Mosul, said by some to be modern Iraq’s second and by others its third most populous city, was originally awarded to France as part of Syria under the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement. François Georges-Picot, the French delegate at the secret negotiations that divided the Ottoman Empire into British, French and Russian satrapies, laid out France’s dubious claim to Mosul and the area around it. Foreign Office notes of secret discussions in London on 23 November 1915, ‘Results of second meeting of Committee to discuss Arab question and Syria’, report that M. Picot stated his view that ‘France would never consent to offer independence to the Arabs’ and claimed all of Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Mosul, Diyarbekir and Cilicia for France. (After the war, France took Syria and Lebanon. Palestine and Mosul went to Britain. Turkey held Diyarbekir and Cilicia.) An unnamed India Office official said that, until twenty years before, Mosul vilayet had been attached to the districts of Basra and Baghdad, both claimed by Britain. According to the minutes, ‘M. Picot replied that it was impossible to consider the situation of twenty years ago as affecting the situation much today; that the French claim to Mosul consisted in the fact that since about twenty years the French had had schools there; that many of the inhabitants spoke French and were imbued with French interests.’
The connection between schools and foreign conquest was new to international law, but states have occupied other countries for less – Iraq and its illusory weapons of mass destruction being a modern example. Britain, it turned out, did not want Mosul in 1915. ‘In secretly planning to take Mosul, Picot was unaware that Kitchener and Sykes were secretly planning to give it to him,’ David Fromkin wrote in A Peace to End All Peace (1989). ‘They wanted the French sphere of influence to be extended from the Mediterranean coast on the west all the way to the east so that it paralleled and adjoined Russian-held zones; the French zone was to provide Britain with a shield against Russia.’ Two events cancelled French claims to Mosul. The first was the Russian Revolution two years later that took Russia out of the war and thus deprived it of Ottoman spoils. The second was the discovery of oil near Mosul. The exclusion of Russia and the inclusion of oil made Mosul a more attractive proposition for Britain. It was not until 1925, when the League of Nations dismissed Turkey’s claims to its former province, that Britain added Mosul and the Kurdish areas north and east of it to the newly minted state of Iraq. France was persuaded to forget Mosul’s French teachers, schools and Francophone Arabs in exchange for a 25 per cent share of Iraqi oil that had been confiscated from Deutsche Bank.
Another claimant to Mosul’s oil had to be placated. Sir Arthur Hirtzel, head of the political department at the India Office, wrote in February 1919, as the final touches were put to the postwar settlement, that ‘it should be borne in mind that the Standard Oil Company is very anxious to take over Iraq.’ The United States wanted Mosul to remain in Turkey, which would have given it better access to Mosul oil than Britain would have. To appease America, Britain granted it a 25 per cent stake in the oil – a more generous tranche than the US gave Britain of the contracts doled out after their joint 2003 invasion. Thus Mosul was purchased for Iraq by Britain from its French and American allies with oil belonging to Arabs.
Hanna Batatu, whose The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (1978) is the most comprehensive modern history of Iraq up to the time Saddam Hussein seized it, called Mosul ‘an Arab rampart projecting into territory’ which the Kurds ‘considered their own’. It is perhaps the most cosmopolitan, and reactionary, city in Iraq. Astride the River Tigris, it was the northernmost reach of the Arab conquest. Beyond Mosul were non-Arabs – Kurds, Turks, Yazidis and Christians. Mosul was the limit of Arab territory in the north, just as Persia was to the east and Spain’s frontier with France in the west. The Arabs lost Spain in the 15th century, but they did not lose Mosul.
