Iraq: Al-Qaida Intensifies Its Stranglehold In The World's Most Dangerous City

An Iraqi soldier looks at the damage caused by a suicide bomber in Mosul, 2008. (Photograph: Marwan Ibrahim)

Iraq: Al-Qaida Intensifies Its Stranglehold In The World's Most Dangerous City

Insurgents turn de facto northern capital into war zone by exploiting divisions between Arabs and Kurds

MOSUL, Iraq - It is the most dangerous city in the world's most dangerous country,
a sad, half-empty relic whose rich and middle classes have long since
fled. To reach it, one has to travel incognito in convoys of rundown
small cars whose drivers conceal their walkie-talkies and weapons under
the seats. Their bodyguards sometimes switch to dented taxis with
shattered windshields as an extra disguise.

Mosul - the de facto
capital of northern Iraq - should have been as safe as Basra and
Baghdad if a massive military offensive by Iraqi and US forces, which
was launched in May, had succeeded. But most al-Qaida insurgents
slipped away before it began - and they are now slipping back. "They
use car bombs and roadside bombs, and target areas which used to be
very safe. Now they are assassinating people with pistols that have
silencers. The offensive was not as successful as expected," said
Doraid Kashmoula, the provincial governor.

In June, the
Americans trumpeted the killing of Abu Khalaf, who they described as
al-Qaida's local kingpin, and the "emir of Mosul". "Killing this man
didn't help. When the security forces kill one emir, they have 10
others to replace him," the governor added.

Mosul's offensive,
known as Operation Mother of Two Springs, began well, cutting insurgent
attacks by 80% in the first few days. It didn't last. In the past
month, dozens of people have been killed in violence ranging from
roadside bombs to random shootings, car bombs and attacks targeted at
specific individuals. On Saturday, four employees of a Dubai-based
television station, including the head of its office in Mosul, were
abducted and killed.

But if the statistics only tell half the story, the other half is apparent from the city centre, a virtual ghost town.

eight months I've not seen my parents, because their neighbourhood is
in part of the city centre that is too dangerous," said Yahya Abed
Mahjoub, an official of the Islamic party which represents urban Sunni
businessmen and professionals.

That contrasts with Basra, where
security is better than at any time since 2005, and Baghdad where, for
the first time in three years, sunset brings families to parks along
the Tigris as the 44C heat slowly subsides.

In Mosul, the same
river flows by, unwatched. On the east bank where cafes and restaurants
once thrived, hardly a pedestrian or a car can be seen. People flee
three hours before the 10pm curfew. By day, traffic is light and the
Iraqis buying fruit at roadside stalls look anxious and under pressure.

strength in Mosul has risen on the see-saw which has made it weak in
Anbar, Iraq's largest Sunni province. Driven out of there, al-Qaida
moved many supporters to Diyala, north of Baghdad, and to Mosul. Some
Iraqi officials, including Mosul's governor, blame logistics, in
particular al-Qaida's easy access from Mosul to northern Syria to bring
in weaponry. He says Operation Mother of Two Springs needs "more
equipment, troops, and weapons to counter them".

Al-Qaida also
benefits from the absence in Mosul of al-Sahwa, the so-called Awakening
movement of Sunni tribal leaders, who successfully confronted al-Qaida
in Anbar and western suburbs of Baghdad. They oppose al-Qaida's
targeting of Shias and the importing of a conservative Salafi ideology
which was never strong in Iraq.

Al-Qaida is also exploiting one
of the central struggles in Mosul, a tussle for influence between Arabs
and Kurds, claiming to be at the forefront of resistance to what many
Arabs say are Kurdish efforts to take over the city.

Islamic party is targeted for "collaborating" with the government in
Baghdad, but also with the Kurds on the provincial council. "Six of our
party's leaders here have been assassinated since the May offensive
started," Mahjoub said. The Communist party, whose Arab support comes
from the secular middle-class, has gone virtually underground in Mosul
after several leaders were killed.

The saddest part of Mosul's
fate is that no one in the rest of Iraq, apart from the Kurds, seems to
care. Unlike Basra, on the border with Iran and at the mouth of the
Shatt al-Arab waterway to the Gulf, Mosul has little strategic value.
Unlike Baghdad, it has no Sunni-Shia tension because there are few

Mosul's few optimists are in the Iraqi army. Colonel
Rebwar Yunis Abdullah, chief of staff of the 2nd Division's 1st
Infantry Brigade, says most of the east bank of the Tigris is safe. He
shows photos of huge arms caches his men have found and produces
statistics showing a 7O% decrease in insurgent attacks since May. But
he admits his area does not cover the city centre.

He sees
another good sign in the fact that Sunni Arab officers from the old
army are coming back to duty, including in the 2nd Division, which
started as a grouping of peshmergas - the Kurdish guerrillas. "Thirty
per cent of this brigade's 220 officers are Arabs, and many in top
positions," he says. The lieutenant colonel, who serves as the
brigade's operations officer is Fouad Mohammed Ali, an Arab from

The colonel admits there is still a long way to go.
His wife and children live in Erbil. When he gets leave, he never goes
to the centre of Mosul. He escapes to Kurdistan.

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