Thousands of Sunni Arabs from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, escaped to Erbil at the end of the summer when the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State first overran the city and imposed a draconian social code.
Among them is a man we’ll call the professor — he, his wife and their children fled Mosul in August, but he doesn’t want his name published because his extended family still lives there under ISIS control.
The professor now lives in Erbil, at the Motel Delicious, a seedy place despite the enticing name, with parakeets in the lobby and every room packed with his neighbors from Mosul.
“I think ISIS is losing now,” says the professor.
He and others from Mosul are all watching for signs that their city will be the next target of an Iraqi government assault to oust ISIS from major urban areas centers seized by the militants last summer.
The professor says that ISIS is more paranoid than they were when the militant group first entered the city in June. Six months ago, they blew up the cell phone towers around the city. Now, his relatives can only call late at night, standing on roof tops to catch distant signals. Recently, ISIS shut down all the escape routes out of the city.
“So dangerous to try to get of Mosul now,” he says based on reports from his sisters still in Mosul.
Getting out was never easy. Residents could go for hospital treatments and education, but they had to pledge to return, handing over documents for cars and houses as a guarantee. These days, even that deal has been called off.
“Nowadays, they forbid everything. Everyone cannot get out of Mosul,” he says.
The only way is by paying a smuggler, but even those routes are dangerous due to coalition bombings.
It’s a city where beheadings and floggings became routine, and people believed to be heretics, like the Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq, could be sold as slaves. Smoking is forbidden and women must be completely covered from head to toe, and lately, even a her eyes must be covered.
Despite the harsh social rules, the markets remain full. Produce is brought in from Syria and sellers set up shop from the back of the trucks, he says.
“Everything is available there, and people are still taking salaries from the government,” he says. “Maybe at least 30, 40 percent of people are still taking salaries.”
Iraqi officials confirm Baghdad spends up to $16 million a month on the government payroll in Mosul. But ISIS taxes the wages and takes a cut, say Western diplomats.
Daily life is increasingly grim with. Fighters are on edge as coalition airstrikes hit ISIS military bases and convoys. Some ISIS fighters have retreated to Mosul from the nearby battlefront in Tikrit, where the government launched the first major assault against ISIS. Other fighters are pulling out of mosul to head for the relative safety of Syria.
Other ISIS fighters are pulling out of Mosul to head for the relative safety of Syria. The professor’s relatives report there is tension between the local iraqis and the foreign fighters.
“I saw them fighting — Iraqi’s local and the foreigners,” he says. “Some of the foreigners started to take their families and travel outside — and the local fighters reject.”
On Tuesday, across Mosul, Iraqi government planes dropped 2 million leaflets promising liberation soon.
“Your armed forces are close to you, and they are ready to participate with you in defeating ISIS,” was the message on the floating papers. But that seems unlikely.
The Iraqi army is far from ready for an assault on Iraqi’s second largest city. The first assault on ISIS in Tikrit has stalled for more than a week. The forces leading that military campaign are primarily Iraq’s Shiite militias, backed and trained by Iran.
And if they succeed?
“You bring in the military force, and you fight the terrorist there, you evict them. And then what?” asks Qubad Talabani, vice president of the Kurdish regional government.
In other words, Iraq’s militia may be able to take Tikrit, but it’s unclear they will be able to hold it.
Mosul will be even a more difficult and sensitive operation, Talabani says. The city is five times larger than Tikrit, with more than 1 million civilians, mostly Sunni Arabs, who welcomed ISIS when they first arrived, relieved to rid of an oppressive Shiite-dominated government and army. Now, the Sunnis of Mosul are watching Shiite forces battling ISIS in Tikrit.
“That’s the problem with the Tikrit operation, that it is a purely Shiite-led military operation against a heavily Sunni place of the country,” Talabani says. “This is Saddam’s birthplace here, with no political endgame anywhere in sight. Not for the people of Tikrit, not for the Sunnis of Iraq.”
The professor says attitudes in Mosul have changed after eight months of ISIS rule.
Compared to those early months, ISIS is beginning to lose support day by day.
“Every day, rejection is increasing,” he says.
But it’s still not clear if a loss for ISIS is a win for the government of Baghdad. There is no political plan for broad reconciliation between Iraqi’s Sunnis and Shiites as the push against ISIS in Tikrit and Mosul is on hold.