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Iraq’s Mosul a ‘Ghost City’

Posted on May 14, 2008

By Patrick Cockburn

Originally published in The Independent.

Mosul looks like a city of the dead. American and Iraqi troops have launched an attack aimed at crushing the last bastion of al-Qa’ida in Iraq and in doing so have turned the country’s northern capital into a ghost town.

Soldiers shoot at any civilian vehicle on the streets in defiance of a strict curfew. Two men, a woman and child in one car which failed to stop were shot dead [Sunday] by US troops, who issued a statement saying the men were armed and one made “threatening movements”.

Mosul, on the Tigris river, is inhabited by 1.4 million people, but has been sealed off from the outside world by hundreds of police and army checkpoints since the Iraqi government offensive against al-Qa’ida began at 4am on Saturday. The operation is a critical part of an attempt to reassert military control over Iraq which has led to heavy fighting in Baghdad and Basra.

The besieged city is now difficult to reach; we began the journey from the Kurdish capital Arbil in a convoy of white pick-up trucks, each with a heavy machine gun in the back manned by alert-looking soldiers, some wearing black face masks, that were escorting Khasro Goran, the deputy governor of Mosul, to his office in the city.

Soon after crossing the long bridge over the Zaab river and leaving territory officially controlled by the Kurds, we saw lines of trucks and cars being stopped by police. Their drivers presumably had not heard of the curfew. At the Christian village of Bartilla we exchanged our pick-ups for more heavily armoured vehicles with windows a few inches across of bulletproof glass.

I had been to Mosul down this road half a dozen times since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and on each occasion the military escort necessary to reach the city safely has grown bigger. Squinting through the small glass portholes it was clear that local people were taking the curfew seriously. Even the miserable cafes used by the truck drivers, and which I had imagined never closed their doors, had pulled down their metal shutters.

In eastern Mosul the streets are usually bustling and stalls spill on to the road near the tomb of the prophet Jonah, who died here some time after his alarming experience with the whale. Most of the people living in this part of the city are Kurds, who support the central government against al-Qa’ida. Yet, here too every shop was shut and there were police and soldiers at checkpoints every 50 yards. An extra brigade had been sent from Baghdad for the offensive along with special security troops to reinforce the 2nd and 3rd divisions.

Outside the police headquarters, the black vehicles of the Interior Ministry, each with a heavy machine gun and a yellow head of a tiger as an insignia on the doors, were drawn up in rows. American helicopters flew high overhead as well as drones for reconnaissance. There was the occasional burst of firing and bomb blast in the distance. The governor of Mosul, Dunaid Kashmoula, says the city “has come to be dominated by the leaders of al-Qa’ida as a result of the delay in the military operation” originally scheduled for earlier this year.

Nevertheless, the insurgents in Mosul have never held whole quarters of the city and there was no street fighting.

The Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki promised this offensive on Mosul as the last battle against al-Qa’ida. He promised revenge for the assassination of the previous police commander for the city who had been assassinated by an al-Qa’ida suicide bomber dressed in a police uniform.

These are critical days for Mr Maliki’s government. Since 25 March he has launched military offensives in Basra and Baghdad. He is receiving support from the Americans and the Kurds. But it is not clear if the Iraqi army will fight without the backing of US firepower in the air or on the ground. On Saturday a ceasefire was agreed with the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr in Sadr City giving the government greater control. But, as in Mosul, it is not clear how far the government’s opponents have simply retreated to fight another day.

There is no doubt that security in Mosul has been deteriorating over the last six months. Mr Goran, who in effect runs the city, said that 90 people were killed in Mosul last September compared to 213 dead this March, including 58 soldiers and policemen. The number of roadside bombs had risen from 175 to 269 over the same period.

The official theory for this is that al-Qa’ida in Iraq, which has only a limited connection with Osama bin Laden and is largely home grown, has been driven out of its bastions in Anbar and Diyala provinces and Sunni districts of Baghdad. It has retreated to Mosul, the largest Sunni Arab city and the third largest in Iraq.

This is probably over-simple. Attacks on US troops in Anbar province have restarted and in Sunni districts of west Baghdad al-Qa’ida appears to be lying low rather than being eliminated. In many cases in Baghdad al-Sahwa, the supposedly anti-al-Qa’ida awakening councils paid by the Americans, in practice have cosy arrangements with al-Qa’ida.

I had decided to go to Mosul—arriving in the first hours of the government offensive—because of what proved to be a false report that the head of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, had been captured in the city. Later Iraqi security officers said they captured many “Emirs”, al-Qa’ida cell leaders, and targeted hundreds of suspected houses.

I was in Mosul on the day it was surrendered by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 2003. Scenes of joy were succeeded within the space of a few hours by looting and gun battles between Arabs and Kurds. Five years later Mosul, one of the great cities of the world, looks ruinous and under siege. Every alley way is blocked by barricades and the only new building is in the form of concrete blast walls. The fact that the government has to empty the streets of Mosul of its people to establish peace for a few days shows how far the city is from genuine peace.


