Dispatch

Five Years After Liberation, There Is New Hope Among Mosul’s Ruins

On the anniversary of its liberation from the Islamic State, Iraq’s second city heals its scars.

reconstruction builders work to revive Mosul's Old City
reconstruction builders work to revive Mosul's Old City
Beneath what remains of the 12th-century Al-Hadbaa minaret, reconstruction builders work to revive Mosul's Old City in Iraq on Feb. 23. ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images
al-Oraibi-Mina-foreign-policy-columnist
al-Oraibi-Mina-foreign-policy-columnist
Mina Al-Oraibi
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National.

MOSUL, Iraq—“Mother of two springs” is how Mosul, Iraq’s ancient northern metropolis, is known to its people. Al-Hadba—or “hunchback”—is another nickname for the city, referring to its famous leaning minaret, part of the 12th-century al-Nuri mosque complex. Today, extreme weather has turned springs into summers, and the iconic minaret no longer dominates Mosul’s skyline. Islamic State terrorists blew it up in 2017, a few weeks before the Iraqi army, various Iraqi militias, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and their U.S.-led international allies ended the group’s barbaric three-year rule of the city.

The names of many Iraqi cities—Fallujah, Najaf, Tikrit, Mosul—became familiar to Western audiences only as bloody places of war, just like Ukrainian towns today or Bosnian ones three decades ago. When the cameras leave and political attention moves on, it’s the residents who must pick up the pieces while the world looks elsewhere. Five years ago this month, Mosul was declared liberated from the Islamic State after a horrific battle finally drove the group out of the city. The battle’s scars remain to this day. But everywhere one looks, there are also signs of hope and resilience as residents rebuild and revitalize Iraq’s second-largest city—only Baghdad is bigger and has a greater population—after the Islamic State’s brutal rule destroyed the fabric of society as much as the battle to defeat the group destroyed large parts of the city.

Much of Mosul’s historic center, on the right bank of the Tigris river, was destroyed by the U.S.-led coalition’s artillery while the Islamic State detonated a number of key sites. Although Islamic State fighters were largely allowed to flee to other cities, they were surrounded in Mosul and largely decimated with heavy bombardment, through which the liberators minimized the need for casualty-heavy house-to-house combat. Exactly how many Maslawis—as residents of Mosul are known—were killed by the Islamic State and during the battle no one will ever know, not least because many were buried under the rubble during the bombardment. An estimated 8,000 buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged in Mosul’s Old City, and few of them have since been rebuilt. When including other parts of the city where the battle raged, estimates of total buildings damaged or destroyed are as high as 138,000. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 1 million people—out of a pre-Islamic State population of close to 4 million—had fled Mosul by August 2017. Although most of the media focus has understandably been on the Yazidis, who were targeted for genocide by the Islamic State, other Maslawis also suffered under the terrorist group’s rule, including the execution or imprisonment of anyone working with the Iraqi government or suspected of standing against the city’s new rulers. Maslawis from all walks of life fled the city, including those whose houses were bombed and had nowhere else to stay. About 100,000 Maslawis are still displaced, many living in refugee camps under appalling conditions. For those who cannot afford to rebuild their homes, there has been little financial support.

reconstruction builders work to revive Mosul's Old City
reconstruction builders work to revive Mosul's Old City

Beneath what remains of the 12th-century al-Hadba minaret, reconstruction builders work to revive Mosuls Old City in Iraq on Feb. 23. ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images

MOSUL, Iraq—“Mother of two springs” is how Mosul, Iraq’s ancient northern metropolis, is known to its people. Al-Hadba—or “hunchback”—is another nickname for the city, referring to its famous leaning minaret, part of the 12th-century al-Nuri mosque complex. Today, extreme weather has turned springs into summers, and the iconic minaret no longer dominates Mosul’s skyline. Islamic State terrorists blew it up in 2017, a few weeks before the Iraqi army, various Iraqi militias, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and their U.S.-led international allies ended the group’s barbaric three-year rule of the city.

The names of many Iraqi cities—Fallujah, Najaf, Tikrit, Mosul—became familiar to Western audiences only as bloody places of war, just like Ukrainian towns today or Bosnian ones three decades ago. When the cameras leave and political attention moves on, it’s the residents who must pick up the pieces while the world looks elsewhere. Five years ago this month, Mosul was declared liberated from the Islamic State after a horrific battle finally drove the group out of the city. The battle’s scars remain to this day. But everywhere one looks, there are also signs of hope and resilience as residents rebuild and revitalize Iraq’s second-largest city—only Baghdad is bigger and has a greater population—after the Islamic State’s brutal rule destroyed the fabric of society as much as the battle to defeat the group destroyed large parts of the city.

Much of Mosul’s historic center, on the right bank of the Tigris river, was destroyed by the U.S.-led coalition’s artillery while the Islamic State detonated a number of key sites. Although Islamic State fighters were largely allowed to flee to other cities, they were surrounded in Mosul and largely decimated with heavy bombardment, through which the liberators minimized the need for casualty-heavy house-to-house combat. Exactly how many Maslawis—as residents of Mosul are known—were killed by the Islamic State and during the battle no one will ever know, not least because many were buried under the rubble during the bombardment. An estimated 8,000 buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged in Mosul’s Old City, and few of them have since been rebuilt. When including other parts of the city where the battle raged, estimates of total buildings damaged or destroyed are as high as 138,000. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 1 million people—out of a pre-Islamic State population of close to 4 million—had fled Mosul by August 2017. Although most of the media focus has understandably been on the Yazidis, who were targeted for genocide by the Islamic State, other Maslawis also suffered under the terrorist group’s rule, including the execution or imprisonment of anyone working with the Iraqi government or suspected of standing against the city’s new rulers. Maslawis from all walks of life fled the city, including those whose houses were bombed and had nowhere else to stay. About 100,000 Maslawis are still displaced, many living in refugee camps under appalling conditions. For those who cannot afford to rebuild their homes, there has been little financial support.