Its population of about 1.8 million is half Arab, and the remainder are Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Chaldean Christians and Turcomen. Mosul was the site of communal outrages in the late 19th century when the Ottoman authorities – advised by the then equivalent of the IMF – seized peasant lands and gave them to large landowners. Thus Ottoman agriculture adapted to the West’s global economy. Mosul’s rich landlords were allowed to buy property at a quarter of its value, and peasants who resisted were imprisoned. Violence between classes, sects and races followed. In 1909, a Mosul mob murdered the prominent Kurdish statesman Sheikh Said of Barzinji and 18 of his retainers. Sheikh Said’s son, Sheikh Mahmoud, went on to become president of the only independent Kurdish state of the 20th century, the Mahabad Republic. (Stalin established Mahabad in northern Iran in 1946 and, under American pressure, abandoned it the same year. The Shah of Iran hanged Sheikh Mahmoud, but his minister of defence, Mullah Moustafa Barzani, reached the Soviet Union and lived to fight the Iraqi government from 1961 until 1975, when the Americans – having used him to force Saddam Hussein to sign a border agreement with the Shah – left his people to be slaughtered by Saddam’s army. The Mahabad flag flies today in Iraqi Kurdistan, one of many emblems of the Kurds’ desire for independence from Iraq.)
In 1933, Mosul’s Assyrian Christians staged demonstrations demanding their rights under the Iraqi monarchy and protesting the house arrest of their patriarch. Iraq’s minister of defence, a Kurdish general named Bakr Sidqi, crushed them in a manner that Saddam Hussein would later emulate. His merciless assaults culminated in the massacre of 300 men, women and children who had sought refuge in a police station in the village of Simel. The bloodshed in Mosul destroyed the belief of Iraq’s first monarch, King Feisal I, in the country that Britain had assigned him to govern: ‘There is still – and I say this with a heart full of sorrow – no Iraqi people but an unimaginable mass of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever,’ Feisal wrote in March 1933.
Feisal died in Berne, where he had sought medical treatment, a few months later. Bakr Sidqi, whom Jan Morris called ‘a Kurdish Goering’, was himself murdered in Mosul in 1937. Mosul’s reputation for violence, however, was at an early stage. Its most awful hour came in March 1959, a year after the revolution that deposed Feisal’s grandson, 23-year-old Feisal II. The Mosul insurrection grew out of the Agrarian Reform Law of 1958, enacted by the revolutionary leader General Abdel Karim Kassem to restore lands that the Ottomans had taken from the peasants sixty years earlier. Among the landowning leaders of the Mosul rebellion were the vast Shammar tribe and the Kashmoulah family. Today, the Shammar’s tribal leader, Ghazi Yawer, is interim president of Iraq; and Dureid Kashmoulah is governor of Mosul’s Nineveh province, appointed by Yawer’s government. (There may be more going on in Iraq than the American military, which says its troops are fighting ‘bad guys’, is aware.) In 1959, as later under Saddam, Mosul provided between a quarter and a third of Iraq’s officer corps and much of its secret service. The riots, on the surface between Communists and the incipient Baath Party, seemed to involve every ethnic group, sect and party in the city. The Communists supported Kassem and the land reforms, while the Baath and other Arab nationalists sought to depose him and force Iraq into the United Arab Republic that Egypt and Syria had just formed. The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood – their Iraqi birthplace was Mosul – supported Kassem out of hatred for Nasser, who had suppressed them in Egypt.
Commanders of the Fifth Brigade in Mosul and anti-Kassem officers in Baghdad plotted to overthrow the general for promising land to the peasants and autonomy to the Kurds. On 5 March 1959, about a quarter of a million demonstrators – more than Mosul’s population of 180,000 – came from nearby towns and villages to march through the city in support of Kassem. The marches were peaceful, and many people left when they ended. Two days later, Baathists burned left-wing bookshops and a café frequented by Communists. Later that afternoon, Baathists and supporters of the Kashmoulah clan ran into a group of Communists in the streets. The two sides exchanged fire, and there were casualties. At dawn the next morning, the Fifth Brigade commanders – out of touch with their fellow putschists in Baghdad, who had drawn back from overthrowing Kassem – arrested many Communists. Fighting continued, but by now everyone was involved. In an often-quoted passage, Batatu wrote:
For four days and four nights Kurds and Yezidis stood against Arabs; Assyrian and Aramaean Christians against Arab Muslims; the Arab tribe of Albu Mutaiwat against the Arab tribe of Shammar; the Kurdish tribe of al-Gargariyyah against Arab Albu Mutaiwat; the peasants of Mosul country against their landlords; the soldiers of the Fifth Brigade against their officers; the periphery of the city of Mosul against its centre; the plebeians of the Arab quarters of al-Makkawi and Wadi Hajar against the aristocrats of the Arab quarter of ad-Dawwash; and with the quarter of Bab al-Baid, the family of al-Rajabu against its traditional rivals, the Aghawat.
