MOSUL, Iraq -- A year ago this northern Iraqi city was a model for American commanders of how to do it right. U.S. troops worked closely with Iraqis and gradually gained their trust; they found ways to finance thousands of popular reconstruction projects; they even helped produce offbeat programs for local television, including a Mosul version of "Cops" and a talent show they called "Iraqi Idol."
Today Mosul illustrates how things have gone wrong in Sunni Muslim areas of Iraq. There are fewer U.S. troops here than there were a year ago. Meanwhile, a well-organized insurgency has taken root in this city on the banks of the Tigris, intimidating the local population and terrorizing the police. Local security forces are mostly in disarray, and American troops last weekend were fighting running street battles. U.S. commanders say the city's 2 million residents know little about the election scheduled for Jan. 30, and insurgents have even managed to destroy most of the voter registration materials.
"Many, many people are afraid," says Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, who has commanded U.S. forces here since February. The insurgents have infiltrated the city, he says, and their campaign "has had a significant effect on the population."
Ham spoke at his base at the Mosul airport during a quick trip to the city last weekend by Gen. John Abizaid, who commands U.S. forces in the Middle East. Abizaid's visit provided a window on Mosul's importance as a crucial front in the Iraq war. There's no easy optimism about the battle here; U.S. commanders know they face a brutal and determined enemy that combines the ruthlessness of Saddam Hussein's old regime and the passion of radical Islam.
The insurgents' most powerful weapon is raw fear. According to U.S. commanders, they distribute DVDs showing beheadings of their captives. The message: Here's what we'll do if you try to stop us. After U.S. troops patrolled one Mosul neighborhood recently, insurgents arrived in eight cars. They seized a man and shot him in the head as a warning against cooperating with the Americans.
Mosul's slide into this cauldron accelerated in July when the provincial governor was assassinated. He was by all accounts a charismatic politician who managed to maintain his independence as an Iraqi while also working with the Americans. After he was killed, Mosul lacked effective leadership to dispense the tens of millions of dollars that had been allocated for reconstruction projects. Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi brought a brief moment of optimism when he visited the city carrying $65 million in cash to pay back salaries for government workers. He promised that more financial help was on the way, but it has yet to arrive.
Security in the city has been eroding all year, but it collapsed when the insurgents staged a well-coordinated series of attacks that overran the local police on Nov. 10. The simultaneous attacks came from more than a dozen bands of insurgents, according to Ham. Policemen fled their posts, and in the aftermath, Mosul had just 1,000 police left in a force that on paper had numbered 8,000. Of those who stayed, only about 400 were reliable.
Ham says of the November assault that shattered the police, "I did not see that coming." Indeed, Mosul illustrates what may be the biggest problem for the United States and its allies throughout Iraq, which is the scarcity of good intelligence about the insurgency's command-and-control structure.
The Iraqi National Guard, which was supposed to back up the police with heavier firepower, hasn't been very effective. Again, the problem is intimidation. Insurgents threaten the soldiers' families, and many National Guard soldiers have deserted because of it.
With so few police to maintain order in this sprawling city, the insurgents stepped up their campaign of terrorism and assassination. Since Nov. 10, 136 people have been murdered, according to U.S. figures. Attacks involving coalition forces increased to a peak of about 140 a week during November from the previous level of 30 to 40, says Ham. Last Saturday, U.S. soldiers from the Stryker Brigade were ambushed in southern Mosul in a coordinated attack from two mosques. The Americans cleaned out the mosques and killed 30 to 40 insurgents.
The battle in Mosul is becoming a classic counterinsurgency, in which U.S. forces fight a shadowy enemy that attacks and then disappears into a maze of city streets or the anonymity of rural villages. The insurgents are waging a war of intimidation, and over the past month in Mosul, they have had disturbing success.