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Victory claimed in Mosul, but other battles loom

William Gourlay |  13 July 2017


With ongoing celebrations in Baghdad and scenes of devastation in Mosul, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has announced the 'liberation' of Iraq's second-largest city from ISIS. This moment, after an umbrella force of military units fought for nine months to relieve Mosul of the ISIS yoke, represents a victory for the people and government of Iraq.

An operation to retake western Mosul, 6 March 2017After the battle, however, many challenges loom, among them reconciling conflicting interests amongst Iraq's peoples and restoring the ravaged landscape. Mosul affords a picture of Iraq in miniature: its little-recognised history, its suffering under repressive regimes, its potential and the perils that it still faces.

While in the popular imagination Iraq is often equated with Saddam Hussein's brutal rule and its demographics reduced to an intractable Sunni-Shiite divide, Mosul testifies to Iraq's illustrious history and its human diversity. Among locals it is known as the 'pearl of Iraq'.

Like other cities in Mesopotamia, Mosul was a seat of learning and scholarship during the golden age of the Abbasid caliphs. Marco Polo, visiting in the late 13th century, noted its mix of Arabs, Kurds and Christians of several denominations.

Until the arrival of ISIS, the city was home to one of the most important universities in the Middle East. Within Mosul and its surrounds are many churches, the tombs of biblical prophets Jonah and Daniel, and a diverse population of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkmens, Yezidis and Mandaeans.

Mosul's very diversity and tradition of learning were anathema to the unschooled iconoclasts of ISIS, who set about destroying the cultural, religious and historical heritage of the territory they controlled. Music was banned, toys were outlawed and severe restrictions were placed on women. Schools became targets. Students were segregated, and an austere, violent ideology was promulgated through school curricula.

Now, however, Moslawis are moving rapidly to undo the devastations and privations of ISIS's rule. On the east bank of the Tigris, in the first neighbourhoods to be relieved of ISIS, shops sprang up immediately to sell toys and dolls that had previously been banned. Even as the battle in western Mosul raged, a musician held a concert in the Tomb of the Prophet Jonas and children flocked back to schools in eastern Mosul. Child refugees from ISIS commonly remark that attending classes is their way to take 'revenge'.

ISIS militants had focused their iconoclastic fury on Mosul's pre-Islamic treasures, but also on its university, the foremost educational and research facility in Iraq. Facilities were trashed and buildings burned. In Mosul's libraries countless ancient manuscripts and books were ransacked and looted.


"Despite the carnage there are flickers of hope for Iraq's future as the ISIS juggernaut recedes. The campaign to reclaim Mosul saw unprecedented cooperation amongst Iraq's fractious peoples."


But here, too, Moslawis have sprung into action to reverse the devastation. Staff and students have emerged defiant, determined to rebuild the university's legacy and reputation. An army of students, brandishing mops and brooms, is taking a hands-on approach to reclaiming their institution, painstakingly restoring facilities and removing booby traps from campus buildings. Meanwhile, Iraqi academics, with support and donations from around the globe, are working to rehabilitate the city's libraries and replace books on shelfs.

And despite the carnage there are flickers of hope for Iraq's future as the ISIS juggernaut recedes. The campaign to reclaim Mosul saw unprecedented cooperation amongst Iraq's fractious peoples. Kurdish peshmerga, Christian militias and Sunni and Shiite forces often at odds came together to oust the jihadist group.

Enduring political tensions between Sunni and Shiite are seen as a major hurdle preventing reconciliation in Iraq. It is understood that the repressive policies of the Shiite-dominated government led by Nouri al-Maliki inflamed Sunni frustrations and gave impetus to ISIS when it arose. But at a personal level many Iraqis do not respond to sectarian rabble rousing. Iraqi Shiites stepped up to lend support to the Sunni residents of Mosul, seeing them as compatriots rather than sectarian rivals. Meanwhile, in Mosul's Al Arabi neighbourhood, Muslim volunteers demonstrated their determination to rebuild a multi-confessional city by helping with the clean-up of the Mar Georges Church once ISIS had been expelled.

Such snapshots do not mean that all will now be rosy. Iraq faces enormous challenges, not least recovering from the traumatic retaking of Mosul. Western attention has been focused on removing ISIS, but that was only the first of Iraq's trials. The task of rebuilding will be long and fraught and will require concerted international effort — precisely what was lacking after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

More important will be national reconciliation. Iraqis may take heart that collectively they have expelled an evil from within, but here too the international community must play an active role. As Iraq's recent experience demonstrates, neglecting a country that has been so ravaged can have profoundly negative consequences.


William Gourlay headshotWilliam Gourlay's PhD research at Monash University focuses on the Kurdish issue in Turkey. He is also a researcher in Iranian foreign policy at Deakin University.

Main image: An operation to retake western Mosul, 6 March 2017




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Submitted comments

Iraq, post-Mosul, is a wee bit of a 'watch this space' scenario. Some of the vengeance being dished out to local Sunnis who may have been coerced into joining/collaborating with Isis and their families by Shia vigilantes, sometimes with the authorities turning a blind eye, does not augur well. The big question is whether the Kurds will attempt to absorb the city into 'Greater Kurdistan' - the nightmare of Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Iran. Will the local Arabs and Kurds fight? What about the Christians? Will they be able to return? The Nineveh plain is the Assyrian heartland. The revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has been a moderating influence on Shi'ite extremists, is 86 and in poor health. If he dies the situation may become much more volatile. Many of the genuine military strategists of Isis were former leading members of Saddam Hussein's armed forces. Iraq being a strongly tribal country they may well flee to sanctuary in the 'Sunni Triangle' and then to safety in the Gulf. America and the rest of the West may need to be involved in Iraq for a long time. Otherwise Iraq might fall under Iranian hegemony.

Edward Fido 14 July 2017

Yes, this is definitely a watch-this-space scenario. So far, portents are not good - reports of revenge killings and bodies in the Tigris. However, the Kurds make no claim on Mosul - Barzani and others have said they have no plans to expand further (content with Kirkuk and Sinjar). The West definitely needs to maintain a major role in re-construction, but it's not clear if the necessary political will to do so is present.

William Gourlay 18 July 2017

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