He added: ‘The social hatred, fermenting for years, had been let loose.’ Nasser realised that his own dictum, ‘Arabs don’t fight Arabs,’ was fantasy. As with Feisal before him, it was Mosul that caused him to lose his political faith. Arab nationalism, ‘Nasserism’ to many, began its slow death in Mosul. Nasser was less popular with the Iraqi people than he had imagined – something the Americans discovered about themselves last year. Before Mosul, the Baath Party leadership mirrored Iraqi society: 38.5 per cent Sunni, 53.8 per cent Shia and 7.7 per cent Kurd. Post-Mosul government purges left the Baath hierarchy 84.9 per cent Sunni and only 5.7 per cent Shia. The Shia members suffered most, Batatu wrote, because ‘Sunni Baathists were often from the same town or province or tribe as members of the police; the Departments of Interior or Security teemed with functionaries from the province of ar-Ramadi and the northern districts of Baghdad province, from which many Baathists also hailed.’ The police allowed fellow Sunnis to go free, but they were more conscientious with the Shia. The Baath came to be dominated by its military wing, headed by a general from Tikrit, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, and, later, his relation, an assassin who headed the security apparatus, Saddam Hussein. Today, the Americans call the area around Ramadi and north of Baghdad ‘the Sunni triangle’. ‘Iraq is now the most dangerous spot on earth,’ the CIA director, Allen Dulles, told Congress after the Mosul debacle.
Given this background, no one should be surprised that the Baath Party began regrouping in Mosul while the American occupation forces were demolishing Fallujah. In Fallujah, Islamic fundamentalists led the hopeless fight. In Mosul, the leadership is Baathist. The Baath – the word is Arabic for ‘renaissance’ – has been resurrected before. After seizing and losing power in 1963, when it overthrew Kassem, it went underground until 1968. In the meantime, its officials – including the young and, according to a British intelligence report at the time, ‘charming’ Saddam Hussein – met with American Embassy and CIA staff in Cairo to discuss their shared interest in suppressing Communism in Iraq. Now, the Baath has its tentacles in both the resistance to American occupation and in the government the Americans have appointed. The interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, is not the only former Baathist in the new order. Some analysts say that the two wings of the party are fighting each other, one using the Americans and the other opposing them. Others believe the two factions are co-operating to seize power when the Americans leave.
A few days before I went to Mosul, ‘insurgents’ seized most of the city’s police stations. More than three out of four thousand policemen either deserted or joined the rebellion. The rebels captured police weapons and thousands of uniforms, with which they will be able to establish bogus police checkpoints. (One FBI agent at Baghdad Airport advised an Iraqi American, who had just been released by kidnappers, to shoot if stopped at any Iraqi police checkpoint unless American troops were with the police. A minister in the Kurdish Regional Government, whose convoy was ambushed between Erbil and Baghdad, told me he was sure the police had informed insurgents of their position.) Insurgents patrolled the streets of Mosul, and they seemed to enjoy support among the city’s Arabs. One Kurdish commander in the city said that 95 per cent of the Arab population were helping the terrorists, as he called them. ‘Mosul was about to be lost,’ Brigadier Anwar Dolan, commander of the Iraqi National Guard brigade in Kurdish Suleimania, told me, ‘so, the Iraqi defence minister asked for forces from Suleimania, Dohouk and Erbil.’ Suleimania, Dohouk and Erbil are the capitals of the three Kurdish provinces that make up the Kurdish Regional Government, and all of its soldiers are Kurds.
