As Mosul residents prepare to return home, they fear that the city they once knew is gone.
The Iraqi army’s progress in Mosul over the past few months flies in the face of the narrative that has been created about Iraq since 2003. Narratives are often constructed, but rarely as aggressively as the story according to which Iraq is an artificial country comprising people who deeply mistrust each other.
The invasion of Mosul and Tikrit by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in 2014 was supposed to be the narrative’s final chapter: The people of both cities had allegedly welcomed their invaders and cursed the Iraqi army as it withdrew from their streets, further proving that Iraq would be better served if it were split apart.
Today, the battle to liberate Mosul has shattered much of that narrative, but you might have missed this if you were not paying close attention. Iraq may be an artificial construction, but no more so than the crushing majority of states around the world – and developments on the ground actually point in the opposite direction, for a number of reasons.
There are those who said that Mosul’s population actively welcomed ISIL in June 2014. The city’s population chafed under the control of the Iraqi army, which made life for its inhabitants miserable.
Analysts and commentators in various parts of the world claimed that Mosul’s population took sides in the conflict, throwing their lot in with ISIL. A video was widely circulated on social media, supposedly showing Mosul’s inhabitants stoning Iraqi army vehicles on their way out of the city – never mind that the video was actually from Sadr City in 2008.
Other recordings showing ISIL fighters parading through Mosul were presented as evidence that residents supported their presence, but even a superficial analysis clearly showed that onlookers were always few and far between, passive and unenthusiastic. ISIL’s propaganda videos, meanwhile, had as much value as Saddam Hussein’s efforts to prove how much he was loved by the very people he oppressed.
What should have been obvious to everyone was that the vast majority of Mosul’s population wanted a fair settlement in an Iraqi context – something that both ISIL and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were incapable of delivering.
This explains Mosul residents’ passivity and their focus on simply trying to survive in very difficult circumstances, which continue to this day. Polls have since confirmed this very obvious point, which has been underscored by the relief that Mosul’s residents expressed at the sight of Iraqi army personnel retaking their city.
There are those who said that Iraqis had no will to fight. Senior American officials, Iraqi militia commanders and deeply politicised analysts claimed that Iraqi soldiers were abandoning their positions as ISIL approached because of a lack of motivation.
They offered two separate explanations for that claim: firstly, that Iraqis could not successfully battle ISIL from within a national army because of its heterogeneity, which could not match the determination of homogeneous forces such as ISIL, Shia militias and the Peshmerga. That position was maintained by L Paul Bremer, who wrote in his 2004 memoir that the former Iraqi army had to be dissolved because Shia soldiers would never follow orders issued by Sunni officers.
The second explanation was that, regardless of the context, Iraq’s population had no sense of loyalty to their country. The claim was that southern Iraqis would not want to liberate areas in northern Iraq, which was thinly veiled code to say that Shia Muslims would not want to liberate Sunni-dominated areas.
Accordingly, if the people wanted to be free, they would have to bear that burden themselves. That argument was tantamount to writing Mosul off altogether: From 2006 to 2014, Iraq’s security forces received approximately $100bn from Iraq’s own budget, yet had been completely overrun by ISIL. Clearly, Mosul’s population of labourers, doctors and bureaucrats stood no chance.
The term “essential Iraq” was even floated in 2014 to describe parts of the country that Iraqi security forces should defend from ISIL, roughly corresponding to Shia-majority areas, Baghdad and the shrine city of Samarra. The term was deeply offensive to those Iraqis who had been overrun by ISIL and who were struggling to survive.
Today, Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service has put the lie to the basis of these claims. It is Iraq’s most diverse fighting force and also its most successful by far, in terms of training, equipment and progress on the ground.
The images are hard to appreciate without understanding the context: Thousands of young men from all parts of the country are fighting to liberate Mosul. They have taken extraordinary risks to protect civilians from harm. Wounded soldiers demand to be released by medical staff so that they can return to the front lines as soon as possible.
Their bravery, professionalism and dedication have affected the country’s national psyche in ways that are so far undocumented, unreported and under-appreciated.
Finally, there are those who have tracked progress against ISIL and who assume that the battle is essentially over. However, the manner in which the battle for Mosul has progressed reveals much about the challenges that lay ahead for the city and the country.
Despite the Counter Terrorism Force’s successes, the regular army’s training, operating procedures and adherence to the rule of law are still lacking.
In a terrible miscalculation last December, army units plunged deep into ISIL-held territory and were promptly surrounded, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries. Since then, various branches of the security sector have committed to coordinating their actions on a more regular basis. In the rest of the country, the army and police still engage in the type of random arrests that contributed to the collapse of security throughout the country in 2014.
Despite all the promises and statements made on this issue, security forces in various parts of the country still use the notoriously useless “magic wands” as a means to detect car bombs. In Tikrit, meanwhile, the sprawling university campus was looted by army officers, who made off with whatever they could and damaged beyond use whatever they could not.
As the Counter Terrorism Service makes progress on the ground, it will cede territory and control to the regular army and to other branches of the security services, which do not operate according to the same standards. The challenge will then be to impose order in their ranks, and to ensure that their primary task is to secure the city’s inhabitants without repeating failed tactics of the past.