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.

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