If only they would leave

Patrick Cockburn reports from northern Iraq

The Islamic State is becoming even more repressive and violent as it comes under increased military pressure from its many enemies. It shows no mercy to those who resist its rule – such as the Albu Nimr tribe in western Iraq, 581 members of which Isis recently executed. This isn’t random slaughter: Isis has a well-organised security service that strikes pre-emptively at potential critics and opponents. Last month in Mosul, the largest Sunni Arab city Isis holds, two women who had stood as candidates in the Iraqi parliamentary election were shot dead, though they had publicly repented their actions. Isis is convinced that spies are everywhere working against it. Shortly after the former candidates were executed, Mosul’s two million inhabitants suddenly found that their mobile phones were no longer working: Isis had closed the whole network down, apparently because informers were tipping off the US air force about the location of its leaders – one of them, the governor of Mosul, had been killed in his car by an airstrike. In a sign of the Islamic State’s nervousness about the situation in Mosul, it has ordered that at least one man from every family must join its military forces or pay a fine equivalent to $1250.

But there is more to Isis than cruelty, violence and religious fanaticism: since it wants the state to endure, it has to satisfy the basic needs of the population. In Mosul it terrifies people but it also controls the price of food and accommodation, so that fruit and vegetables are cheaper than in the nearby Kurdish cities of Irbil and Duhok. Surprisingly, pensions are still being paid by the Baghdad government, as are doctors’ salaries. Bread makes up about half the diet of poor Syrians and Iraqis, so Isis, which took a million tonnes of grain from government silos in Iraq, has made sure that bakeries have kept on working and the price of bread stays low. These efforts may seem paltry: there are severe shortages of mains electricity, fresh tap water and petrol of usable quality. But for many Sunnis in Mosul the Islamic State’s actions compare favourably with the sectarianism and criminality displayed by the Iraqi army and federal police during the ten years they held the city.

Isis captured Mosul on 10 June, and in the next four months won a series of easy victories on the battlefield. But things have become more difficult. It still hasn’t succeeded in taking Kobani in northern Syria, though it’s still trying, despite suffering heavy casualties during the long siege. American airstrikes make it hard for Isis to pursue the tactics that worked so well over the summer: flying columns of fighters in captured US-made Humvees and trucks would launch blitzkrieg attacks and catch their enemies by surprise. Its strategy of demoralising the opposing forces before the first shot was fired was also successful: jihadi propagandists would publicise Isis atrocities in professionally made videos and release them on the internet. And its military tactics can be extremely effective: Isis specialises in the use of suicide bombers, either moving on foot and wearing suicide vests or driving vehicles packed with up to 15 tonnes of explosives. It also makes use of more traditional methods: highly trained snipers, mortar teams, mines and booby traps. Small but useful items apparently left behind when a unit withdraws, such as torches, turn out to be packed with explosives that detonate when the torch is switched on. A Kurdish tribal leader told me that 92 members of his tribe in the peshmerga had been killed, many by such devices. He had just come from the funeral of three of his men who believed they had captured a car abandoned by Isis: it blew up when they switched on the ignition.

These techniques have meant that even small Isis units can win large victories. In the town of Makhmour, forty minutes’ drive from Irbil, the Kurdish capital, I was told by local Kurdish fighters that the Isis force that briefly took the town in August numbered only around 150 men. Syriac Catholics from the town of Qaraqosh near Mosul said that their peshmerga defenders fled in the middle of the night, a few hours before Isis fighters arrived in ten soft-skinned vehicles. This is contrary to Kurdish leaders’ claims that the peshmerga in the town were outgunned by tanks and artillery captured by Isis from the Iraqi army.

The balance of power in Iraq has changed, but it isn’t clear by how much. ‘In August they were threatening Irbil and now we are threatening Mosul,’ said Fuad Hussein, the Kurdistan regional president’s chief of staff. ‘They held the initiative then and now we do.’ It’s true that in recent weeks Isis has lost some important towns, including Zumar, near the Syrian border, and Jalawla and Sa’adiyah near the border with Iran. At the end of October Shia militias captured an Isis stronghold at Jurf al-Sakhar, thirty miles south-west of Baghdad, possession of which had enabled the jihadis to threaten the capital from the south. Further north on the Tigris River, the Iraqi army has retaken the town of Baiji where Iraq’s largest oil refinery is situated. These five successes have one factor in common: in all cases, Sunni civilians fled before the towns were recaptured, showing that Iraq’s five or six million-strong Sunni Arab population is more frightened of Isis’s opponents than it is of Isis. They have every reason to be fearful of the Shia militias, Kurdish peshmerga and Shia-dominated Iraqi army. But – unfortunately for them, and for the future of Iraq – the Sunnis have nowhere to run to except Isis-held territory.

