One Year On, ISIS Is Only Digging Deeper Into Mosul, Iraq

Analysts and internal refugees alike agree that even if Islamic State could be driven out of the city, its influence will linger on.

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The Khazir camp, built outside the city of Irbil to house displaced people from Mosul, was hastily evacuated within two months after ISIS militants advanced on it.
The Khazir camp, built outside the city of Irbil to house displaced people from Mosul, was hastily evacuated within two months after ISIS militants advanced on it.Credit: Abed al Qaisi
Sheren Khalel
Matthew Vickery

Dohuk, IRAQ — Mohammed Ismail shakes his head slowly when Mosul is mentioned. It’s been a year since he’s seen his hometown — a place full of history and diversity, he enthuses, before he stops himself. “What’s left of it now I don’t know,” he continues.

Ismail fled Mosul on June 15, 2014, five days after Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, wrested full control of the city from an inept Iraqi army.

Fearing that their initial plan, to lay low and avoid Islamic State militants, was too risky, Ismail and his family headed for Dohuk, in the Kurdish autonomous region. Now Ismail speaks to Haaretz from under the tarpaulin and corrugated metal sheets of the makeshift grocery he has cobbled together on the outskirts of the city.

“I had a shop to make beds in Mosul, I employed 25 people there, and then I had to leave everything behind, my city, my home,” Ismail says. “It’s been a year now, I had to start life again here. The sad thing is, now when people think of Mosul they think of Islamic State. Mosul was beautiful, but now it is destroyed, the people from Mosul, those who stayed and those who fled are also destroyed like the city.”

Ismail considers himself lucky: As a successful business owner, he had a little cash to get the store up and running, generate revenue and rent an apartment for his family. Many former Mosul residents still languish in camps for internally displaced persons across northern Iraq. The poorest, Ismail says, couldn’t even leave Mosul, they didn’t have transportation to leave or any money to start over. They remain stuck under Islamic State control.

A year ago Iraq’s Nineveh Plain and its hub city, Mosul, were engulfed in a sweeping Islamic State advance. Roads leading out of the city were packed with standstill traffic. Some people abandoned their vehicles, opting to take their chances on foot under the punishing desert sun as they headed toward the border of the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq.

The scenes of June 2014 have been repeated up and down Iraq in the year since as Islamic State advances have become commonplace. Cities and towns continue to fall to the militant group, absorbed into its self-proclaimed caliphate.

Two girls at Khazir refugee camp fight the Iraqi midsummer heat by playing in the water with friends, July 2014. (Photo by Abed al Qaisi)

The Khazir refugee camp was established outside the city of Irbil, and right outside the perimeter of the Kurdish regional government, almost as soon as internally displaced refugees from Mosul began inundating the border crossing.

Less than two months later, in August, the camp was hastily evacuated as trucks filled with Islamic State militants advanced on its dusty tents. Just days before the camp was overtaken by Islamic State, Haaretz spoke to Subha Ali Khlaeyf, an internal refugee whose situation was so dire that she and her children didn’t even have a tent to offer some protection from the 50-degrees-Celsius days and the dark nights.

“I’m not sure how long we will stay here,” she told Haaretz at the time. “We are all sick, and I feel our bad health and not having health care could be very bad, I feel some of my family are close to death.”

Just a few days later Ali Khlaeyf and her family fled into the relative safety of the Kurdish regional government. With Iraq’s internally displaced population receiving less than 10 percent of its funding needs in 2015 and international charities cutting health and other services due to a lack of funds, life for former Mosul residents such as Ali Khlaeyf continues to be a daily struggle.

Former Mosul residents represent just a handful of the refugees and internally displaced persons who have sought refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region. The two million IDPs now constitute 28 percent of its population.

Many of these people have no intentions of returning home anytime soon.

Ismail has started a new life in Dohuk, and although he longs to return to Mosul he does not think that will happen in the near future.

“Everything has changed,” Ismail lamented. “I feel so sad that this is happening, that it is continuing to happen. I don’t have any hope to come back at the moment.”

Mohammed Ismail once had 25 employees in Mosul at his business, today he owns a makeshift grocery outside Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. (Photo by Abed al Qaisi)

Rumors of a planned campaign to liberate the Islamic State stronghold in Mosul have circulated widely over the past year, but the Iraqi army’s struggle to take back Tikrit and its recent stunning loss of Ramadi have put paid to such talk. People in the region no longer make predictions for the city’s liberation.

‘At this point there’s no force that can retake Mosul’

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Jamestown Foundation and an expert in Kurdish affairs, told Haaretz he thinks retaking the city will be a difficult feat.

“Nobody can predict the future,” van Wilgenburg told Haaretz, “but it will depend first on the stabilizing the Sunni areas in the center of Iraq. At this point there is no force that can take Mosul back, as shown by the Iraqi defeats in Bayji and Ramadi. But things can change fast.”

Ismail says he will only return to Mosul if the city’s liberation from Islamic State leads to its joint protection by Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces. He admits that this is unlikely: The Kurdish regional government has repeatedly stated that its forces would not take a leading role in Mosul’s liberation, much less security duties in the city afterward.

A year on, neither refugees nor analysts can say when Mosul will be freed from Islamic State control. And even if that happens, the city’s troubles won’t be over, Van Wilgenburg said.

“It will be difficult to rebuild Mosul after it’s taken back from Islamic State,” he said. “If there will be no attempts to include the local population of Mosul in the local security forces and administration, and if the operations are dominated by Shi’ite militia forces, then it builds the seeds for new groups after Islamic State, or Islamic State-inspired groups to play a role again in Mosul.”

With the fear of an Islamic State presence going underground, along with reprisal attacks by Shi’ite militias on Sunni residents of Mosul, as have been reported in Tikrit, Ismail believes that even if the black flag of the Islamic State stops flying over the Iraqi city, the destruction caused and the sectarianism the militant group has helped to fan over the past year will continue to rock the city for years to come.

Subha Ali Khlaeyf, an internal refugee at Khazir whose situation was so dire that her family lacked even a tent. Photo by Abed al Qaisi

“Now I am worried about the Shi’ite militias,” Ismail told Haaretz. “They say they are killing people from Islamic State, but we know this isn’t true, they are just killing Sunnis. Even if Islamic State loses control of Mosul, normal people will end up caught in a fire, a fire between whatever is left of Islamic State and the Shi’ite militia fighters. I’m not sure Mosul can be fixed.”

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