Mosul Makes Gains Against the Chaos

A U.S. military officer, right, presents a flag to Iraqi forces during a recent handover ceremony in Mosul. Two Iraqi units now patrol sectors of the city.
A U.S. military officer, right, presents a flag to Iraqi forces during a recent handover ceremony in Mosul. Two Iraqi units now patrol sectors of the city. (By Mohammed Ibrahim -- Associated Press)
By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006

MOSUL, Iraq -- A year after its police force melted away and the streets descended into anarchy, Mosul has climbed up from the abyss. But this city of 2 million, a key battleground in the Iraq war, still teeters on the edge of chaos.

Insurgents have tried to assassinate the province's governor three times during his 18 months in office. They have killed his son, five other relatives and 27 bodyguards. The provincial police chief was fired late last year after he was accused of having ties to the insurgency. Unemployment hovers at about 40 percent. The number of reported attacks is down 57 percent since the battle for the city last year, according to Lt. Col. Mitchell Rambih, operations officer for the U.S. Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. But residents say violence remains a serious problem.

"Every day there is shooting," Likaa Talal, a mother of five, told reporters accompanying U.S. and Iraqi troops in Mosul's Jamiilah Circle neighborhood. "There used to be more bombs before, more attacks, but now there is less. I sit at home. I don't know what's going on outside."

Though the political, economic and military situations in Mosul are still tenuous, U.S. officials here say the city's fate will soon be in Iraqi hands. Confident in the skills of the newly trained Iraqi army and political and military leaders who say they are fiercely opposed to terrorism, U.S. commanders have started giving small units responsibility for protecting areas of this ethnically divided city.

So far, two Iraqi battalions, roughly 1,500 men, have been given authority over sectors of the city formerly patrolled by American units. U.S. commanders plan to put a third battalion in charge of another area soon. If all goes as planned, Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province will be in the hands of 24,000 Iraqi troops by November.

Ten months ago, U.S. military officials said they hoped to hand over the province by the end of 2005. After putting an Iraqi battalion in charge of a sector in the center of Mosul last March, some commanders told a Washington Post correspondent that the training of the Iraqi units was proceeding swiftly. Others, however, warned that it might be better to take a more deliberate approach, making sure the Iraqis were trained properly. The U.S. military followed their advice, and progress has been modest.

Col. Michael Shields, commander of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, stressed that giving Iraqi units responsibility would remain "event-driven" and that problems with politics or insurgent attacks could slow the transition. He also noted that U.S. forces would remain in the region after the handover to give logistical, air and ground support to the Iraqi army.

Interviews with the Iraqi political and military officials who will take responsibility for running Mosul and Nineveh province, and with residents of the city, reveal a conflicting picture of progress mixed with persisting problems.

There are the rivalries between the city's Arabs and Kurds, played out in politics and assassinations. There is the high unemployment that leaves young men with little to do but fight or turn to crime. Police and army officials complain that the city's judges are afraid to imprison insurgents they've captured. And despite the $61.5 million spent so far on rebuilding the city's infrastructure, residents say they receive only a few hours of electricity and water a day.

The central question is whether Iraqi army and police units will be able to control the restive city with limited help from U.S. forces or will desert en masse, as they did in November 2004.

In that crisis, insurgents led by the radical Muslim organizations Ansar al-Sunna and al Qaeda in Iraq routed the city's 8,000-member police force in a campaign of intimidation and coordinated assaults on police stations. U.S. troops, backed by newly raised Iraqi units, reasserted control after months of fierce combat and say they have captured or killed 110 insurgent leaders.

While those who work regularly with Iraqi troops say their professionalism and skill have improved over the past several months, a joint U.S.-Iraqi mission into Mosul showed that the Iraqis still have a long way to go.

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