London, Asharq Al-Awsat—One month after the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its allies, inhabitants of Mosul say the militants have a limited presence in the city and may be preparing to pull out of the area.
Civil rights activist Ghanim Al-Abed, a former spokesman for protesters against the central government in the city, said the presence of ISIS in Mosul had had a mixed impact.
The first side was positive, he said, as there were no longer any raids in the city by government security forces. “Mosul residents hardly feel the presence of ISIS in the streets, even at the checkpoints which used to belong to the Iraqi army,” he added. The second, negative side, was represented by the absence of services and the non-payment of salaries for state employees.
He added that the Naqshbandi Army had a larger presence in the city and may be preparing to assume control.
Speaking on the telephone from Mosul on Saturday, Abed said: “ISIS moved all Iraqi army weapons and vehicles to the area of Jazeera, which is jointly shared by Iraq and Syria. This means they have no intention of remaining in Mosul as their numbers do not allow them to hold the territory or stay for too long, and they have started to withdraw from the left side of Mosul, which is the wider area.”
Abed added: “There are discussions between the Naqshbandi Army and ISIS regarding their [ISIS’] withdrawal via the left side [of the city], in preparation for their [complete] withdrawal from Mosul . . . The presence of the Naqshbandis is the strongest on the ground and among the people, because they are peaceful and do not have a culture of violence and revenge.”
He also said that ISIS appeared to have learned from its experiences in Syria, where its heavy-handed approach undermined its relationship with local people and other factions.
Abed said: “ISIS did not repeat their mistakes in Syria by exercising pressure on people and forcing them to follow a certain lifestyle. This is because their numbers do not allow them to control a large city of almost two million people who enjoy a moderate Islamic culture.”
He added: “ISIS members did not usurp public and private funds, and did not rob banks. They even protected them all in an attempt to attract public support . . . All members of ISIS in Mosul are Iraqis and we meet them at checkpoints on the city’s entrances. They are normally masked and carry light and medium weapons, and they mostly do not search cars with families on board, and only ask men for their ID cards.”
He also claimed that ISIS has not been preventing anyone from entering or leaving the city.
This description of life in Mosul under ISIS largely accords with that of Asharq Al-Awsat’s correspondent in the city, who confirmed that life in there was outwardly returning to normal, despite a disruption of government departments, hospitals, schools, universities and markets in the early days after the withdrawal of the Iraqi army and police.
One inhabitant, Abdel-Azim Mohammad Khudair, a former army officer, spoke positively of Islamist militant group. “They [ISIS] have saved us from the [Iraqi] army’s humiliation and insults, and restored our dignity. The city now lives with no troubles and feels the restoration of its dignity. The markets have reopened and people can go out late at night without being stopped. The armed men who control the city treat people with respect and provide them with security.”
The governor of Nineveh, Atheel Al-Nujaifi, was forced to leave Mosul—the province’s capital—with the fall of the city on June 10. However, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat by phone from the Al-Hamdaniyah district on the city’s outskirts, he echoed many of the inhabitants’ comments.
He said: “ISIS is preparing to withdraw from the [east side] of Mosul and hand it over to the Naqshbandi Army, who are close to the Ba’ath Party which is led by [former Saddam Hussein aide] Izzat Al-Douri.”
Nujaifi added: “There seems to be a sort of agreement between ISIS and the Naqshbandis to leave the larger part of Mosul in preparation for leaving the Nineveh Governorate and returning to their bases in the area of Jazeera [on the Iraq–Syria border] . . . ISIS do not have the ability to continue to hold the territory as their numbers do not exceed 2,000 fighters, who are not accustomed or prepared to occupy cities and run them administratively. They even tell people they will not stay and will withdraw.”
Nujaifi also claimed he had been able to retake control over some aspects of the administration of the city, saying: “The administration of the governorate is out of my control now, although I run it by phone and direct contacts, while ISIS has appointed a coordinator between it and the governorate’s administration. All they have achieved was the confiscation of the state’s vehicles; but they have not interfered in administrative affairs.”
Nujaifi added: “Mosul will be back under state control within two months with no military intervention, as the people and ISIS do not want any intervention by the armed forces which abandoned the governorate . . . The Naqshbandis will work on returning the governorate . . . as they are moderates who follow the Sufi order, not Salafists like ISIS.”
As for the non-payment of salaries for public sector workers, the governor said arrangements were currently being made to allow workers to draw their pay, even those living under areas which had fallen out of Baghdad’s control.
He said: “Salaries will be distributed soon in the districts near the center of Mosul, which means staff can go to these safe areas, or send someone as a proxy . . . we will find the best way to distribute the salaries, which have not been paid for around two months.”
Despite what some say is their low-key presence in the city, ISIS militants have taken some measures to change life in Mosul so that it accords more closely with their interpretations of Islamic norms and laws. Reports say armed men have dismantled the city’s statues of 19th-century CE musician and composer Othman Mosuly and Abbasid-era poet Abi Tamman, as well as other tombs and shrines.
However, in keeping with their attempts to win ‘hearts and minds,’ the group’s members have reportedly avoided destroying mosques, churches, museums, or other monuments. In addition, the organization has not yet banned activities like smoking and playing board games, preferring instead to send its members to coffee shops to ‘advise’ customers against such habits.
Despite ISIS’s policy of restraint, aspects of life in the city remain harsh. Mosul markets have seen a sharp rise in prices for all goods except staple foods, including fruits and vegetables, which are reported to have dropped to very low levels due to the lack of cash in the city thanks to the non-payment of salaries for two consecutive months.
The hospitals of Mosul are also suffering a shortage of medical supplies, according to the Nineveh Health Department, with many residents being forced as a result to seek treatment at hospitals in the Kurdistan region.
Abdul Jabbar Al-Jabouri contributed additional reporting from Mosul.