The Kurds, whose region came into being under the American air umbrella that kept Saddam Hussein away after 1991, are the only ethnic group in Iraq loyal to the Americans. When Arab soldiers desert rather than fight fellow Arabs, the Americans call in the Kurds. The Kurdish leaders, Moustafa Barzani in the northwest and Jalal Talabani in the southeast of Iraqi Kurdistan, have committed 32,000 of their Peshmergas – ‘those who face death’ – to the Iraqi National Guard. Nominally under the Ministry of Defence in Baghdad, they report to their own officers. Sending them to Mosul increases the danger of an ethnic war – of Arab against Kurd – that might one day lead to the ethnic cleansing of Mosul’s 400,000 Kurds. Kurdish commanders told me that Arabs had murdered many Kurds on the west bank of the Tigris, where Arabs are the majority and from where many Kurdish and Christian families have fled. One mullah, killed a few days later, told his congregation in Mosul that it was their duty to kill Kurds just as it was their duty to kill Americans.
Kurdish commanders in Mosul are more aware than the Americans of the dangers posed by their forces’ presence. They, at least, know the history and the passions. ‘You are right,’ Moustafa Sayid Kadir, the deputy commander of Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Pershmergas, said when I asked him whether committing so many Kurdish fighters to fight in Arab areas was dangerous. ‘It’s crazy to send 10,000 Pershmergas to Arab Iraq . . . I don’t want Arab soldiers here or Peshmergas there.’ The Kurds have the largest and strongest indigenous force in Iraq, for now. With only 15 per cent of Iraq’s 25 million population, however, they could find their troops outnumbered by Arabs some day – as they did in the past.
The insurgents’ plan, according to Sadi Ahmed Pire, the PUK’s commander in Mosul, ‘was to eliminate the police stations, the Kurdish offices and then the Kurdish community. The Baath Party worked to create an ethnic war.’ His opposite number on the other side of Mosul, General Younis Rozbayani of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), took the same view. Of the insurgents’ attitude to the Kurds, he said: ‘If they could, they would not just expel them, they would slaughter them.’ But are the Kurds likely to provoke the ethnic cleansing and civil war they are fighting to prevent? Becoming America’s Gurkhas will not endear them to the Arabs. Leaving America to fight on its own risks inviting it to abandon the Kurds again – as they did in 1975 and 1991, when George Bush senior, having called on the Kurds and the Shias to rise up and overthrow their dictator, suddenly permitted Saddam to crush their rebellion with his air force.
The Kurds have a Kurdish interest, more than an Iraqi one, in Mosul. Protecting Mosul means defending the Kurds who live there. More important, Mosul is vital to the defence of their capital Erbil – about fifty miles away. ‘Last Friday, if they had succeeded here,’ Sadi Ahmed Pire said, ‘we would have had to remove our headquarters to Erbil. The protection of Kurdistan depends on the security of Mosul, Kirkuk and Diyala.’ Mosul, Kirkuk and Diyala are the borders of the area that, according to local public opinion polls, 95 per cent of Iraqi Kurds in the north want for their independent state. They hope to add Kirkuk to the area under their control. Kirkuk was a majority Kurdish city, until Saddam expelled hundreds of thousands of Kurds and replaced them with Arab settlers from the south. They want Kirkuk, but they do not want Mosul.
Dohouk, Erbil, Suleimania and the other Kurdish cities north of the Green Line – the Kurds’ frontier from 1991 when they expelled Saddam’s army – are peaceful and secure. Even foreigners like myself can walk the streets in safety, and there is a lively press that criticises the Kurdish administration. Why is it so different from the rest of the country? I suspect it is because the Kurds liberated themselves from Saddam and are not occupied by the American army. The Kurds are doing all they can to prevent the spread of war from the American-occupied zones of Iraq. ‘We have noticed deliberate pressure on Kurdish families and individuals who have been targeted because they are Kurds,’ Moustafa Barzani told me. Barzani and Talabani are reluctant to make plans to settle thousands of displaced Kurds because such planning in itself might invite the disaster they want to avoid. I asked Barzani if the Americans listen to him when he tells them of the danger the American alliance represents to the Kurds. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said.
Just before I left Mosul, the battles were dying down. American armoured cars patrolled the streets, and Kurds were manning the checkpoints. There was some shooting, but most of the insurgents had left the field. I asked a KDP official, Sadiq Zavati, if the war for Mosul had ended. ‘It’s not over,’ he said. ‘It’s just beginning.’