People wear traditional costumes while celebrating Heritage Day in Mosul, Iraq
People wear traditional costumes while celebrating Heritage Day in Mosul, Iraq

People wear traditional dress while celebrating Heritage Day in Mosul, Iraq, in an area recently reconstructed by UNESCO near al-Nuri mosque on June 21. Ismael Adnan/picture alliance via Getty Images

Reconstruction has been painfully slow, held back by lack of funds and the endemic corruption that siphons off much of the money that does trickle in. Five years after liberation, Mosul’s international airport is still shut down, and the city’s main hospital remains destroyed. People adjust and learn to cope—and new power players have emerged in the city. Photos of Shiite militia leaders, who have no popular following in Mosul but whose fighters entered the city during its liberation and stayed, adorn public squares to show who is ultimately in control. They include Iranian Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. strike in 2020, and pro-Iran militia leaders Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Qais al-Khazali.

It is a bleak picture.

Yet, there is another, brighter picture emerging in Mosul. Through the efforts of its own people and with the help of friends abroad, the city is slowly but surely recovering. A major effort to reconstruct the city’s monuments and public buildings is underway. The main Mosul university library has been rebuilt. With funds from the United Arab Emirates and under the auspices of UNESCO, the al-Nuri mosque—including its famous leaning minaret—is being reconstructed, as are Mosul’s historic Christian churches: al-Tahira and al-Saa’a. A campaign to plant thousands of trees in the city kicked off last year. And while reconstruction will require time, the people of Mosul are impatient to see its tangible results. On the fifth anniversary of the destruction of the al-Nuri mosque, hundreds of young Maslawis, led by civil activist Ayoob Thanoon, held a Mosul Heritage Day with a celebration of the arts.

For once, Mosul has a governor who is generally liked and well known. A former Iraqi army general, Najim al-Jubouri, is tough enough to push forward with reconstruction. He has had to engage with the various militia groups in the city and governorate—a necessary evil in today’s Iraq if one is to avoid strife and get things done. His predecessor, Nawfal al-Agoob, was removed in 2019 and accused of widespread corruption; the United States sanctioned him in 2020, in part to ensure he could not return to office.

Even today, Mosul stands out as a place where the mosaic of religions and ethnicities that used to mark the region has survived—at least, in part. Although the exodus of minorities to other countries began earlier, the Islamic State targeted non-Sunni minorities with special zeal, especially Christians and Yazidis. Over three traumatic years, the terrorist group got very close to eliminating Mosul’s minorities; hundreds of thousands of Christian and Yazidi families who fled the city just before and during the Islamic State’s reign cannot contemplate returning home. But the Sunni majority suffered tremendously under the Islamic State too. Five years on, politicians have failed to foster a reconciliation process for the city, just like the Iraqi government has failed to do so for the country as a whole. There is compounded trauma and mistrust that has yet to be addressed and tackled.

Even in its absence, the Islamic State continues to cast a shadow over the city. There has been no real reckoning in Iraq over who was ultimately responsible for the fall of Mosul and one-third of other Iraqi territory. Then-Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki, who gave the Iraqi army the order to surrender Mosul to the Islamic State, has returned as one of the main political actors in the country. The leaders of the militias formed under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State have turned into permanent warlords shaping the political system—including figures such as Rayan al-Kildani, whom Washington has sanctioned for human rights abuses. Although the frequency of major bombings and other security incidents has vastly declined, Mosul continues to be troubled by an undercurrent of intimidation and fear, thanks to the operations of militias and the weakening of government security forces in the city.

A worker at the Mosul Museum tries to reassemble from broken fragments an artifact bearing cuneiform inscriptions
A worker at the Mosul Museum tries to reassemble from broken fragments an artifact bearing cuneiform inscriptions

A worker at the Mosul Museum tries to reassemble an artifact bearing cuneiform inscriptions from broken fragments in Mosul, Iraq, on Dec. 14, 2021.ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images

Most Maslawis are understandably focused on improving their lives in the city, but even among Mosul’s elite, few people comment on the political machinations in Baghdad, where no national government has formed since the October 2021 elections. Mosul will feel the fallout of Iraq’s political gridlock, which will likely lead to a worsening security situation in the coming weeks and months. There have been increased Iran-backed attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan, which has provided a safe haven for many Maslawis. In fact, Mosul has close familial and historic ties with the Kurdistan Region. The city has always served as a bridge joining the Iraqi heartland with Kurdistan; the Kurdish capital, Erbil, is less than an hour and a half away by car. Many Maslawis go back and forth. The presence of checkpoints and the need to get residency approval to cross into the territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government continues, but procedures have been streamlined and movement across the border is continuous. Whenever tensions between Baghdad and Erbil rise, the people of Mosul could end up being caught in the middle.

All of this is happening while there are terrorist cells waiting to regroup. Although the Islamic State has been resoundingly defeated not only in Mosul but all across Iraq, the group has not altogether disappeared. Reports of the arrest or killing of Islamic State fighters in Iraq trickle in just about every week in addition to infrequent but concerning reports of attacks claimed by the group.

Still, marking five years since their city’s liberation is one more step forward for Maslawis—and away from the Islamic State’s reign of terror. Another terrible specter is even further in the past, with next year marking 20 years since the start of the war that toppled the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Yet the current time of calm has been punctuated by instability caused by militias, corruption, food insecurity, water scarcity, and worries about climate change. But for now, Mosul and its people are a demonstration of resilience and self-reliance as they rebuild their city—with a little help from their friends.

Mina Al-Oraibi is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National. Twitter: @AlOraibi

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