syrian, Turkish, European documents and even passports of the former Soviet Union, which are still in use here. The Iraqi army, of course, will not let one into Mosul with such documents.
But a dodgy driver named Sardar promised a Sputnik correspondent, who also did not have an Iraqi visa, to take him to Mosul for only $300, adding that he knew how to negotiate with the military at checkpoints. Erbil guides have turned trips to Mosul into a popular, though expensive, tourist attraction.
The last Kurdish roadblocks were located at the entrance to the suburb of Mosul, the town of Bashiqa. They were easily recognizable by the flags of Kurdistan and the portraits of Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces decided not to take an active part in the offensive on Mosul. Firstly, they understood that they would not be given control over even a tiny part of this city, inhabited mainly by Arabs. Secondly, the Kurds themselves were afraid to find hostile Sunni population on their home front. Therefore, they found themselves blocking Mosul and assisting the forces of official Baghdad from the flanks.
"This is nobody's land!" the driver solemnly declared as we passed the Kurds' checkpoint.
The checkpoints of the Iraqi army came next, followed by those of the Shiite militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi). It was not a coincidence that the Iraqi military stood between the Kurds and the Shiites. The relations between them are the most tense the Kurds are considered separatists, and the Shiites are loyal to Baghdad. But Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi is known for its fierce temper and cruelty toward the Sunni enemies. Kurds usually say behind their backs that "they are almost like the IS, but Shiites." PMF has tens of thousands of fighters in its ranks, and this is one of the main forces official Baghdad relies on.
It was easy to distinguish the military from the Shiite militia: the military carried Iraq's state flags, while Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi had flags of the Hezbollah movement and other Shiite groups, portraits of Imam Ali. The Iraqi servicemen were all dressed in the same uniform, and the Shiite soldiers wore whatever they wanted. Many of them did not even speak Arabic.
Driver Sardar turned on his charm, bearing in mind that he would get his $300 only if the Sputnik correspondent arrived in Mosul. Looking forward to the reward, Sardar chatted up the militia at the checkpoint. It turned out that they did not know how the Iraqi visa looked like, and Sardar convinced them that the stamp from the Erbil airport with illegible Arabic letters gave us grounds to be in Mosul legally.
According to Sardar, he always has to be inventive to get through the checkpoints. He usually says that the head of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi headquarters in Bashiqa or the head of the Iraqi army's operational headquarters in Mosul are already waiting for his tourists. Usually this is enough to get through, because a soldier at the checkpoint rarely has the courage to call the commander and clarify, whether he waits for guests from Erbil or not.
Mosul's Left Bank: Former Saddam's Mosque
Soon we saw Mosul's east, or its left bank. There were practically no destroyed buildings there. When the army and coalition started to liberate the city, the militants retreated across the Tigris to the west bank and gained a foothold there. Finally, we came across a small bombed house, which looked like a small mosque with a leaning tower.
"A rich salesman lived here. But during the IS days, his house was blown up he either did not want to pay tribute or someone wanted to take his business," a passerby said.
The most remarkable site of the left bank is the huge Mosul Grand Mosque, which was hardly affected by the fighting. It was built in the time of Saddam Hussein as a sign of special attention of then-leader to this city, and first was called the Saddam Mosque. Its minaret and many domes are clearly visible from many parts of the city.
We met the watchman, Fuaz Abdurrahman, in the courtyard. Like many Sunni Muslims in Mosul, during the "caliphate," he stayed in the city. He was safe as long as he complied with "Shariah" requirements.
"Life was harsh. If you did not go to work for the IS, then there was almost no other work. And life was very expensive. For example, before the war, the cost of a kilogram of rice was 1,000 dinars [less than $1], while under the IS its cost rose to 14,000 dinars [about $11]," he recalled.
Once, Abdurrahman did something wrong and was put in a Shariah prison for four days. As a result, he had to pay a ransom of $40,000.
"I spent my entire fortune on this ransom. And my house was hit by a bomb. Now I have neither money nor home. I am 54 years old, and after the IS left, I had to start a new life," Abdurrahman revealed.
Life in Mosul is slowly taking a peaceful course, but the idyll is still distant.
"The government almost does not provide anything to Mosul. If you drive to the right bank and you will see that nothing is being repaired there. The bridges are in ruins. We do not know why, probably the government has no money. Then [the government should] let the Americans help, because it were them, who bombed everything," Abdurrahman suggested.
"Do not photograph anything here, it is prohibited," Sardar said.
It is forbidden to take pictures of the military, checkpoints and official buildings.