There are, however, many Sunnis in Mosul who say they would accept any ruler other than Isis. One Sunni businessman, once a colonel in Saddam’s army, who fled Mosul for Irbil, told me that the Islamic State’s enforcement of religious rules was causing lasting rage: mosques deemed to be un-Islamic shrines have been blown up, including the Mosque of Younis, once ‘the symbol of Mosul’. He had been glad to see the Iraqi army leave the city, but would now welcome back it or anybody else – even the Israelis or Americans – if only they would get rid of Isis. Until the mosques were destroyed, he said, he had underestimated Isis’s ferocious commitment to its ultra-fundamentalist Islam. Sameer, a Kurd with a shop in Mosul, told me that in the first days of what he called the Isis occupation, the shopkeepers in the city were horrified to find that Isis was totally serious about implementing a regulation according to which if a shop is open at the time of prayer ‘the shopkeeper will receive forty lashes and pay a fine.’

The businessman’s condemnation of Isis is what Iraqi and Kurdish leaders would like to hear, though they might be sceptical about how many Sunni Arabs in Mosul share his sentiments. Sameer, the shopkeeper, has no love for Isis and listed the miseries it has inflicted on his city, but he said that more Sunni Arabs were joining it every day: ‘Although they admit that Isis is not a great option,’ he said, ‘at least it is some kind of reaction to the corruption of the Iraqi government.’ He had been shocked to find that there were even some Sunni Kurds joining Isis. He had recently run into an old friend, a Kurd from Halabja who had worked in Mosul for ten years. ‘I saw him with Isis forces wearing their uniform,’ Sameer said. ‘I asked him if he was happy and he said: “I know they are doing many bad things, but the Kurdistan leaders just care about their jobs and big business deals. Isis is better for me, because at least it gives me a job and pays a good salary.”’ The Isis basic salary is $400 a month, though those with military experience earn more. Fuad Hussein believes that Isis now has many more fighters than the 31,500 the CIA estimated in September. ‘I am talking about hundreds of thousands of fighters,’ he said, ‘because they are able to mobilise Arab young men in the territory they have taken.’

Sameer had stayed in Mosul after it fell because he didn’t want to lose his shop. As a Kurd, he knew he was vulnerable and considered leaving for Irbil, just fifty miles away. But a week after their victory armed Isis men came to his door and told him that if he left permanently his shop and house would be confiscated. This sort of threat is one of the ways Isis ensures that its new state doesn’t become depopulated. Militants go from house to house asking for documents to prove that the person there is the legal full-time occupant. If they suspect that the real owners have fled they are given ten days to return; if they don’t come back their house is confiscated without compensation and given to somebody more loyal to the Islamic State. There are plenty of reasons why anybody might want to leave Mosul, if only they could. Sunni Arabs in the city have always been conservative, but they never believed in the compulsory wearing of the niqab and hijab, which is now enforced. When Isis militants found one woman without a veil waiting for her son to come back from school they told her to call her husband; as soon as he arrived he was given forty lashes. Someone in Mosul told me that he had seen an Isis man run up to a woman at a bus stop; he grabbed her arm, put his other hand on her head and shouted: ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Then he told his men to take her to his house because ‘she had become his wife.’ There is a fear that Isis will demand that unmarried women marry jihadi fighters. One Mosul resident told me that Isis had checked the identity cards of his family, but he was alarmed when the only cards they photocopied were of his two unmarried daughters, one a university student and the other a 13-year-old.

Whatever the hostility people in Mosul feel towards the Islamic State, there isn’t much they can do about it. Unlike Sunni Arab tribesmen in the countryside, very few people in Mosul have weapons, since under the Iraqi government having a Kalashnikov without explanation was enough to get the owner arrested, jailed and tortured. There have been a few instances of spontaneous resistance, such as when a woman standing in the street with her husband lifted a corner of her veil to drink from a soft drink bottle. An Isis militant hit her in the face with a stick but was then beaten up by her husband and, even though the militant was armed and firing his weapon randomly, he was chased down the street by an angry crowd. But there is little organised opposition. ‘They can’t do anything,’ a local observer said. ‘They don’t have arms and they know there are informers. They’d like to leave but Isis won’t let them go.’

