Patrick Cockburn: City of the Dead
- City of the Dead
Mosul on Lockdown
By PATRICK COCKBURN
Mosul looks like a city of the dead. American and Iraqi troops have
launched an attack aimed at crushing the last bastion of al Qaida in
Iraq and in doing so have turned the country's northern capital into
a ghost town. Soldiers shoot at any civilian vehicle on the streets
in defiance of a strict curfew. Two men, a woman and child in one
car which failed to stop were shot dead by US troops who later
issued a statement saying the two men were armed and one man
made 'threatening movements.' It is not easy to reach Mosul, a city
of 1.4 million people on the Tigris river, sealed off from the
outside world by hundreds of police and army checkpoints since the
Iraqi government offensive against al-Qa'ida began at 4 am on
The operation is a critical part of the government's attempt over
the last six weeks to reassert military control over Iraq which has
led to heavy fighting in Baghdad and Basra.
We began the journey from the Kurdish capital Arbil in a convoy of
white pick up trucks, each with a heavy machine gun in the back
manned by alert-looking soldiers, some wearing black face masks,
that were escorting Khasro Goran, the deputy governor of Mosul, to
his office in the city.
Soon after crossing the long bridge over the Zaab river and leaving
territory officially controlled by the Kurds, we saw lines of trucks
and cars, whose drivers presumably had not heard of the curfew,
being stopped by police. The soldiers defending our convoy said
that there was little real danger ahead, but even so we turned into
a military headquarters in the Christian village of Bartilla to
exchange our pick ups for more heavily armoured vehicles with small
windows a few inches across of bullet proof glass.
I had been to Mosul down this road half a dozen times since the fall
of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and on each occasion the military escort
necessary to reach the city safely has grown bigger. Squinting
through the small glass portholes I could see local people were
clearly taking the curfew seriously. Even the miserable looking
cafes used by the truck drivers, and which I had imagined were never
closed, had put up their metal grills.
In eastern Mosul the streets are usually bustling and stalls spill
onto the road near the tomb of the prophet Jonah who died in Mosul
sometime after his alarming experience with the whale. Most of the
people living in this part of the city are in any case Kurds, who
support the central government against al-Qa'ida, but here again
every shop was shut and there were police and soldiers at
checkpoints every fifty yards.
An extra brigade had been sent from Baghdad for the present
offensive along with special security troops to reinforce the 2nd
and 3rd divisions. Outside the police headquarters the black
vehicles of the Interior Ministry, each with a heavy machine gun and
a yellow head of a tiger as an insignia on the doors, were drawn up
American helicopters flew high overhead as well as drones for
reconnaissance. There was the occasional burst of firing and bomb
blast in the distance. The governor of Mosul, Dunaid Kashoula, says
the city 'has come to be dominated by the leaders of al-Qa'ida as a
result of the delay in the military operation' originally scheduled
for earlier this year. Nevertheless, the insurgents in Mosul have
never held whole quarters of the city and there was no street
The government offensive in Mosul was promised in January by the
prime minister Nouri al-Maliki as the last battle against al-Qa'ida.
He promised revenge for the assassination of the previous police
commander for the city who had been assassinated by an al-Qa'ids
suicide bomber dressed in a police uniform.
There is no doubt that security in Mosul has been getting worse over
the last six months. Mr Goran, who effectively runs the city, says
that 90 people were killed in Mosul last September compared to 213
dead this March including 58 soldiers and policemen. The number of
roadside bombs had risen from 175 to 269 over the same period.
The official theory for this is that al Qa'ida in Iraq, which has
only a limited connection with Osama bin Laden and is largely home
grown, has been driven out of its old bastions in Anbar and Diyala
provinces and Sunni districts of Baghdad. It has therefore retreated
to Mosul, the largest Sunni Arab city and the third largest in Iraq.
This is probably over simple. Attacks on US troops in Anbar province
have started again and in Sunni districts of west Baghdad al-Qa'ida
appears to be lying low rather than being eliminated. In many cases
in Baghdad al-Sahwa, the supposedly anti-al-Qa'ida awakening
Councils paid by the Americans, in practice have cosy arrangements
I had decided to go to Mosul - and therefore arrived in the first
hours of the government offensive - because of what turned out to be
a false report that the head of al Qa'ida in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-
Masri [check spelling], had been captured in a pre-dawn raid in the
city. Later Iraqi security officers said they captured many 'Emirs',
al Qa'ida cell leaders, and targeted hundreds of suspected houses.
These are critical days for the Iraqi government of Mr Maliki. Since
25 March he has launched military offensives in Basra and Baghdad.
He is getting support from the Americans and the Kurds. But it it is
not clear if the Iraqi army will fight without the backing of US
firepower in the air or on the ground. On Saturday a ceasefire was
agreed with the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr in Sadr City giving
the government greater control. But, as in Mosul, it is not clear
how far the government's opponents have simply retreated to fight
I was in Mosul on the day it was surrendered by Saddam Hussein's
forces in 2003.Scenes of joy were succeeded within the space of a
few hours by looting and gun battles between Arabs and Kurds. Five
years later Mosul, one of the great cities of the world, looks
ruinous and under siege. Every alley way is blocked by barricades
and the only new building is in the form of concrete blast walls.
The fact that the government has to empty the streets of Mosul of
its people to establish peace for a few days shows how far the city
is from genuine peace.
Patrick Cockburn is the Ihe author of "Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the
Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq."
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