The first time I visited Mosul was in the early summer of 2003, just weeks after the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square came crashing down. In one of the city’s nicest neighbourhoods, I asked Ali Jajawi, a retired brigadier-general, whether he felt liberated. He took a great deal of time to compose his answer. Yes, he eventually allowed, being rid of the old regime was, on the whole, a good thing. But he was ambivalent about the liberators. Did the Americans and their coalition partners have Iraq’s best intentions at heart?
He professed to be an admirer of Saddam’s — and it took some courage to say so at that time — but he also loathed the dictatorship. On balance, he’d have preferred it if the regime had been toppled from within, with foreigners staying out of it. Mosul prides itself for producing the cream of the officer corps of the Iraqi military, and the general felt it unbecoming that his country should need outside assistance to rid itself of a tyrant.
I could not have known then that Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were hiding just a few houses away, where their vile lives were soon to end in a hail of gunfire. Returning to Mosul a few weeks after that, I sought out General Jajawi, and asked if he’d had a change of heart since our previous conversation. Not yet, he replied.
“Let me tell you something about Muslawis,” he said. “If we believe that you come in friendship, we will gladly give you everything we own. But we are a very suspicious people. First, prove that you come in friendship.”
That conversation has been much on my mind this week, as a new coalition seeks to liberate Jajawi’s hometown from the so-called Islamic State (IS). This time, it is led by the Iraqi army, along with Kurdish militias known as the Peshmerga. Also present will be Shia groups, known collectively as the Hashd al-Shaabi, whose ranks include Iranian fighters and commanders. Some Sunni tribes are sending fighters, too. The United States will provide air cover for the operation, as well as a small detachment of American soldiers on the ground. Uninvited, Turkey has decided that it will join this party.
The battle for Mosul will be bloody: IS is thought to have upwards of 8,000 fighters there, and they’ve had plenty of time to dig in. It took Iraqi forces and the Shia militias over a month to drive IS out of Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, last year, and a similar amount of time to liberate Fallujah earlier this year. Mosul is much bigger, and much more valuable to the terrorists, and they are expected to fight much harder to hold it. But however long it takes, the coalition is optimistic of victory.
It is safe to assume that most Muslawis are looking forward to being rid of the terrorist group that has controlled their city since the summer of 2014: IS zealots have ruled Iraq’s second-largest city with extreme brutality. But that doesn’t mean the city will welcome its new liberators with garland and song.
Like any victim of a long, traumatic captivity, Mosul will need to be handled with extraordinary sensitivity, a virtue conspicuously absent in the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. That the coalition includes the Hashd al-Shaabi is itself a bad sign. Mosul is an overwhelmingly Sunni city, and will not take well to the presence of groups that revel in the killing of Sunnis. The Iranian participation will also give offence: Mosul contributed thousands of “martyrs” in the 1980-88 war with Iran.
Most Muslawis are Arabs, and will be suspicious of the intentions of the Peshmerga, who have long desired control of the city with a view to incorporating it into a greater Kurdistan. And many in the city will regard the return of the Americans, however small their number, as an unwelcome reminder of a previous betrayal: The US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 which set of the chain events that empowered the IS. It’s harder to know what Muslawis will make of the Turks, if they do turn up for the fight, but I can’t imagine the presence of yet another foreign force will go down well.
In the lead-up to this week’s operations, much of the rhetoric from the Iraqi government has been triumphalist, designed to boost the morale of its forces and strike fear among the IS ranks. The words Muslawis will want to hear have not yet been uttered — assurances that their city will not be given over to vengeful Shia death-squads or covetous Kurds, promises of political inclusion and economic opportunity. Prime Minister Abadi must not only speak these words, he must prepare to demonstrate his sincerity as soon as the last of the hated black banners has been torn down.
I lost touch with General Jajawi after our second meeting: I don’t know if he was in his beloved Mosul when it fell to the IS; if he was, I shudder to think how the terrorists might have treated him. I’m hoping he is alive and healthy, and in my mind’s eye I’m picturing him greeting with the commanders of the coalition with much the same challenge he threw the Americans in 2003: “Prove that you come in friendship.”
Bobby Ghosh is editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times