It used to be the beating heart of Mosul. Nearly three years after liberation from Islamic State, the Old City on the west bank of the Tigris still looks like a warzone, with street after street of bombed-out buildings, floors collapsing like smashed filo pastry. Locals speak of corpses beneath the rubble, which is crawling with rats and snakes.
At some point, Ahmed stopped going in to clean up. “We used to pull out the corpses and burn them, just to get rid of the smell,” says the 35-year-old construction worker, who had a home there, owned by the family for four generations. “We did it without the help of our government. The Iraqi government is not in charge here.”
So, who is in charge?
Ahmed isn’t answering that question. He’s practically given up on reconstruction. But he won’t be kicking up a stink anytime soon. Like many Sunnis in this former Ba’athist stronghold, he’s bitterly aware that mass protests in 2012-13 — against the hostile Shia-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki — opened the door to the deadliest terror group in the world.
“If we protest, they’ll accuse us of terrorism,” says Ahmed, resigned. “We suffered a lot and we don’t want to get involved with politics now.” Most Moslawis who spoke to The Irish Times felt the same way. In this broken city, there’s an air of claustrophobia, a sense that the walls have ears – only it’s not Islamic State listening now.
These days, Mosul has new masters. A jumbled assortment of Iran-backed militias, known collectively as the Hashd al-Shaabi. Rallied by Iraq's top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to fight Islamic State (or Isis) after the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014, they are now competing for their share of the spoils — in this case, the lucrative reconstruction contracts approved by allies in the provincialauthorities, with a little nudge from their ultra-powerful leaders inBaghdad.
“It is mafia,” says one nervous academic, who asks not to be named. “The mafia are stealing the money, the ideas and the hope.”
By all accounts, Mosul has turned into mafialand. “There are lots of actors, with lots of money and lots of guns,” says RenadMansour, a research fellow at Chatham House. Last year, the rot was exposed, after an accident involving a ferry bound for Umm Rabaen island, a popular attraction on the Tigris.
Not only did the owners ignore official warnings about the dangerously swollen current, they packed the vessel way beyond capacity. Inevitably, it capsized. More than 120 people died.
On this occasion, people did take to the streets. It turned out that Umm Rabaen was corruption central, part-owned by a local leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, one of Iraq’s most fearsome Shia militias. (The Iran proxy has a history of kidnapping and running sectarian death squads, and was recently designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the US.)
The then-governor, Nawfal al-Akoub, was also caught in the dragnet, accused of numerous abuses, including meddling in reconstruction projects and involvement with militia companies.
The new governor, Najm al-Jabouri, a general who oversaw theMosul offensive, is known to be no friend of the militias. Though it doesn’t look like they’ll be leaving anytime soon. They’re making too much money in sectors like scrap metal and real estate. And they raking it in at checkpoints – to the tune of hundreds of thousands of US dollars per day on oil routes, according to Mansour. The checkpoints are perhaps the biggest symbol of their control. And of Baghdad’s relative impotence.
Last year, Adel Abdul Mahdi, currently on “voluntary absence” from his role as caretaker prime minister, threw down the gauntlet, ordering the militias, which receive state funds, to fully integrate into the Iraqi army. That included an order to shut down the checkpoints.
He might as well have been shouting into the wind. Eight months on, checkpoints are still being run by the likes of Brigade 30, a Shia militia belonging to the local Shabak ethnic group, and the Babylon Brigade, a Christian militia loyal to Tehran.
Word is that the Hashd is not only above the law. It is the law.
While this may provoke anxiety in some, for others it is reassuring. Some people from minorities like the Shabak and the Christians, who were heavily persecuted by Islamic State, feel protected by the militias. It gives them what is known locally as “phone power”. Sitting in the university cafe, Amad, a 23-year-old Shabak, who escaped with her family in the first months of Islamic State rule, says that she was terrified when she came back home last year. Asked who is in charge, she replies “Hashd”, without missing a beat.
“They helped to liberate us!” she says. “I know lots of Hashd and I feel safe among them. We are afraid that if the Hashd leave, the city will turn back to Daesch.”
With jobs scarce, the militias are attracting recruits from all groups, Sunnis included. Zayd, a young Sunni man met in a tea shop, says that Islamic State left people feeling so vulnerable that the promise of power and agency can prove irresistible. “That guywho has no job, who feels weak and worthless, who was hit by Daesch in front of his daughters, who felt unable to defend his family, if someone comes to him and promises to give him a gun and a lot of money so he’ll be untouchable, he’s gonna say yes,”he says.
“You see a lot of familiar faces in the foreign forces,” he says. “If they talk to me, I’ll talk to them. The problem is not with the soldiers. It’s the tactics.”
The presence of the Iran-backed militias in the city after liberation was always going to be an issue. There’s a growing resentment at their depiction of themselves as liberators, even as they plunder the very resources that were meant to rebuild the city.
“They didn’t even liberate us, yet they take all the glory,” says Zayd. While the militias undoubtedly played a big role in fighting Islamic State, it is well known that their role in the battle for Mosulwas confined to the city margins.
Many Moslawis still cling to the memory of Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism forces, known as the Golden Division, that spearheaded the assault on Islamic State in the narrow streets of Mosul’s Old City, a battle that marked the end of the Iraqi half of the caliphate under the world’s gaze. These highly trained soldiers did the job of regular infantry, suffering massive losses in the process. To many locals, these were the real liberators of the city, the real heroes.
It's one of the few sources of Iraqi national pride left in town, a non-sectarian myth to rally behind. Like elsewhere in Iraq, Moslawis want a government free of foreign interference to take charge.
But, after all the terror, after all the suffering, just as this once-prosperous city was about to look to the future, history is being rewritten – by gangsters.
It’s like Ahmed said. The Iraqi government is not in charge here.