Analysis

Defeat of ISIS in Mosul Approaches, but Thousands of Iraqi Families Still Fighting for Survival

Every conquest is seen as a victory for the forces of light over the forces of ISIS darkness, but for locals life is still dismal

An Iraqi woman carries a child as she walks through the rubble in the Old City of Mosul on July 2, 2017, during the offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters.
FADEL SENNA/AFP

Mosul’s liberation from ISIS is almost complete. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has declared victory already, and his soldiers were fittingly photographed next to the city’s 900-year-old Al-Nuri Mosque, which needs renovation after ISIS bombed it. Nevertheless, the fighting continues.

Pockets of ISIS fighters also remain in Ramadi, in Anbar Province, which was liberated 18 months ago. Just last week, Iraqi soldiers fought ISIS members nearby.

Such clashes happen constantly in small towns in Iraq, but don’t make headlines. The almost daily terror attacks are also ignored outside the Iraqi media. The West is only interested in the big symbols: Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Daraa in Syria.

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A bottle of water is handed over to an Iraqi man who fled the fighting in the Old City of Mosul, in the city's western industrial district on July 2, 2017, as government forces continue the offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters.
FADEL SENNA/AFP

Every conquest of such a city is seen as a victory for the forces of light over the forces of darkness, an achievement in the war on terror and a step toward destroying ISIS, which introduced a new military strategy into the Mideast when it tried, with partial and temporary success, to conquer a contiguous territory that it billed as the start of an Islamic caliphate.

But for Mosul’s residents, the next stage of their tragedy is only beginning. While fierce fighting continues in the city’s western part, hundreds of thousands of people who fled to the eastern part, which was liberated five months ago, remain homeless. Journalists who visited Mosul report that thousands are still living in tents or unfinished homes, without basic services, as housing remains in short supply.

Anyone hoping to find temporary refuge in the nearby Kurdish region must undergo a lengthy investigation before being allowed over the border, even though the region is still part of Iraq. And those who gain admission must pay a huge amount, around $400 a month, for tiny apartments.

Several families crowd into each such apartment to save money. Jobs don’t exist; assistance from international organizations doesn’t come there; children have no schools; and the families are simply waiting for the moment when they can return home to western Mosul.

The situation in eastern Mosul isn’t much better. The Iraqi Education Ministry says many schools have reopened. More than 350,000 displaced residents have returned, and water and electricity are slowly being restored. But it will apparently be years before life returns to normal even in the liberated part of the city.

Moreover, looming on the horizon is a war for control of Mosul between the Kurds, the Iraqi army and the Shi’ite militias, which operate under orders from Iran.

A picture taken on July 2, 2017 shows a general view of a destroyed mosque in the Old City of Mosul, during the government forces' offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters.
FADEL SENNA/AFP

There’s still no official estimate of the scope of the destruction or the number of homes that need repair, but the rate at which Ramadi is being repaired offers a cautionary tale for Mosul residents. More than 90,000 homes were destroyed in Ramadi. The government promised grants and loans for reconstruction, but only a fraction of those promises have been kept. Recently, residents began rebuilding on their own.

Even less fortunate are the families suspected of collaborating with ISIS. About 10 kilometers from Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, an unusual refugee camp was established five months ago for families awaiting permission to return home.

Some have relatives who have been detained for questioning, others had relatives who joined ISIS and were killed in battle, and many were forced to collaborate with the organization to escape death. But the families’ individual circumstances aren’t taken into account. All are suspect – or guilty.

Months ago, the government of Saladin Province, where Tikrit is located, decided that these families won’t be allowed to return to their hometowns or even their home province for 10 years as punishment for collaboration. The Iraqi government rescinded that order, but in practice many families remain in the camp, a kind of open-air prison whose residents aren’t free to leave. Only international aid workers and people with special permits can visit the site, and no decision has yet been made on these families’ fate.

Yet in the hierarchy of suffering, even these families aren’t the worst off. They at least have roofs made of fabric and public water taps. But thousands of Iraqi families in western Mosul still don’t know if they’ll survive the battle against ISIS.

The international coalition against ISIS hasn’t ignored the tragedies caused by the war. International aid organizations are working there, and UN funds are trickling in. But these are ad hoc operations, certainly not long term, with no commitment for the future.

The working assumption is that Iraq is a wealthy state that can finance its own reconstruction. That’s probably scant comfort to the displaced residents of Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah.