Battle for Mosul's soul and Iraqi identity

An Iraqi soldier in Mosul. (Photo: Reuters)

An Iraqi soldier in Mosul. (Photo: Reuters)

As the military operation to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State rages on, mainstream media have focused on the ­significance of Iraqi forces liberating the town.

Absent from international headlines, however, is what Mosul’s liberation means to those who call it home — and to fellow Iraqis.

Traditionally, Mosul has been one of the three pillars of Iraq, alongside the cities of Baghdad and Basra, dating back to Iraq’s administrative layout under the Ottoman Empire. The three cities were the capitals of the three Ottoman provinces bearing the same names.

Although Mosul is home to a large number of ethnicities and sects, its wealth of unique surrounding villages, all bustling with Iraq’s Kurds, Yazidis, Shabak, Christian Assyrians and Armenians, led to Mosul’s unique cultural mix and diversity.

Despite Mosul’s location up north, what connected Maslawis (residents of Mosul) to the rest of Iraq was their significant class of educated citizens and highly regarded institutions.

Many Iraqis would go to the city to attend its prestigious University of Mosul, whose medical college dates back to the early establishment of the Iraqi state. If educated Iraqis were not going to Mosul to study, the educated people of Mosul were coming to the rest of Iraq to teach.
For many Iraqis, this is what Mosul means to them.

But it also represents the city that provided Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime with a large number of military and security personnel. Unlike Baghdad and Basra, Mosul did not fight in the United States-led war in 2003. Instead, regime loyalists and the military simply joined the civilian population. This meant that a large concentration of ex-regime loyalists were based in Mosul.

At the time, many of those elements morphed into extremist groups such as Islamic State and carried out attacks to undermine the new political order. This saw the city quickly become a no-go zone for many in Iraq who were afraid of the lawlessness and the free reign of armed groups. Hence, when Mosul fell to Islamic State in 2014, many in Iraq were not surprised.

The steady collapse of Islamic State around Iraq leaves little doubt about the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to liberate Mosul. For the Iraqi government and the anti-Islamic State coalition, the question is not if but how long it will take.

For ordinary Iraqis the question remains how will they view Mosul and its residents after the city is liberated?

The Iraqi government has wisely relied only on the ISF to conduct the operation, leaving out the controversial Popular Mobilisation Units, the message being: this is not a sectarian attack on Mosul or an attempt to punish it for falling to Islamic State. Instead, this is Iraqis liberating Iraqi land.

But will Mosul remain a pillar of Iraqi identity or will the legacy of Islamic State’s occupation result in trust lost between Maslawis and the rest of Iraqis?

When this question was posed to a former Iraqi general and resident of the city, with relatives still living there, he said: “Mosul can remain the Mosul of old, the Mosul of officers, teachers and professors only if Maslawis want that to happen.”

Evidence of this was the recently liberated Christian-Assyrian villages of Bartella and Qara Qosh, outside Mosul, by the ISF. There is a newly-built trust between the locals and the ISF that will be vital for the future of Iraq.

Ultimately it will be the actions and reactions of Maslawis during and after military operations that will decide what the new Mosul will be known for. If they are able to overcome the horrible psychological and social trauma of Islamic State’s reign, then Mosul can once again rise as an Iraqi centre of education, culture and professionals. — Al Jazeera/News24

Hamzeh Hadad is an independent analyst and writer on Iraq

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