Tale of two Islamic State cities: Mosul and Raqqa
Mosul fears Iraq’s government while Raqqa dreads anarchy once Isis is defeated
Special forces in Mosul, Iraq, where Sunni residents fear Iraqi Shia soldiers might take revenge for Mosul’s capitulation to Islamic State in 2014. Photograph: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
The people of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria are eagerly but fearfully awaiting liberation from Islamic State. Under its brutal rule, they face taxes and fines imposed to fund a harsh regime which forces men to grow beards and pray in mosques five times a day, women to cover themselves and remain at home, and boys to learn how to shoot and use suicide vests.
Islamic State, also known as Isis, punishes smokers and users of mobile phones and computers connected to the internet. Dissidents and suspected spies are decapitated, crucified, burnt alive or drowned. Isis fighters appropriate whichever girls and women they fancy and take over homes.
In spite of the treatment they have endured, citizens of both cities fear their liberators. The estimated 1.1 million largely Sunni residents of Mosul – “Muslawis” – fear Iraqi Shia soldiers and militiamen who could wreak revenge for Mosul’s capitulation to Islamic State in June 2014.
Muslawis are deeply suspicious of the Shia fundamentalist-dominated government headed by Haider al-Abadi, a moderate but weak figure, and fear the return to power of former Shia strongman Nouri al-Maliki.
He formed paramilitary groups under his direct control which detained, tortured and killed Sunnis who protested against marginalisation and mistreatment. Islamic State gained ground during his eight-year tenure due to his determination to suppress Sunnis who, in response, demanded autonomy for regions where they predominate. Baghdad rejected this option.
Since October, US-backed Iraqi army special forces, troops and militias have sealed off Mosul and cut the city in half, taking over the western districts and driving Islamic State into the eastern sector.
Heaven and hell
The Tigris river bisects the city and forms the border between heaven and hell. The 400,000 residents of freed areas of east Mosul enjoy traffic-clogged streets, shops selling fresh vegetables, and boys playing football despite the rattle of gunfire and the thud of explosions from the front.
Islamic State has proclaimed the eastern sector Dar al-Harb – house of war – and the western sector Dar al-Islam – house of believers – following the tradition of historical wars between Muslims and non-Muslims. Those who dwell in Dar al-Harb are regarded by Islamic State as infidels and apostates who can be attacked and killed without mercy.
Muslawis who live in the west survive on little food and face constant bombardment. Those in the east contend with Islamic State mortars, car bombs, snipers and deprivation because of the paucity of humanitarian aid.
Since Baghdad has postponed the main advance on the western part of the city until March, the 700,000 Muslawis who remain in the west will continue to face privation and death from air strikes, bombardment, or crossfire from battles. Islamic State executes anyone caught trying to cross the Tigris to the east and shoots those who attempt to flee by land.
In both sectors, sewage is untreated and rubbish piles up in the streets. There is no electricity or water. Baghdad has provided no administration for the west, schools remain closed and civil service salaries have not been paid. Rival factions are carving out fiefdoms.
Outsiders entering east Mosul have said war damage is relatively light compared to the devastation inflicted by the Iraqi army on Falluja, Ramadi and other cities recaptured from Islamic State. So far, heavy land and air bombardment has been limited and the Iraqi army has refrained from abusing civilians. Most of the population has followed Baghdad’s call to remain at home.
However, UN humanitarian co-ordinator Lise Grande has said that civilian deaths count for half the number of deaths inflicted by the combatants rather than an expected 15-20 per cent.
Like Mosul, Raqqa in Syria, the de facto Islamic State capital home to 400,000 people, is in the eye of a storm brewed by US-sponsored forces. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began their offensive two months ago by cutting northern supply routes to the Turkish border. Residents of Raqqa – Raqqawis – fear starvation if the battle is long.
The blog Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, has protested against civilian casualties after reporting the US-led coalition had killed at least 100 people during air raids on villages near Raqqa. The SDF has captured 97 villages to the north and west of Raqqa; little is known about their inhabitants.
The SDF seeks to capture the Tabqa dam on Lake Assad and encircle Raqqa in preparation for the drive to take control of the city. Raqqawis are as concerned about what will happen after “liberation” as during the battle.
There is an agreement between the SDF, which is overwhelmingly Kurdish, and allied Arab brigades, limiting the SDF’s role to expelling Islamic State and providing security while the city’s administration will be assumed by locals rather than the Syrian government.
This means Raqqa could become a self-ruling city state separated from Damascus, its fate dependent on negotiations between the government and opposition delegations that do not include Raqqawis.
Furthermore, Kurdish territorial ambitions have been stirred by military success. Arab villagers along the Syrian-Turkish border have been expelled and prevented from returning home.
Once liberated, Mosul fears Iraq’s government while Raqqa dreads the anarchy caused by fighting factions.