Goodbye, Islamic State. Hello, Anarchy.
The forces liberating Mosul are fighting each other, and opening the door to an Islamic State resurgence.
MOSUL and BAGHDAD, Iraq — On a quiet morning in late February, a convoy of black SUVs and pickups tore through the outskirts of east Mosul, at times nudging 75 mph on the dusty roads. Packed inside, balaclava-wearing gunmen pulled nervously at slim cigarettes while martial music blasted over the radio.
Three males, bound with strips of cloth, crouched in the back of one truck, their sweatshirts pulled over their heads to cover their faces. The youngest looked to be about 15. All three had been detained minutes earlier on suspicion of affiliation with the Islamic State, which had withdrawn to the west of Mosul in late January but left behind a network of sleeper cells.
The convoy of the National Security Service (NSS), Iraq’s intelligence branch, continued to a second neighborhood. The NSS members ran down alleys to kick in doors at suspect houses. This time, though, a second convoy of tan Humvees stenciled with black Babylon lions pulled up and angry soldiers from the Iraqi Army’s 16th Division poured out, weapons in hand.
“What are you doing? You didn’t coordinate with us,” an irate 16th Division officer shouted, gesticulating at the NSS men.
“Hey! We’re just doing our job!” an NSS member replied.
As the standoff brewed, 16th Division soldiers noticed us. “Don’t film us! We’ll take your cameras!” they screamed.
With the convoy hemmed in by 16th Division Humvees, the NSS men were unable to leave. “You’re coming with us,” a 16th Division officer declared, and the soldiers then escorted them to a nearby checkpoint where the argument continued. It seemed as if a mission to apprehend Islamic State fighters might end instead with competing branches of the Iraqi security forces arresting one another.
Scenes like this are common in liberated areas of Mosul today. The fighting continues for west Mosul, the last major urban bastion for the Islamic State in Iraq, but the military forces that drove the jihadi group out of the east are now competing for influence against one another, rather than cooperating to maintain order. The rivalry among these groups is coming at the expense of efforts to combat Islamic State sleeper cells, which have launched a campaign of suicide bombings in liberated areas.
Months after east Mosul was declared liberated, there appears to be scant planning for restoring security, let alone reconciliation and reconstruction.
“There is no plan in the government of Iraq after Mosul. I have not seen one,” former national security advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie told Foreign Policy. “The style of leading the country is fly by night.”
Iraqi officials deny this claim, saying they are developing a strategy to restore security and services to the war-torn city.
“Of course there is a plan,” said Waleed al-Bayati, an advisor to the governor of Ninewa province, who referred to a six-page document outlining initiatives for reconstruction and restoring economic life to the city.
A senior security official, who requested anonymity, also outlined a plan for the central government in Baghdad to assume responsibility for security, while the local government handles daily administrative affairs “The vision is to have the governor and the local government back, but they will focus on services and civil affairs,” the official said. “The security will be the responsibility of the security apparatus there, and that means that for a certain period there will be a combination of federal and local forces there.”
That combination of forces could complicate relations among already-fractious federal forces. Iraq’s many defense and intelligence agencies lack a unified command and answer to a bewildering array of political appointees in the Defense and Interior ministries, the National Security Council, or the prime minister’s office. “They are like fiefdoms, each competing for resources and power,” said David M. Witty, a retired U.S. Army special forces colonel and an authority on the Iraqi armed forces.
Some Iraqi officers seem to take a measure of pride in this lack of cooperation.
“We don’t coordinate with anyone,” said Staff Lt. Col. Montaza al-Shamari of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) 2nd Battalion. “We get the most serious cases of terrorism, and we go in after them on our own.”
During the recent raid, the senior NSS officer acted quickly to defuse the situation with the 16th Division soldiers. Isham Mahmoud, the deputy head of the NSS in Ninewa and a Mosul native, calmly made calls to higher-ranking officers to dampen the tension. After a tense standoff, a compromise was reached: One of the tan Humvees would escort the NSS for the rest of the raid.
Mahmoud reclined in an easy chair following the raid, tired but elated by his team’s progress.
“It’s a tough job, but we are making progress,” he said. “We have to build trust with civilians, and that trust needs to come full circle. They have to trust us, and we have to be able to trust them.”
But first, the Iraqi security forces have to build trust among themselves. Not all disputes are resolved so peacefully. A similar argument between the NSS and ISOF on Feb. 6 resulted in a shootout that left an ISOF officer dead in east Mosul.
