Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is seeking to win over the residents of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, by offering them greater security and cheap power and water.
While many Iraqi families initially fled after the militant group and its allies took the city, reports from the ground indicate that some are returning as Mosul returns to a state of relative calm in comparison to the situation further south, where fears of a sectarian civil war continue to escalate.
ISIS has sought to win over Mosul residents by putting forward a number of popular initiatives, including offering cheap gas and water. The extremist movement’s “liberation” of prisons in areas it has occupied has also proved popular with local residents who believe many of the Sunni prisoners freed were unfairly detained.
ISIS fighters also removed unpopular concrete security barricades that had become a feature of Mosul’s roads in recent years and which had significantly lengthened commutes. Despite these populist measures, local and international media are reporting that it is only Sunni Arab residents who are returning to the city.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with a number of Mosul residents about the situation in the city. Iraqi citizen Jamal Karim, who fled with his family to Erbil last week, said he intends to return.
“Yes, I am returning to Mosul. What happened there was a popular revolution,” he said. Many Sunni Arabs in Iraq have long been unhappy with the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad, and say the advance of ISIS in western and central Iraq has succeeded because it coincides with a popular Sunni uprising.
“I have decided to return after security has primarily been restored to Nineveh province,” Karim added. Nineveh is one of the six “uprising provinces” where pro-Sunni protests and sit-ins first began in late 2012. The other Sunni-majority governorates where anti-government protests have taken place are Anbar, Salah Al-Din, Diyala, Karbala and Kirkuk.
Jamal Karim told Asharq Al-Awsat that family members in Mosul have called on him to return to the city to help enforce “stability” in the Sunni-majority areas.
“We only fear government bombardment,” he said, adding that “the gunmen currently present in the city are not harassing anyone . . . They have opened the roads and are trying to provide citizens with services.”
Another Mosul resident, Amir Bakr, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he is also returning with his family to the northern city. Bakr said he was heading back to Mosul in a convoy with at least a dozen families.
“There is calm in the city. My family who remained in Mosul told me that it is safe and so I have decided to return. There is no security deterioration,” he said.
Another resident who fled the ISIS advance, Wahida Salim, told Asharq Al-Awsat she had received news from friends and family in the city that the situation was “calm.” She said: “There are no clashes or tension, but there are fears of a government attack.”
Many of Mosul’s Sunni Arab residents appear to view the conflict largely as an escalation of the Sunni anti-government movement that has gained strength in the city in previous years. However, it appears that only Sunni Arabs are willing to risk returning to ISIS-controlled areas following reports that the extremist militia is killing Shi’ites and other minorities.
Alia Al-Bazzaz, director of the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration office in Erbil, confirmed that a number of Mosul families were returning to the city after initially fleeing last week. She said that the ministry did not have precise figures about the number of residents who have been displaced by the fighting, but confirmed that financial assistance from Baghdad was yet to be distributed to the displaced, perhaps influencing some families’ decision to return to the city. She put the delay down to the procedures necessary for ensuring the funds were distributed fairly.
Soran Omar, Head of the Kurdistan Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, said that a “large” number of Mosul residents had been displaced in the fighting, adding that this number is increasing. “We are seeing displaced Iraqis from Tikrit and Jawla fleeing to the Kurdistan Region, not to mention around 230,000 displaced persons from Fallujah and Anbar,” he said.
He added: “The Kurdistan Region cannot deal with this humanitarian situation alone. We need assistance from international organizations in order to provide the best [help] for the displaced.”