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Nineveh: “The city is stronger than the tribe” | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iraqi security forces take part in training, as they prepare to fight against militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, at a training camp on the outskirts of Mosul on January 10, 2015. (Reuters/Azad Lashkari)

Iraqi security forces take part in training, as they prepare to fight against militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), at a training camp on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq, on January 10, 2015. (Reuters/Azad Lashkari)

Iraqi security forces take part in training, as they prepare to fight against militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), at a training camp on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq, on January 10, 2015. (Reuters/Azad Lashkari)

Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—In June 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) launched its lightening advance across northern areas of Iraq, taking control of Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province and Iraq’s second-largest city.

Since then, planning has been under way for a counter-offensive to retake the city from the extremist group, with residents of the province joining members of its police and security personnel in numerous volunteer groups.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat in November, a senior member of Nineveh’s provincial council said an operation was likely to be launched early this year and would in total involve around 80,000 fighters made up of members of the region’s police and military as well as Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and local volunteers, including members of the region’s tribes.

But ISIS’s capture of parts of the province, and especially Mosul, has caused disquiet—to say the least—on a number of levels. Many Iraqis and international observers were surprised by the speed at which the Iraqi army units stationed in the city collapsed, throwing down their weapons, taking off their uniforms and fleeing their posts in the face of the ISIS advance. Many of these soldiers will be now be reintroduced into the Iraqi army as part of the offensive.

But as with the country’s neighboring Anbar province—where ISIS has also taken control of considerable areas, including the provincial capital Ramadi—there have also been reports of sympathy among some of Nineveh’s tribes and other residents for ISIS. The group itself has even declared that it has created a brigade consisting exclusively of local tribesmen who have now pledged their allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

Sheikh Ahmad Madloul Al-Jarba, one of the sheikhs of Nineveh’s prominent Shamr tribe and an MP in the Iraqi parliament, told Asharq Al-Awsat, however, that far too much has been made of this story and that the media has distorted the reality on the ground.

“This talk about there being strong support among many of Nineveh’s tribes for ISIS is completely false,” he said, adding however that there are “individuals from the tribes who support ISIS, as is the case with the tribes in the country’s western region [Anbar],” but claimed that these were isolated cases, rather than a tangible trend among the tribes of the region in general.

Speaking of reports that this support is especially strong among Mosul’s tribes, Jarba maintains this is merely a disinformation ploy by ISIS—“to give symbolic importance to Mosul, which it wants as its second stronghold after Raqqa in Syria.”

“If we conduct a study to determine how many members ISIS has in total—following the lead of international intelligence services—we will find that their numbers total around 35,000 fighters from a host of different nationalities and regions. Even if we were to assume that every one of these fighters came from Nineveh, they would not even make up 1 percent of the region’s total [3-million-strong] population. Even if we doubled this figure to 70,000, they would still only account for under 2 percent of the region’s population. So we see here how the media has totally falsified this whole story.”

Local civil society activist Abdul Malik Al-Ta’ey also told Asharq Al-Awsat that many media reports on the situation in Nineveh were inaccurate.

“The situation here in Nineveh differs from that of other provinces in terms of the makeup of the tribes. This is because society here is generally more urban in its character,” he said.

Despite there being some large, prominent tribes in the region including the Shamr, Tayy, Jabour, Luhaib, Okaidat, Albuhamdan, the people of the province, Ta’ey says, have long had a strong relationship with the state and strong traditions of patriotism, lacking perhaps the usual independent spirit attributed to the tribes and Iraqi tribal culture by many of the country’s politicians.

“At one point in time, the status of the tribes in the cities and towns of the province retreated to a large extent, in favor of loyalty to city, district or profession,” he says.

“In this province, the city is stronger than the tribe, and this is the case especially in Mosul, which has left its mark on the culture of all areas in the region, even those rural ones that you’d expect would be more influenced by tribal culture.”

This character appears to have affected the makeup of the training camps where local tribal and volunteer forces are being trained for the imminent assault on Mosul to retake the city from ISIS.

Brig. Gen. Abu Wathiq—who preferred only to disclose his nom de guerre—has been tasked with overseeing the training camps. He told Asharq Al-Awsat there are currently five different facilities where forces are being prepared for the assault. “They largely consist of members of Mosul’s army and police—not the tribes, as is the case in volunteer forces from other provinces, where the tribes dominate,” he said.

“There are certainly members of the tribes in the volunteer force, but they have volunteered as individuals and not followers of this or that sheikh from the different tribes,” he added.

Despite this, however, Ezz Al-Din Al-Dawla, an MP for Nineveh in the Iraqi parliament, told Asharq Al-Awsat the local tribal presence among the troops being trained is now becoming stronger, with more of them volunteering, “especially now that soldiers’ wages have been paid. In some places the training camps are full.”

He blames the previous low turnout among local tribesmen on the government. “If the wages had been paid out earlier we would have been able to carry out the operation fully. There is much enthusiasm among residents of the province, whether they are urban residents or tribal members or members of the security apparatus, to liberate their lands and return to their homes.”