Adding to the security challenges, there simply aren’t enough soldiers to secure the east of the city with so many focused on fighting in west Mosul. “There’s a curfew at 5:30 p.m., but checkpoints are abandoned at night,” said Faisal Jeber, a Mosul-born academic who returned from overseas to support a local Sunni militia. “They are afraid or lazy.”
He was referring to the 16th Division, the main military force in east Mosul. The force was built up from the remnants of the 2nd Division, which fled Mosul without a fight in 2014 and has always been plagued by “ghost soldiers” — absent troops who remain on the payroll, but paid part or all of their salary to their officer in order to stay home. Before the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State, these harried soldiers from Iraq’s predominantly Shiite south staffed undermanned checkpoints in the city that were notorious among Moslawis for their hostility, and, relatedly, their constant targeting by insurgents for bombings and attacks.
If competition among federal units complicates the restoration of security to Mosul, the entrance of a host of pro-government militias has added yet more armed actors to an already-volatile situation. Predominantly Sunni paramilitary units, including Jeber’s Mosul Gallant Force, have been assigned a large share of responsibility for Mosul’s day-to-day security, but lack the manpower to effectively police the city.
Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), meanwhile, have established a presence in Mosul. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi initially said these Shiite militias would be excluded from the offensive to retake Mosul city. While the bulk of Shiite PMF are stationed in the desert west of Mosul to prevent Islamic State fighters from fleeing into Syria, a number of groups, including the Badr Organization, al-Abbas Forces, and Kata’ib Hezbollah, have opened offices in east Mosul.
Ethnic Shabak militias operating in east Mosul are also believed to have been bolstered with members from Iranian-influenced Shiite militia groups. These militias, which were initially intended to defend Shabak villages outside the city, are a regular sight in the urban center. “Their patrols often enter Mosul city during the day with their colorful flags and signs, sometimes carrying loudspeakers chanting their Nasheed, which is usually about seeking revenge for the assassination of Imam Husayn,” Jeber said.
The introduction of the Shiite PMF into east Mosul risks empowering actors who portray themselves as the authentic voice of the Sunni majority in Ninewa and their rivals as pawns of Iran.
“Now in Baghdad, the Shia militia is more powerful than al-Abadi,” former Ninewa Gov. Atheel al-Nujaifi told Foreign Policy.
Nujaifi lost his position after the fall of Mosul and fled to Erbil, where he raised a force of several thousand fighters with the approval of the Kurdistan Regional Government and support from Turkey. Today, he retains a measure of influence and opposes a return to the same federal control over Ninewa as before. “The people in Mosul will never agree to be just in the hand of the Shia or to follow the Shia politicians,” he said.
Nujaifi’s Ninewa Guards have been kept out of Mosul by Baghdad, and an arrest warrant prevents him from returning. Nujaifi warns, however, that blocking Sunni leaders like himself from the political process risks repeating the mistakes of the past. “Most of these Sunni forces will work underground,” he said.
His force continues to train in Kurdish territory north of Mosul in the expectation that the central government’s strategy to restore order in Mosul will fail. “I’m sure it will fail,” Nujaifi said. “Because inside the city now, there is no services, there is no administration, and the security forces are very weak.”
But many in Baghdad see Nujaifi as a liability rather than a potential security partner. In May 2015, a majority of Iraqi members of parliament voted to dismiss him as governor for corruption and complicity in the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State. Internal documents from the group’s predecessor organization named him as having cooperated with it in the past.
The anonymous senior security official, referring to Nujaifi, said, “He is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
The disorder is a gift to the Islamic State, which is trying to re-establish its reign of fear in liberated areas. It has launched a campaign of suicide bombings in liberated east Mosul — at least a half dozen since December. Two days before the NSS raid, another Islamic State member blew himself up at a busy intersection. A week before that a suicide bomber had targeted a popular restaurant at the same intersection.
The tenuous security situation has hindered the restoration of services. Most districts are still without running water, electricity, or adequate health care. Government offices did reopen briefly in east Mosul, and civil servants were bused in every day from Erbil, where many had been living. But the buses stopped several weeks later in mid-February. “No one wanted to go,” Jeber said of the Mosul Gallant Force, “because of the security situation.”
For a policeman standing at the site of the most recent bombing, kicking at an unidentifiable body part, it seemed like the previous unsustainable status quo was making a comeback. “I’ve seen this kind of thing too many times before,” he said.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images