Trying against these odds to turn the Sunni Arab community against Isis is at the heart of the policy of both the Baghdad government and the White House. Between 2006 and 2008, the US financed, armed and organised the Awakening Movement to combat al-Qaida in Iraq, Isis’s predecessor, but it isn’t finding it so easy to counter Isis, partly because of the distrust and even hatred that divide the Islamic State’s many opponents. The leader of the Albu Nimr tribe, Sheikh Naim al-Gaood, described how three thousand of his men had gone to Ain al-Asad, one of the few government bases still holding out in Anbar province, expecting the Iraqi army to give them weapons to fight Isis. The soldiers inside the base, fearful of Sunni tribesmen and uncertain of their allegiance, would only let a small number approach. Sheikh Naim tried to arbitrate and suggested that five hundred tribesmen be armed. But the soldiers wouldn’t agree and eventually a hundred men were given weapons – but no ammunition. It was soon after this that the 581 Albu Nimr were slaughtered by Isis, their bodies thrown down wells or taken to the desert to be burned.

Isis has a mounting list of enemies in Iraq: Shia, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians. But they all tend to see Isis as simply the shock troops of the Sunni community. When I spoke to Christians and Yazidis who had fled from Isis fighters advancing into Nineveh province, I was told by several eyewitnesses that Sunni villagers had supported the jihadis. I asked Johanna Towaya, a farmer and community leader from the Syriac Catholic town of Qaraqosh, whether the Isis fighters had been Iraqis or foreigners. ‘I saw no foreigners,’ he said. ‘It was our neighbours who were Da’esh’ – the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. But Towaya went on to give a reason why the Sunni Arab villagers might have become so hostile to the Christians in the town. Previously the two had got on well together, with the Sunni using the schools and hospital in Qaraqosh, but after Isis captured Mosul the peshmerga of the Kurdistan regional government moved into Qaraqosh to protect it. ‘They wouldn’t let the Sunni into the town and dug a deep trench,’ Towaya said. ‘Arab women weren’t allowed through their checkpoint to go to the hospital even though they were pregnant and some gave birth there in the open.’ When Isis advanced into Qaraqosh, the Arab villagers were – not too surprisingly – happy to co-operate.

What happens next in Iraq depends on whether the governments in Baghdad and Irbil are capable of improving their ability to resist the jihadis. They now have American and Iranian help, which is an advantage. But the corruption and incompetence of the Iraqi government and army should never be underestimated. There are some hopeful signs, including a purge of army commanders by the incoming prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. He has publicly stated that the army, nominally 350,000 strong, includes 50,000 ‘ghost soldiers’ – names on paper whose salaries were being pocketed by officers. There were officially 60,000 soldiers and federal police defending Mosul in June, but the real figure was probably under 20,000. The peshmerga (Kurdish for ‘those who confront death’) were always said to be tougher and more effective than their Iraqi army counterparts. But when Isis launched its offensive against the Kurds in August, the peshmerga units retreated even more rapidly than the army had in Mosul. Though the Kurds have presented their quasi-independent region to the rest of the world as a functioning modern state, wholly different from the rest of Iraq, in many ways it isn’t much different. Both depend on the money from oil to pay for patronage systems in which jobs are held because of personal and political connections rather than ability to do the work. This may partly explain why the Iraqi army and the peshmerga both disintegrated so swiftly when faced by Isis’s lightly armed assault teams.

‘There are two failed states in Iraq,’ the Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said. ‘One is national in Baghdad, the other regional in Kurdistan.’ The peshmerga’s retreat from Mount Sinjar was, he said, ‘a crime’: it abandoned the Kurdish-speaking Yazidis to Isis, which treated them as prey to be killed or enslaved. Some 300,000 Yazidis have taken refuge in Kurdistan, where they speak bitterly of Kurdish commanders assuring them up to the last moment that there was no danger. The Kurdish leaders, it seems, thought they were safe from the jihadis: they would happily have sat out another Sunni-Shia civil war, and simply didn’t believe that Isis would risk opening another front by attacking them. So they were taken entirely by surprise. ‘They fled without even telling the people to save themselves,’ said Haji Ayyo Eabo, who used to have a computer shop in his village of Zurava. ‘I have many uncles and members of my family, four hundred people in all, whom I have not heard from since. There was just one call on a mobile saying “we are captured” and then silence.’

A final victory by Isis looks less certain than it once did, but its losses on the ground have so far been limited. Could Mosul fall as swiftly to the Iraqi army or the Kurds as it did to Isis six months ago? It seems unlikely: Isis can’t afford to allow too many setbacks since it claims its victories are divinely inspired. Many Sunni Arabs wish that Isis had never captured their city, but they have no real alternative to sticking with it. Most Sunni leaders who claim they can replace Isis live in five-star hotels outside the country and may not have seen their home towns for years. In the long term, the worst losers in the Iraqi civil war may turn out to be its Sunni Arabs.