Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi visited Mosul to declare victory in the eight-month struggle to liberate Iraq’s second largest city from the grip of the Islamic State. The battle was tough—more Stalingrad than shock-and-awe—but the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga, and ordinary Iraqis who answered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call deserve the lion’s share of the credit. U.S. airpower also played a significant role.
Now that Mosul is free, however, it is essential that Moslawis (as residents of Mosul are called) consider why it was that the Islamic State took root in their city. It’s easy to blame others. Many U.S. military analysts blame the sectarianism and pro-Iranian tilt of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Evidence, however, belies this. If sectarianism was to blame for the rise of the Islamic State, then why did the Islamic State also take root in Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and elsewhere where sectarianism wasn’t a problem? And while some pundits and analysts like to stereotype all Shi’ites as pro-Iranian plants, the fact of the matter is that sectarianism is a two-street: most of the suicide bombing that has afflicted Iraq does not originate in the Shi’ite community.
Too many in Mosul believe that power is a birthright. The city was home to many in Saddam Hussein’s officer corps during the Baathist era. When General David Petraeus led the 101st Airborne, he sought to empower former Baathists and Islamists to stabilize the city and in order to prove Baghdad’s policy of de-Baathification wrong. He placed Saddam-era General Mahmud Muhammad al-Maris in charge of the Syrian border. Rather than defend it, Maris’ handpicked allies facilitated smuggling and insurgent traffic. Petraeus allowed another Baathist, General Muhammad Kha’iri Barhawi, to be Mosul’s police chief. Rather than win hearts and minds, however, he only rented them. As soon as Petraeus’ discretionary payments dried up, the men he empowered returned to the insurgency.
Simply put, Moslawi leaders at the time sought power and money, but they had no interest in inter-communal compromise or tolerance, let alone democracy.
While it may have been popular inside Mosul to blame their woes on Baghdad, much of the reason for Mosul’s problems lay in its own leaders who failed to spend much of the money allocated to the province. The juxtaposition between Mosul and Kirkuk shows the discrepancy in each city’s conditions to be rooted more in government capacity than in Baghdad’s discrimination. Indeed, for the Sunni Arab community in Iraq, the problem has always been much more the failure of its own leaders than outside forces.
When the Islamic State rose up, they did not do so in a vacuum. Many Baathists and Saddam-era military officers cooperated with the Islamic State in the belief that they could control the rebels and use the territory they seized to negotiate a better compact with Baghdad. The Moslawi military leaders never expected the Islamic State to turn on them so quickly. In effect, many Moslawis played with fire and got burned.
And while the Islamic State victimized many in the city, they also found fertile ground and much latent support. When the Islamic State rose up, many Sunni Arabs fled either north to Iraqi Kurdistan or south into Shi’ite-held areas. Those who went south fared better than those who went north, simply because they had more ability to work and integrate into society rather than remain in camps nor did they need to constantly re-apply for “visas.”
When I asked security officials in Najaf and Karbala about the security implications of their policy, they said they had little problem: displaced Sunni Arabs pre-empted terrorism by turning in those who might plot attacks in the Shi’ite heartland. The implication is clear: Those in Mosul might just as easily have turned in those who had been plotting against the state prior to the Islamic State’s uprising but chose not to do so. Meanwhile, members of the Iraqi parliament from Mosul served as intermediaries with Baghdad to coordinate the ability of Moslawis to go on Haj to Mecca even while they were living under Islamic State control. Once again, such a working relationship showed that denials of prominent Mosul leaders to any Islamic State contacts were false.
As Mosul is liberated, many Moslawis rightly celebrate. Many suffered tremendously at the hands of the Islamic State and are thrilled to see them go. But it is also important to acknowledge that the Islamic State was not some outside conspiracy imposed upon Mosul, but rather the result of the extremism which so many Moslawis were prepared to tolerate. It is understandable that many in Mosul wish a new compact with Baghdad and, after so much destruction, this makes sense. But they need to put aside the sectarian narrative they so often promote and look into their own community to see how they found themselves under such a horrific regime in the first place.