As the military operation to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the so-called Islamic State (ISIL, also known as ISIS) rages on, mainstream media have thus far focused on the significance of Iraqi forces liberating the town.
Absent from international headlines, however, is what Mosul’s liberation means to those who call it home and to fellow Iraqis across the nation. How was Mosul viewed by Iraqis before the occupation of ISIL, and how will it be viewed after it is liberated?
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Traditionally, Mosul has been viewed as one of the three pillars of Iraq, alongside the cities of Baghdad and Basra, dating back to Iraq’s administrative layout under the Ottoman Empire. The three cities were the capitals of the three Ottoman provinces bearing the same name.
While the three provinces enjoyed local governance, the city of Baghdad retained administrative powers over all three provinces for the majority of the empire’s existence.
Owing to Mosul’s historical ties to Baghdad and Basra, the League of Nations decided – at the time – that the Mosul province would be administered by Iraq rather than Turkey, during the establishment of the modern-day Iraqi state.
The newly defined Iraqi state reflected Ottoman Iraq, both geographically and administratively. This enabled the seamless establishment of Baghdad as the Iraqi capital, and retained Mosul and Basra as the country’s other influential economic hubs.
While Mosul is home to a vast number of ethnicities and sects, its wealth of unique surrounding villages, all bustling with Iraq’s Kurds, Yazidis, Shabak, Christian Assyrians and Armenians, led to Mosul’s unique cultural mix and diversity.
Despite Mosul’s location up north, what connected Maslawis (residents of Mosul) to the rest of Iraq was their significant class of educated citizens and highly regarded institutions. In general, Maslawis were well-educated and respected by the rest of Iraq.
If educated Iraqis were not going to Mosul to study, the educated people of Mosul were coming to the rest of Iraq to teach.
Many Iraqis would go to the city to attend its prestigious University of Mosul, whose medical college dates back to the early establishment of the Iraqi state. If educated Iraqis were not going to Mosul to study, the educated people of Mosul were coming to the rest of Iraq to teach, as their presence was evident in schools and universities across the country. For many Iraqis, this is what Mosul means to them.
Mosul also represents the city that provided Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime with a large number of military and security personnel.
Unlike Baghdad and Basra, Mosul did not fight the US-led war in 2003. Instead, regime loyalists and the military simply integrated into the civilian population. This has meant that a large concentration of ex-regime loyalists were based in Mosul, which was evident when Hussein’s sons were caught hiding in Mosul in 2003.
At the time, many of those elements morphed into extremist groups such ISIL and carried out attacks to undermine the new political order. This saw the city quickly became a no-go zone for many in Iraq who were afraid of lawlessness and the free reign of armed groups in the city.
Hence, when Mosul fell to ISIL in 2014, many in Iraq were not as surprised.
The steady collapse of ISIL around Iraq leaves little doubt about the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to liberate Mosul. For the Iraqi government and the anti-ISIL coalition, the question is not if but how long it will take.
For ordinary Iraqis the question remains how will they view Mosul and its residents after the city is liberated. Before the ISIL occupation, the city was fairly isolated; it did not enjoy a constant flow of visitors from different parts of the country.
The ISIL occupation further isolated Mosul and its people from the rest of Iraq.
The Iraqi government has wisely only relied on the ISF to conduct the operation, leaving out the controversial Popular Mobilisation Units. The message being: This is not a sectarian attack on Mosul or an attempt to punish it for falling to ISIL.
Instead, this is Iraqis liberating Iraqi land – an important difference.
The question going forward is: Will Mosul remain a pillar of Iraqi identity or will the legacy of ISIL’s occupation result in trust lost between Maslawis and the rest of Iraqis?
When this question was posed to a former Iraqi general and resident of the city, with relatives still living there, he said: “Mosul can remain the Mosul of old, the Mosul of officers, teachers and professors only if Maslawis want that to happen.”
Evidence of this is witnessed by the recent liberated Christian-Assyrian villages of Bartella and Qara Qosh, just outside Mosul, by the ISF. There is a newly built trust between the locals and the ISF that will be vital for the future of Iraq, if this trust is replicated in the liberation of Mosul.
Ultimately it will be the actions and reactions of Maslawis during and after military operations that will decide what the new Mosul will be known for. If they are able to overcome the horrible psychological and social trauma of ISIL’s reign, then Mosul can once again rise as an Iraqi centre of education, culture and professionals.
Hamzeh Hadad is an independent analyst and writer on Iraq. Follow him on Twitter: @HamzehKarkhi