As Iraqi forces press closer towards Mosul, ISIL fighters are digging in, displaying fierce resistance to the imminent recapture of their last urban stronghold in the country.
It could still take weeks or even months, but it is only a matter of time before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group is driven out of Iraq’s second-largest city, analysts say. The larger question then becomes: How will Mosul rise from the ashes of battle?
Since ISIL captured the city two years ago in a lightning sweep through Iraq and Syria, Mosul has descended into a severe economic and humanitarian crisis. Although armed fighters had exploited the city’s resources for years after the 2003 Iraq War, its fall to ISIL sent Mosul into a tailspin, according to a recent report by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, or UN-Habitat.
“Its economy almost completely collapsed, its infrastructure and services declined, its public institutions were devastated and its history and cultural heritage tragically effaced,” the report noted. “The city’s minority groups, and many others, were forcefully moved and displaced, and their abandoned properties were confiscated by ISIL. Most of those who remained in the city live in abject conditions, with limited access to basic needs and services, including food and water.”
Satellite images taken in August revealed that more than 135 locations in Mosul had been destroyed, a situation bound to deteriorate further as the fight moves towards the city’s core. ISIL has looted Mosul’s central bank, shuttered local businesses through extortion, seized and redistributed homes, and ripped up the city’s governance structure in favour of its own regimen of strict social controls.
“So far, from what we have seen in other cases, what is challenging is not actually the return to the city – but what is challenging is to somehow have a possibility to live inside the city [after it is retaken],” Maria Fantappie, the International Crisis Group’s senior Iraq analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“The reconstruction process will be as delicate as the security operation … to really manage the ambitions of the different players who want to have an economic role inside the city.”
Once a prominent commercial hub that exported oil and agricultural products, Mosul has long been a Sunni stronghold, but also housed Iraqis from a variety of other ethnoreligious backgrounds, including Kurds, Christians and Yazidis. ISIL’s takeover prompted many of Mosul’s residents to flee, and the operation to recapture the city has intensified Iraq’s displacement crisis.
Other areas of Iraq retaken from ISIL, such as Ramadi and Fallujah, have since struggled to rebuild and to reintegrate displaced civilians amid a climate of heightened sectarian tensions and profoundly strained financial resources.
“Funding is not easy to come by in this economic climate, and even with the funds in place, there is always the danger that corruption and the often poisonous local rivalries can get in the way of implementation, as has happened in the stuttering reconstruction of Anbar’s cities,” Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, told Al Jazeera.
One of the biggest challenges for post-ISIL Mosul will be the question of effective governance. With a variety of local, national and regional interests converging on Nineveh province, the city could be pulled in several different directions.
Acknowledging that a post-ISIL political plan was not resolved before the battle for Mosul began, senior Western officials told Al Jazeera that discussions have been under way between the UN, Iraqi forces and the US-led international coalition about how to address the issue of interim leadership.
In the meantime, the UN Development Programme has been preparing to restore power grids, reopen businesses and get local residents back to work, said Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian and resident coordinator. In Tikrit, this type of stabilisation work took several months and cost around $8m.
“I think we have to be prepared for the possibility that it will require a number of weeks, maybe even longer, to ensure that the city is fully safe,” Grande told Al Jazeera, noting that there will likely be residual ISIL units or sleeper cells remaining inside Mosul after the battle ends. “In this very sensitive period after a city has been liberated, violence, retaliation and revenge often occur.”
, we have to build a solid trust with the citizens, and to ensure their well-being. This is the only way to ensure stability again.”]
Ranj Alaaldin, a Middle East scholar at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, noted that ISIL fighters would likely “blend back into the local population” after Mosul’s recapture and continue their battle via suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices, targeting both civilians and Iraqi security forces.
“Expect revenge killings between the different factions and groups within and from Mosul itself,” Alaaldin told Al Jazeera. “ISIS could also splinter into different groups or align themselves with other extremist groups to mount a concerted challenge against the Iraqi security forces.”
Relations will also likely be strained between civilians who stayed in Mosul during ISIL’s rule and those who fled, Fantappie said, citing a perception among some Iraqis that those who remained behind were “cooperating” with ISIL – even when they had nothing to do with the armed group and simply did not want to move away and lose their homes.
From an economic perspective, meanwhile, one of the key post-ISIL issues will be sorting through property claims, with vast amounts of the city’s property estimated to have changed hands since the 2014 invasion, according to Grande. Throughout Iraq, local adjudication systems for compensation claims by families who have suffered deaths, injuries or property damage have been overwhelmed, she added.
“Mosul may face a nightmare on land and property rights,” Grande noted.
In a broader sense, Alaaldin estimated that it would take hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, to rehabilitate the towns and cities destroyed during the course of the campaign against ISIL.
“Iraq lacks the resources to fund this reconstruction, and the international community and international organisations have constrained resources,” he said. “That will make it more difficult to stabilise the country, implement good governance initiatives and give people jobs and basic services.”
Nureddin Qabalan, vice president of the provincial council of Nineveh, told Al Jazeera that the task of securing Mosul in the post-ISIL months would fall to local police and Iraqi security forces, in line with standard procedure. However, in terms of rebuilding the shattered city, the future remains murky.
“Although there is a fund in Iraq to rebuild the recaptured areas from ISIL, sadly, until now, Nineveh province hasn’t received any particular funds for rebuilding. But once ISIL is pushed out, I expect the donor countries might help us in securing funds,” Qabalan said.
“Stability can only be achieved through powerful leadership, law enforcement and setting aside all foreign agendas and political affiliation … Once Mosul is [recaptured], we have to build a solid trust with the citizens, and to ensure their well-being. This is the only way to ensure stability again.”
None of this will be possible, however, until Iraqi officials nail down a post-ISIL governance strategy, Alaaldin said.
“[It is vital to have] a legitimate political structure to replace ISIS in northern Iraq, as well as the capacity, political leadership and resources to rebuild the towns and cities destroyed,” he said. “At the moment, there is no political and humanitarian strategy or framework for the day after ISIS.”
With a report from Salam Khoder
Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter @megan_otoole