Perhaps such precautions were not just the paranoia of authorities as new terrorist attacks occur from time to time. For example, on February 28, a car was blown up near the university building, killing one person and injuring 13. Another terrorist attack took place on March 8 near a restaurant. Two people died, including a 13-year-old girl, while 10 people were injured.
The landscape is impressive. One can see a large number of completely destroyed infrastructures along the right bank of the Tigris. Here one can learn the coalition's plan for liberating cities from militants: at first, carpet bombing, which almost totally eliminated settlements, and then the work of local special forces on the ground.
After the bridge, we enter Mosul's old quarters. They are almost completely destroyed, there are no signs of at least some restoration works being carried out. Only the first floors of the collapsed buildings are occupied by either a small shop with a poor selection of goods, a kiosk with doner kebabs, or a second-hand toy store.
Posters warning of the danger of mines can be observed anywhere on the ruins. Next to them were drawings of mines that could be hidden in children's toys, or could look like a harmless blank under the ruins of buildings, or like a used shell. It seemed that those posters were the best that the local authorities could do to improve the city and eliminate the destruction.
The head of a foundation for the restoration of terrorist-affected areas of Iraq, Mustafa Kheiti, told Sputnik that the problem of mine clearance was crucial in Iraq's Mosul and surrounding areas, and that the country still needed the help of the international community to restore those territories.
"According to international organizations, about 6 million explosives of various capacities, from small to large mines, remain. To date, only 6 percent of them have been eliminated. We do have problems with mine clearance, Iraq and international organizations are taking this very seriously," Kheiti said.
Mosque Where Caliphate Begins And Ends
The heart of Mosul's old districts is the famous Great Mosque of al-Nuri. Now it can be said that it is infamous. This mosque was built in the 12th century and was known for its leaning "humpback" minaret, which many compared to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
During Mosul's liberation from the militants, the mosque was badly damaged, and its famous leaning minaret did fall down. The IS and the coalition blamed each other for this. According to the United States, the militants themselves blew up the mosque, while the terrorists claimed that it had fallen due to the coalition's air strikes.
Whatever the case was, the mosque's entire area now lies in ruins, representing a post-apocalyptic landscape. There is a high fence around al-Nuri, the ruins are guarded by the military, but you can still see the base of the famous "humpback" minaret and the green dome through the fence. We go up to the minaret of the neighboring al-Safar mosque to get a better look at the famous al-Nuri. A local boy agreed to be our guide for a ridiculous fee.
The corridors of the mosque are covered in graffiti of Shiite fighters, and the roof is dotted with shells active battles took place here. From the minaret you can clearly see that the area is completely destroyed. We take advantage of this opportunity and ask our guide about life during the IS time.
Terrorists encouraged local residents to join the group as a soldier, an official or some errand boy. In return, a person received cheaper food, or even a house or slaves. But at some point, they had to carry out criminal orders for those benefits.
Iraqi Politicians Fear Resurgence Of Is Terrorists
Iraqi politicians admit that they fear the revival of the IS terrorists, saying that there were certain prerequisites for this.
"We are not done with the IS... It still exists, at least ideologically, in minds," an influential Iraqi politician and the country's Vice President Ayad Allawi said at a conference in Erbil.
Poverty and insecurity of refugees have created grounds for the spread of extremist ideas in the country.
"Strengthening the Iraqi society politically, economically and morally is essential for combating the root causes of terrorism. So we need more than just efforts of special services and the military," Allawi said.
"In order to eradicate the terror roots in Iraq and defeat it, we must start from the reconstruction of the destroyed areas. Terrorism thrives in abandoned areas without public and social services. Reconstruction has to begin quickly. We are devastated to see that one of the oldest cities in the world, Nineveh [the ancient name of Mosul], is still so badly destroyed. The [Iraqi] government should support the investors of Mosul, take the lead in rebuilding the city," Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said, echoing the vice president.
Prophecy Comes True After 2,500 Years
On our way back from Mosul, we passed another destroyed building, which used to be known all over the world. It is the mausoleum, where, according to a legend, prophet Jonah was buried. The mausoleum was once a popular place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims. After all, Jonah under the name of Yunus was also mentioned in the Koran. There is no doubt that the mausoleum was destroyed by the IS fanatics, as the Islamists themselves have documented their crimes, arguing that an orthodox Muslim cannot worship anyone, including prophets.
"Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me," the Book of Jonah read.
At that time, the inhabitants of the city obeyed the prophet and repented, and God did not destroy it. But after 2,500 years, the prophecy came true, and the ancient city now lies in ruins.