Islamic State gone, but corruption is back in Mosul, Iraq

IRQ180414AB001MOSUL, Iraq – Iraqis recently celebrated the first anniversary of the defeat of the Islamic State.

But, as construction cranes slowly rebuild the regions where the jihadists ruled until December 2017, echoes of the insurgency are still rebounding here in the country’s second-largest city.

Residents of Mosul said they are increasingly facing the same corruption that bedeviled their city in the runoff to the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg rise to power in 2014. Government soldiers and local militia groups that run the city routinely commit human rights violations like racketeering, unjust imprisonment and extortion.

"In prison, they threatened not to set me free and that they will accuse me with other terrorist crimes if I did not pay $30,000," said Mohammed Omar, a 30-year-old who has an engineering degree but owns a clothing store. "The longer I delay paying, the more I’ll have to pay.”

Omar's family sold a plot of land to pay the sum. They had been planning to build a house on it so he and his brother could marry and start families.

Security forces arrested Omar in June when they stopped him at a checkpoint and found his name on a list of wanted criminals and jihadists. They beat him and threw him into prison for two months.

But he was falsely identified, he claimed. Authorities routinely arrest people with little evidence other than their names matching those on a list of fugitives. Many Mosul residents avoid passing checkpoints out of fear of their names appearing on such lists.

Around 350,000 people have the same name on a list of 60,000 terrorists, according to Ahmed al-Jubori, a member of parliament representing Mosul who belongs to the Civilized Alliance Tamadon, a coalition of left-leaning political parties.

"There are no accurate statistics on the number of detainees held by Iraq's security authorities," said Mustafa Saadoun, director of the Baghdad-based Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, who corroborated al-Jubori’s figures. "However…we know about hundreds or even thousands being released every month as false suspects. In Nineveh alone, we have documented 100 cases of mistaken names, but we believe the numbers to be much higher."

Last October, in an attempt to address a rash of false imprisonments, former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered officials not to arrest anyone before checking their four names, a common practice in Arab culture. "This is a measure to stop arresting innocents due to mistaken names and leave criminals and terrorists free," said General Faisal Kazem Al-Abadi, police commander in the eastern province of Diyala, said at the time.

Government forces share the names of the lists, according to human rights advocates, to help militia forces raise money via extortion.
“They knew I am from a well-known family,” said Omar, who was arrested in again in October on suspicion of terrorism but then released without having to pay. “But they kept contacting my family threatening them to get money."

Corruption like Omar’s experience was prevalent before 2014. It was among the reasons why many Mosul residents, who are largely Sunni Muslim, welcomed the Islamic State, who are also Sunnis, when they invaded the city and kicked out the mostly Shiite Muslim government forces.

"Relations between citizens and security forces were bad and unstable because of al-Maliki's bad policies and the sectarian practices of some of the security forces,” said political scientist Ali Bashar of Bayan University in Irbil, referring to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who left office in 2014 in disgrace as government forces ceded territory to the Islamic State. “People's reactions were sectarian, likewise. That enabled terrorist groups to fill the gap.”

In July 2017, Mosul’s residents applauded the government forces when they defeated the Islamic State and retook the city. But the victorious militias are now plundering Mosul like the government forces before them, said Bashar.

"They took control of some buildings and lands, managing resources like gas stations and hauling the debris of destroyed buildings,” said Bashar.

Mohammed al-Nu’aimi, 62, an owner of a gas station in Mosul, knows the problem firsthand.

“I feel as if we are working all the time to pay royalties to the militias,” said al-Nu’aimi. “They force us to pay illegal monthly taxes in large amounts to fund their forces although they receive salaries from Iraq’s government.”

Al-Nu’aimi blamed the militias, which originally formed to beat back the Islamic State, for the recurrent high fuel prices and shortages in Mosul.

"They would block the roads to the gas stations that refuse to pay,” he said, adding that his complaints to local officials have amounted to nothing. “It is a way to force us to pay, apart from filling their cars with gasoline for free and skipping the line at stations. No one can utter a word."

While the militias prosper, the rest of the city is suffering.

Youth unemployment is around 80 percent, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. Most of the older, western side of the city is still in rubble. In other sections of the city, regular people are struggling to move on, too.

Last year, Saad al-Jubori, 40, a civil servant at Mosul’s water department, bought a plot of land in east Mosul where he hoped to build a house. But officials blocked him.

“After months of tiring bureaucracy, one of the region’s military officers told me that I would not be allowed to build my dream house because it is located close to a weapons depot and military housing,” said al-Jubori. “Nobody would compensate me. Have they come to protect or strangle us? We were happy when they liberated our city. But now we are living in a new prison.”

As for now, the security situation, seems stable, but such increasingly growing wrath can turn everything upside down.

“The Islamic State was a result of corruption, corrupt military leaders and local tension,” said Bashar.

The same problems were rampant today. He worried Mosul residents or another group might rise up in a new insurgency in response to them.

“These problems should be solved to secure a long-term stability,” he said.

Photo: Nov. 25, 2017 - Mosul, Iraq - Tower of the 19th century historical Clock Church stands sky high as surrounding buildings crumble down in Old Mosul.
Credit: Courtesy of Ali Y. Al-Baroodi/ ARA Network Inc. (11/25/2017)

Story/photo publish date: 12/30/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

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