Mosul struggles with ethnic divides, insurgency

Map of Mosul, Iraq
Laris Karklis/The Washington Post
By Leila Fadel
Saturday, July 24, 2010

MOSUL, IRAQ -- In Iraq's third-largest city, buildings are bombed out and scarred by thousands of bullet holes. But unlike in many parts of Iraq that have calmed significantly in recent years, much of the damage is recent.

Mosul and the surrounding province of Nineveh are a microcosm of Iraq's most explosive and unresolved conflicts as the United States prepares to draw down to 50,000 troops by Sept. 1. Kurdish and Sunni Arab leaders battle over disputed lands, provincial and central government officials wrestle for control, and Sunni insurgents continue to slip back and forth across the porous borders with Turkey and Syria.

"We will remain a thorn in the chest of the Americans," reads a graffiti tag on one Mosul building.

It's a prediction that U.S. officials are working hard to avoid. They are focusing their attention here so they don't leave behind a time bomb for the fledgling Iraqi government and for the U.S. troops who will remain in Iraq before all American forces are withdrawn by the end of 2011.

Attacks have dropped in Nineveh over the past year, but it is still one of the most violent places in Iraq. Among Mosul's approximately 1.8 million residents, there is deep mistrust of the various Iraqi security forces that patrol here. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander, recently suggested that a U.N. peacekeeper force might be needed to maintain security in some areas after the United States pulls out.

Of particular concern are the Sunni insurgent groups that exploit a Kurd-Arab dispute over land. As other bastions of the Sunni insurgency calmed in recent years, Nineveh never truly quieted. Odierno told reporters last week that although U.S. and Iraqi forces have had success killing and detaining al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders within Mosul, the group remains active in the adjacent deserts.

Over the first six months of the year, 422 people in Nineveh died as a result of violence, according to provincial morgue statistics. More than 1,100 were wounded. The death toll in the province is more than three times that of Anbar province, once the heart of the Sunni insurgency.

The security forces here are widely considered to be part of the problem. The police are believed to be infiltrated by insurgent groups, and one of the main Iraqi army commanders for the area, Nasser al-Hiti, is known for harsh tactics, Odierno said.

Hiti was unpopular with U.S. commanders in Abu Ghraib, where he previously worked. But he has long been praised by the defense ministry and is seen as a favorite of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Calls to the defense ministry were not returned.

Two Iraqi army divisions, a federal police division and local police operate within the city because no one force can control it alone. There is little communication between the forces, Iraqi officials said.

"The problem is the citizens don't cooperate totally to give us information," Nineveh Gov. Atheel al-Nujaifi said. "The trust is still weak between the security forces and the people. We have five to six intelligence groups operating here. Each agency is related to a specific party in Baghdad. There is no trust between these agencies. Sometimes that results in a struggle."

Kurds dislike Nujaifi, an Arab nationalist, because he is seen as anti-Kurdish. But he said he thinks he should have more control over security in the province. He cannot travel in Kurdish-controlled areas and has no authority over federal forces that report to Baghdad. He and his legal adviser say the Iraqi army arrests hundreds of people and does not allow them access to lawyers.

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