Mustafa Al Dabbagh
In November of last year, I visited the eastern side of Mosul on an aid mission. While there, I witnessed a city void of any life and littered with evidence of the ongoing battle.
Speaking to what few civilians I encountered, I was told that “there is no hope, no water and no food” and that they were better off living in camps outside of the city.
Three months on, I find myself back again in Iraq. The situation on the east side of the city has improved.
People are slowly streaming back in from the camps that they fled to. Streets that were once empty are now bustling with life. Vehicles crowd the roads as people are slowly getting acclimatized to their newfound freedom. Markets and shops are flourishing.
On our drive in, I noticed trucks laden with products stuck at checkpoints awaiting permission to enter.
However, as the private sector booms, the same cannot be said about government-run infrastructure.
There is a severe lack of water throughout the whole city. On the eastern side, there are a total of six international non-governmental organization (INGO)s, in coordination with UNICEF, carrying out water deliveries by truck to those who are most in need.
Nevertheless, there are still severe shortages. Existing water sources are being used at maximum capacity and are struggling to keep up with the needs of the 600,000 or so civilians currently living on the east side of the city.
Last week, the only functioning water-treatment plant, serving roughly 70,000 people directly while providing water for 12 neighborhoods via truck, was hit by a Daesh rocket rendering it unusable.
People are being forced to dig shallow wells in their gardens in order to find drinking water. Water has become, according to one resident, “like gold” as more and more people struggle to find an adequate supply.
Aside from this, other problems plague residents of east Mosul. Happy to be back leading normal lives without the influence and prying eyes of Daesh, they still face an uphill struggle.
Unemployment is high as well as a severe shortage of spending power and cash, which is only fueled by unemployment and the lack of opportunities.
Certain INGOs, in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), are due to start a cash-for-work program in order to provide much-needed support to those most in need.
While all this has been occurring on the east side of the city, the offensive to retake the western side was launched on Feb. 19.
An estimated 750,000 people live in the narrow and densely populated streets of western Mosul. To date, the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) has retaken Mosul airport along with the villages surrounding it.
Furthermore, they have advanced and cleared out the Ghazlani military base, the Al-Mamoon, Wadi Hajar and nearby neighborhoods, along with both the Fourth Bridge and the Huriyah Bridge.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army’s Ninth Division has taken control of the Badush area north of Mosul, effectively cutting off the final escape route for Daesh and its fighters.
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), otherwise known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, meanwhile, who mainly consist of Shia militiamen, have been told that they are to play no official role in the recapture of Mosul or any of the surrounding areas.
But a drive through the city’s outskirts reveals that they are very much involved; their flags litter the skyline as if laying claim to captured territory. It is not unusual to come across checkpoints manned by PMF personnel, who make little effort to hide their affiliations.
There are also reports of looting and theft by some fighters. They have even gone so far as diverting aid -- including water trucks -- intended for the city’s poorest inhabitants.
Battle for West
The battle to recapture the western side of Mosul is, by the reckoning of many experts, going to be a much tougher task than it was in the east.
Daesh has had more time to consolidate its position and set traps, plant improvised explosive devices, and wire cars to explode.
Over the past few days, the militants have instructed the inhabitants of certain neighborhoods to park their cars along the road in order to impede the advance of Iraqi Forces.
They have also grown more resourceful, developing drones to carry and drop explosives on the forces advancing into the eastern side of the city.
What is also evident is that Iraqi forces and their coalition allies are using much heavier-handed tactics than before.
Heavy artillery is being used on a far greater scale than it was in the operation to retake the eastern side of the city. This, coupled with western Mosul’s high population density, has led to many civilian casualties.
Since the start of the offensive, roughly 50,000 civilians have fled western Mosul and surrounding villages. This figure is expected to rise to about 250,000 as the fighting intensifies and reaches the more densely populated areas near the city’s center.
Fleeing, however, is not easy. Daesh has been forcing people from their homes and moving them to other neighborhoods to be used as human shields. Anyone caught fleeing is being targeted by Daesh artillery or sniper fire.
All this fuels the dire humanitarian situation that civilians find themselves in as the prices of basic food items -- such as sugar, potatoes and rice -- have skyrocketed.
The battle for Mosul will be a long and difficult one. It has been reported that the Trump administration has informed Lt. Gen. Townsend and the Iraqi authorities that they expect the battle to be over by Easter.
That, however, by the admission of military sources, is well-nigh impossible, and the battle will most likely go on into June.
Defeating Daesh on the battlefield is only half of the problem. Iraqi authorities and their coalition partners must also ensure that there are no sleeper cells still active in the city that may pose a threat later on.
They must endeavor to empower Mosul residents and make sure they do not revert to the old sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose blatant sectarian agenda and marginalization of the Sunni community fueled the fire of radicalization and played a role in the advent of Daesh.
In order to do this, they should hand over security and the running of the city to its inhabitants. Who better to run and protect a city than those who were born there and know it best?
The Baghdad government should ensure that the Iraqi Armed Forces and the PMF are held in check and that the looting, battlefield executions and sectarianism seen during the “liberation” of Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah are not repeated.
There must also be a campaign to reeducate those who have been seduced by Daesh’s dark ideology.
Responsibility for this, while mainly on Baghdad, must also be shouldered by the international community. For had it not been for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion -- and subsequent neglect by the international community -- both Iraq and its people would not find themselves in the situation they are in now.
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