Winning the war, losing the peace in Mosul's east

Joel Wing

One of the main goals of Baghdad’s assault upon Mosul was to win over the population. Before the Islamic State seized the city in the summer of 2014 the city had a mix of local police, Federal Police and army units. Many of those forces were derided as being disrespectful and heavy handed in its dealing with the population.

When the Iraqi government decided to retake the city in 2016 it wanted the Counter Terrorism Forces also known as the Golden Division in the lead because of its mix of ethnicities (Arabs and Kurds) and religions (Shiites and Sunnis) along with its professionalism and fighting prowess. The hope was that this unit would be the face of the Abadi government as it liberated the city. That was largely achieved as the various pictures of people greeting the Division showed.

Now that the battle for west Mosul has begun however the Golden Division and many other units have been pulled out of the eastern section. That has left some army units, the National Security Service, police, a Shabak Hashd unit, and new local community groups to hold and secure the east. This hodgepodge of forces is having a difficult time doing their job. First they do not cooperate, creating holes in their coverage that can be exploited. Second they actively compete with each other for authority over the city. Third there are more and more reports of them carrying out arbitrary arrests and searches and seizures. In the middle of February in the Karama neighborhood for instance, all military aged males were rounded up, taken to a school and searched for weapons and evidence of ties to the Islamic State. Fourth, there have been claims of more abusive behavior. Recently, Counter Terrorism forces tried to stop members of the National Security Service from searching houses in the Nur area accusing them of sectarian behavior. This escalated to a gunfight between the two. These are exactly the types of problems and behavior that alienated people from the security forces pre-2014.

The insurgents are working hard on intimidating the eastern half of Mosul as well. The militants were able to put up flyers in one part of east Mosul telling people to leave otherwise they would be targeted and killed. People have also claimed that they are receiving threatening messages on social media from the group. They have also returned to car and suicide bombings in the freed areas of the city. These are the exact same types of tactics that the Islamic State used when it rebuilt itself after its strategic defeat from 2007-2008. The next steps will be targeted assassinations of local figures and attempts to co-opt others. When business and reconstruction returns IS can also be expected to try to strong arm its way into those as well to rebuild its financial base.

Together this is a troubling turn of events. The security forces are weak, divided, and turning to abusive tactics in an attempt to find Islamic State fighters and sympathizers in liberated east Mosul. At the same time the militants are doing their best to scare the population into thinking that they are still amongst them and can harm them at any time. If the security situation is not re-organized in a more professional manner quickly Baghdad might lose its chance to turn the population to its side. They will stop cooperating with the security forces because they are seen in a negative light, while the insurgents are working hard to intimidate them as well. That will make it nearly impossible to root out the Islamic State, and in a number of years they could rebuild themselves.