By Osamah Golpy
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIS) lightning advance into Mosul stunned the world, but its ability to continue to control the city — and even prompt residents to return — is entirely reliant on its cooperation with local Sunni militias and tribes.
The city of Mosul, home to some 2 million people, has been under full control of ISIS and Sunni militia groups, including those led by former Baath army chiefs, since June 10. The International Organization for Migration reported that 500,000 Mosul residents fled the city for the Kurdistan Region as well as other parts of the Nineveh province including the outskirts of its capital, Mosul.
If the figures are correct, that means just one-quarter of Mosul’s population fled. In fact, the Barzani Charity Foundation, an NGO headquartered in Erbil working with the IDPs, told Rudaw Network that many are heading back to Mosul, following reports that the city is relatively safe — though under ISIS control.
Rudaw quoted one Mosul resident as saying, “It hasn’t been this safe in 10 years. There are two ISIS guards on every street corner.”
To be sure, keeping Iraq’s second-largest city calm and quiet will prove very difficult, if not impossible, without the support of tribal militants and armed groups. As of now, ISIS has been able to enjoy this support.
ISIS is trying to win public backing by providing basic services such as water, electricity — and more importantly, security.
Atheel al-Nujaifi, who has served as Nineveh governor since 2009, fled the city as ISIS swooped in. He has told Rudaw and other media outlets that the militants treated locals better than the Iraqi Army had.
In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, one Mosul resident welcomed the Iraqi army's retreat.
"We suffered a decade of raids, killings, displacement, and bombardment," he said. "Now, members of the Iraqi army have decided to withdraw from the province to let the people live in freedom, while the newcomers, through loudspeakers in the mosques, have told the people that they do not want anything but for everyone to live his life, and that they will provide services."
Should Mosul’s armed groups continue their efforts to win over the public and provide locals with more support than Iraqi army did, it could take months or years for the Iraqi army to recapture Nineveh province and the city of Mosul — or perhaps it never will.
According to Death Penalty Worldwide, “The majority of individuals imprisoned and sentenced to death are Sunni Arabs who remain a minority group in Iraq.”
Tariq Hashimi, a prominent Sunni leader and the former Iraqi vice-president, is among them. Now in exile in Turkey, an Iraqi court in September 2012 sentenced Hashimi to death in absentia for orchestrating terror attacks on officials and security forces. (After ISIS and Sunni Iraqi tribes took over Mosul, Hashimi welcomed what he called “the revolution” on his Facebook page.)
A few months later, then-Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, also a prominent Sunni politician and one of the last Sunni Arabs remaining in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government, survived an apparent assassination attempt shortly after the Iraqi army raided his office and arrested 150 of his staff members. He resigned in March 2013 during mass anti-government protests in Sunni-majority areas such as Falluja, Anbar and Mosul.
The protests against Sunni persecution remained relatively peaceful until the Iraqi government accused the demonstrators of colluding with Al-Qaeda and Baath Party operatives. In April 2013, security forces attacked a protest camp in the town of Hawija in northern Iraq; the ensuing gun battles between Sunnis and the security forces killed nearly 50 people.
In late December 2013, Iraqi security forces once again quashed a Sunni-led protest in Anbar province following the arrest of Ramadi MP Ahmed al-Alwani and the killing of his brother. ISIS and Sunni fighters began battling the army, and Falluja has since been in the hands of Sunni militants and tribes.
A member of General Military Council of the Iraqi Revolutionaries, Brigadier General Abu Al-Hussein, told Aljazeera.net recently that the plan to capture Mosul “continued for about a year and a half with the participation of senior professional officers and experts in strategy and policy.”
He also revealed that “The tribal leaders were always insisting on a peaceful revolution until the Iraqi security forces stormed Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, and burned the tents of protestors and arrested a number of people.”
Some experts call ISIS the third generation, or perhaps a rebirth, of Al-Qaeda and Islamic militants following the 9/11 attacks and brutal sectarian violence in Iraq. The fact that Al-Qaeda disowned ISIS proves there are big differences in between them: ISIS’s agenda is to be in control of territories with the support of the local people and enforce “Sharia law.”
There is a reason why ISIS calls itself the Islamic State, after all; it no longer wants just one explosion here or an assassination there. Besides, as state status require, it includes various groups and people with different agendas. At least in Iraq, ISIS is an umbrella organization for dozens of armed Sunni groups, including tribal leaders, former Baath military chiefs, Ansar Al-Sunna etc.
It seems the Sunni-dominated governorates are repeating Afghanistan’s history, but on a lesser scale. The socio-political needs that allowed the Taliban to take over in Afghanistan are in many ways identical to what is taking place in Mosul and its surroundings: Sunnis are demanding an end to what they see as the continuous repression and disfranchisement of Sunnis at the hands of the Iraqi state.
ISIS and the tribes were able to (and had expected to be) bring peace and security back to Mosul and many citizens seem to prefer (if not support) ISIS over the Iraqi army. The people are backing decentralized, militia-led peace and security over a so-called democratic central government in which Sunnis are a minority — and, in their eyes, always come out as losers.
A militia leader in Mosul told the BBC that ISIS could not have single-handedly taken or controlled Mosul. Maintaining long-term peace and security in the Sunni areas will be even more difficult for ISIS to do alone.
The group seems to understand that it needs to adopt an inclusive, pragmatic policy in territories under its control. After all, the Sunnis proved to Maliki that they wouldn’t accept being marginalized. ISIS needs to take that lesson to heart.