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.
After U.S. armored vehicles had sealed off the ends of a two-lane street in the Jamiilah Circle neighborhood, American troops fanned out with practiced speed, carefully sweeping the rooftops, windows and doorways on both sides of the road with the muzzles of their rifles. The Iraqis milled around in the middle of the street, chatting, while curious residents watched from the sidewalk.
"We shouldn't be standing around like this," said 1st Lt. Devin Hammond, the leader of 1st Platoon, A Company of the 2-1 Infantry. He gently shepherded the Iraqi troops into a nearby courtyard.
As the mission wore on, the Americans started to give their partners tips: Don't walk around with your rifle's safety off. When you're leaning back against a wall to check the other side of the street, leave a small space so your comrades can walk behind you instead of having to cross in front of your weapon. When you enter a house, check it for weapons before you strike up a long conversation with the owner.
"We had to coach them a little bit, at the beginning," said Hammond, of Staunton, Va.
The Americans said the Iraqi troops had been friendly and eager to learn but could do better at taking the initiative.
"They needed someone to go in with them" into the houses on the street, said Sgt. Christopher Haggett of Montpelier, Vt. "I think their biggest problem is they want to be with us. We're like their big brother. They look up to us."
Another problem is the overrepresentation of Kurds in units deployed in this predominantly Arab city. The troops Hammond's platoon was working with were all Kurds from Irbil, east of Mosul, and from Dahuk province to the north -- both located in the Kurds' largely independent region. Few spoke Arabic, and many had Kurdish flags sewn on the shoulders of their camouflage uniforms, even though the practice is against regulations.
Although ethnic rivalry in Mosul has been a problem in the past -- many Arabs were upset in 2003 when, during the U.S. invasion, Kurdish militiamen entered the city -- the Iraqi soldiers, both Kurds and Arabs, say they have put aside their differences.
"What I have told my soldiers is that it does not matter who are or where you're from, as long as you protect this city," Lt. Col. Amar Abdullah, the Arab commander of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade of the Iraqi army's 2nd Division, said after his unit formally took control of a sector of Mosul in a ceremony last week.
"Most people in Mosul, in general, they respect us," said Hazim Mohammed Khorsheed, a Kurdish soldier working with Hammond's unit. "Some don't respect us, so we shouldn't respect them."
As Khorsheed and his fellow soldiers picked their way through the street, rapping on gates and doors, they found that most residents agreed that the security situation had improved. Yet they remained pessimistic about the future.
"We always hear shooting and stuff like that," said Abdullah Abbas, standing in his pharmaceuticals shop, where boxes of drugs shipped in from India and elsewhere were stacked high in every room. "We hear that the Iraqi forces are getting better and better. Lately, I think things are getting a little better, but not 100 percent."
Abbas, 36, said he was still worried about the long run: "Since the fall of Saddam, we haven't seen any changes in the situation. We thought it was going to get better -- the oil prices, the election -- but it hasn't."
Basaa Abdulahmed, who teaches microbiology at Mosul Medical College, said her husband had been kidnapped in August as he was leaving a mosque. He escaped after four days, but insurgents demanded $15,000 from the family anyway. She paid the ransom.
"What will I do?" she asked. "If I don't pay, they will kill us."
Hammond dutifully wrote down the details of the incident and left a phone number for Abdulahmed's family to call if they had any more trouble.
Abdulahmed's daughter-in-law, Laela Shaikhow, was watching an episode of "Melrose Place" as soldiers entered the house. She didn't need the Arabic subtitles; born in Manchester, England, she spoke perfect English.
Shaikhow, 26, returned to Britain for six months last year, but came back to Iraq in October because she found it difficult to adapt to life in the West, especially as a religious Sunni Muslim. Despite the violence in Mosul, she said she intended to stay.
"I still prefer it here to over there," she said. "Even over there, the crime is terrible."
Special correspondent Dlovan Brwari contributed to this report.