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By Alexander Broman, October 9, 2008 at 9:56 am Link to this comment
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Since I know none of you has ever served a day in uniform in your lives I understand why you do not know the reasons behind our military doctrine.  Let me inform you on what has really happened in Mosul, and I know because I have been serving there for the last 11 and a half months.  The reason we blocked all the alleyways was to funnel all the civilian vehicles through the Iraqi polices’ checkpoints, because beleive it or not even insurgents drive cars and haul their weapons and explosives around in them.  Even though these checkpoints and road blocks may be minor inconvences for the regular Iraqi, they have been very useful by helping coalition forces find more insurgents and the mobile caches that they keep in their cars, and have also cut down on the number of IED attacks in Mosul since they have been implanted.  We do not shoot at every vehicle ignoring curfew, we actually pull over those vehicles to see why they are out, if they have no reason we send them home but if it is a medical emergency we usually give them an escort the the hospital so that they can get there faster and not get pulled over again.  We do not shoot at vehicles or personel unless we feel threatened and even then we have to explain ourselves to our command, and trust me there are plenty of people who are either sitting in jail or making small rocks out of little rocks because they took things to far.  Also we are not kicking people out of the city, we changed the curfew for about a few weeks so that the Iraqi civilians would have time to get food and other amenities during the day but the coalition forces would also have freedom to manuver across the city to conduct intel driven raids against AQI/ISI personel without havenig to worry about attacks on U.S. forces causing civilian casualties.  I know all of you read the single point of view tabloids have and hear about civilian casualties and they tell you we caused them all, I admit we are highly trained but we are not perfect and accidents and misunderstandings happen, but over 98% of the civilian casualties are caused by the insurgents.  In February a house that was being used by insurgents to store 30,000 lbs. of explosives was blown up by the insurgents when Iraqi army soldiers went in to search the building, this explosion killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians and wounded hundreds more.  Also insurgent groups blatantly target civilians to try and intimidate the populace of Iraqi cities into doing their bidding, they try and make civilains to scared to go to the market let alone give intel to the Coalition Forces.  But, the Iraqi people aren’t stupid like you have been led to believe they tell us were to find the insurgents because they know we are helping their country, they tell us were to find caches because they know those weapons are just as likely to be used against them as Coalition forces.  The Irqai army is also able to do their own patrols and raids without American backing, there have been many times when they have called us to say they had caught a HVT that we might want to question.  The Iraqi Army and Police have done alot to help turn Mosul into a safer city by risking their lives for us and their countrymen.  Finally, the biggest rumor of all, we are not stealing Iraqi oil!!!  I have personally been a part of missions were Coalition forces have gone out and protected IRAQI workers as they built IRAQI oil towers to pump IRAQI oil for the IRAQI government to sell, so they can improve the IRAQI cities.  Mosul might have looked like a destroyed ghost town for a few weeks, but now there are less then ten attacks a week in Mosul and the city has built new curbs, pave new roads, repaved old roads, markets are bustling with more people than ever before, people who had stayed in their houses for years afraid to go outside are now enjoying the new, more peaceful city of Mosul.

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By Bukko in Australia, May 18, 2008 at 12:17 am Link to this comment

You’re all familiar with the strategy of “clear, hold and build” as promulgated by the Roman Legionnnaire-sounding General Petraeus, right? It’s when the U.S. military takes over a town, forces the townspeople to leave, and only lets in the ones it decides are docile enough so that they won’t fight back.

It’s ethnic cleansing, only done on a resistance basis. That’s what happened to Fallujah. It’s also what heppened in the “strategic hamlets” of Vietnam, and before that, with the “ink spot” strategy the Brits used in the 1950s in Malaysia. Only, the Brits more or less won their guerrilla war.

The U.S. is going to be as incompetent with what it’s doing in Mosul as it was in Vietnam, and will only wind up killing a lot of people while it completely disrupts society. Which will make it easier to steal the oil, the ultimate aim of this imperial genocide.

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By Douglas Chalmers, May 14, 2008 at 10:29 pm Link to this comment

As for razing cities and devastating populations, the parallels with China’s historic First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, are truly unendearing but accurate. The only difference was that he built an empire while BushCo is wrecking one - the USA.

Sadly again, in that regard, the similarities are also with the old Roman Empire of history’s other grand ‘Neocon’ fuckwit, Julius Caesar, uhh. Oh, you didn’t think that they had them in those days…...???

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By Purple Girl, May 14, 2008 at 7:07 pm Link to this comment

Run them out or kill them- makes it easier to steal their land & Oil for the Saudi’s Right? We all know who this Corrupt Regimes works for and has Used our military, resources and Reputation to complete the Contract - The Same Oppressive ‘Royal’ crime syndicates who have also used US as their scapegoats to blame all the woes of the Middle Easterners on. These M.E. Criminals Rolled out the Red carpet (and their people) for the Multinationals (who fly our flag as camoflague)and have been having a Party ever since (at least the ‘70’s)With All mankinds Blood ,Sweat & Tears filling their glasses!
WE WILL GET OURS- I hope the people of the M.E. work on taking Theirs Down Too ( How is Bin ladens family Fairing these Days?, better than yours I’ll bet!!We’ve got the same issue here too!Corrupt getting richer, Poor being used as sacrifical lambs)We may need some pointers from You all regarding how to exactly handle carrying out the sentences for these High Crimes we will be prosecuting.The Suggestion Line are open.

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By Jonathon, May 14, 2008 at 6:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Detroit to me.

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By DennisD, May 14, 2008 at 2:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I see “Operation Iraqi Fiefdom” is going as planned.

Move along people, there’s nothing to see here, just another Bu$h Inc. fu*k up. You’ve seen plenty of these before.

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