How did a city known for its ethnic and religious mix roll over for a band of Islamist radicals? In the wake of the ISIS conquest of Mosul, the spectre of it spreading to the capital looms.
MOSUL — This city was one of the most important centers of the Sufi branch of Islam, with its mysticism and instincts toward openness.
Mosul was a mirror to the Turkish cities of Mardin and Antakya, and Aleppo in Syria, where different religions and sects have long coexisted in peace.
Mosul, just like Damascus, was one of the main arteries of Arab nationalism.
Mosul was the hometown of many Arabic intellectuals.
What has happened to Mosul that it opened its arms to the violent ideology of al-Qaeda? How could the religious orders of Mosul end up on the same side with the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which recognizes Sufism as sin and bombs its mausoleums? How could the once proudly secularist Ba'ath members and the officers of the former Iraqi army disbanded by the Americans become allies, virtually overnight, with the pro-Sharia radical forces?
For days, I traveled between the cities of Erbil and Mosul, Tikrit, Kirkuk and Hawija, talking to people who were on the run from this Sunni uprising, which originally started against Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia Prime Minister of Iraq.
I was on a quest to understand this coalition of revenge.
It was Esil El Nuceyfi — former governor of Mosul, among those forced to flee the city — who gave me a pretty good summary of what is going on. He said the new alliances are temporary partnerships, as was the case in Syria. Partners of this coalition will soon start fighting among themselves.
This coalition reminds me of the Afghans who let the Taliban take control in the atmosphere of invasion, civil war and chaos. I met a Sunni Turkmen on the street in Erbil (I did not tell him that I am a journalist), and we talked for an hour about how he perceives the situation. He said that ISIS is like the army of Caliph Umar, that is, a promise of justice. And that as a Muslim, there was nothing to be troubled about by this army!
When I reminded of him the cruelty of ISIS, the beheadings, he told me that Iran is behind every manifestation of evil. Many others like him told me good things about ISIS, which was expressed ultimately as pure animosity against the Shia.
“You are a Turkmen,” I said to him. “The Shia Turkmens are targets for ISIS.” His answer was: “I am not talking about the Shia around here; I mean the Shia in the south. Our Shia are fine.” The demonized Shia are the ones from Basra, Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad. The truth, of course, is much different than his perception, completely disconnected from reality.
Although ISIS tell people who fled the cities they have conquered to return home and accept their rules, the developments lead to a sect-centered genocide. The Shia Turkmens will not be able to return to their homes if ISIS cement their position. The sectarian clashes between 2006-2008 have already caused many people to relocate.
According to a source of mine in Tal Afar, about 20% of the Sunni Turkmens in the city support ISIS. The ratio of Shias to Sunnis in Tal Afar is approximately 40-60% or 45-55% according to different sources. The ethnic Turkmen are divided into different camps, as they were in 2008.
The Ba'ath factor
The elite of Saddam Hussein's era intend to create a new wave of Ba'ath control, and make use of the animosity among the sects. This is also the reason why certain tribe leaders said "our cause is one with ISIS, leave your guns and go home" when the Islamist troops entered Mosul with a few thousand militants — and the military did not fight.
The situation of the military is desperate. The Sunni soldiers, who are in the minority, do not want to fight for Maliki. The Shia soldiers believe it is not worth dying for the Sunni cities where the public might even stone them.
This divide in the military started when Maliki started to discharge people from the army for fear of a future coup d'etat, as well as when he sent troops to fight against Sunni tribal uprisings. These tribes were angry because the militia which helped fight against al-Qaeda with the Sunni troops at Anbar province were not drafted in the army, and left forgotten.
ISIS is a virus left on this land by the American invasion. Its common trait with the Ba'ath is a phobia of the Shia and Iran. The Americans went through literally millions of documents from the Saddam era and could not find a single piece of evidence that Baghdad and al-Qaeda were connected. Today, the Ba'ath and ISIS with al-Qaeda origins try to do the same. Life is strange.
In short, the Sunnis were stripped of any power in Iraq after 2003, and they voiced their rightful objection with an intolerant stance. Since the Shia front answered in the same way, the country is inevitably spiraling into more and more violence.
It is hard for the Sunni Arabs — 25% of the population — to overcome the Shia Arabs, who constitute about 55%. The worst case scenario, according to a veteran journalist friend of mine from Kirkik, is that the Sunni push their luck to the end move as far as the Tigris river, which cuts Baghdad in half. Baghdad, which is symbolically framed by the Azamiye Mausoleum in the east and the Kazimiye Mausoleum in the west would literally become divided into two parts, one Sunni and one Shia.
But that would leave the Shia stronghold of Sadr City on the Sunni half, which would be destined to turn the waters of the Tigris between “eastern” and “western Baghdad” red with the blood of both sides.