Mosul operation must ‘win the people’, says Iraqi commander

Assault to recapture city from Islamic State may see as many as 700,000 civilians flee

Maj Gen Najim al-Jabouri, commander of the Nineveh Liberation Operation, at his temporary HQ in Makhmur ahead of the planned assault on Mosul. Photograph:  Ruaidhrí Giblin

Maj Gen Najim al-Jabouri, commander of the Nineveh Liberation Operation, at his temporary HQ in Makhmur ahead of the planned assault on Mosul. Photograph: Ruaidhrí Giblin

 

Iraqi forces in the assault on Mosul must “win the people” as well as the battle, according to the Iraqi general in charge of the operation begun on Monday.

Estimates put the number of civilians in Mosul – the capital of Nineveh province – at more than a million, and the UN’s refugee agency has warned of “massive displacement on a scale not seen globally for many years”, as the attempt to recapture the city from Islamic State proceeds.

However, while it has been estimated that as many as 700,000 civilians might flee, Maj Gen Najim Al-Jabouri, commander of the Nineveh Liberation Operation, does not expect an exodus on that scale.

“We have plan A, B, C . . . but I don’t think all the people will leave,” Jabouri said.

Speaking to The Irish Times at his temporary headquarters in Makhmur, 75km south of Mosul, before the assault began, Jabouri said Iraqi security forces did not evacuate nearby Qayyarah of civilians prior to a recent offensive against Islamic State, also known as Isis, in that city.

Instead, the people stayed in their homes, there was a partial uprising and, when Islamic State launched a counter-offensive, some locals “joined the security forces on the frontline”, Jabouri said. It was a “good sign” the people were “ready to fight Isis”, he said, and he expected the people of Mosul to rise up too.

Civil war experience

Jabouri fought with government forces alongside US soldiers against al-Qaeda when he was mayor of Tel Afar, west of Mosul, during the bloodiest years of Iraq’s sectarian civil war.

A Sunni Muslim, he believes Tel Afar was a model for an integrated Iraq, which has been divided along sectarian lines since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

There is trepidation among Iraq’s majority Shia as to how the country’s security forces will be received in Mosul, a predominantly Sunni Arab city. But there are also regrets about how Sunni Arabs were treated by previous Shia governmnents and determination to avoid the possible partition of Iraq – with Mosul the potential capital of a future Sunni state.

“We know very well,” said Jabouri, “the relationship between the security forces and the people was very bad because the people gave safe haven to Isis and some groups.”

Now it was different, he said. “Now we win the people in Qayyarah. We deal with them very well. We establish many bridges between the security forces and the people.”

“We support them immediately with water, flour, foods. They are our big family and we just look for the bad people. If anyone fight us, we will fight you. If anybody bad we send him to the court,” he said.

“The local people who fought with Isis, the majority of them [are] mafia, not believers because always they look for money, for women, for power, they go to oil wells, they go to rich cities, like this.”

“Isis is a mix between al-Qaeda and mafia,” Jabouri added. “Al-Qaeda, the majority of them [are] believers, not like Isis.”

Opposition strength

He questioned estimates about the strength of the opposition facing the Iraqi army and its partners in the US-led coalition taking part in the assault on Mosul. “Some people say Isis [have] about 20,000, 30,000 [fighters and supporters] in Mosul. I don’t believe that.” He puts the figure at “not more than 3,000”.

“In the beginning they sent all the strong fighters to [our area], many of them run away from battle.

Many of the terror group’s leaders had escaped or been killed, he said. “And I know very well, the local fighters are not good fighters.”

He supported the view of the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, that the recapture of Mosul would be completed by the end of the year.

Asked if defeat in Mosul would end Islamic State in Iraq, Jabouri said “no”, as it would take time to defeat the group’s ideology. “Many people, many children,” he said, had been living under Islamic State for 2½ years.

“We need to repair everything. We need some curriculums in the schools, some efforts to recover the people under Isis,” he said. “And also this depends on the local government and central government, they must take care of the people and not return all the mistakes that happened before.”

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