Mosul struggles with ethnic divides, insurgency

By Leila Fadel
Saturday, July 24, 2010; A01

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bomb for the fledgling Iraqi government and for the U.S. troops who will remain in Iraq before all American forces are withdrawn by the end of 2011.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.

Col. Charles Sexton, a brigade commander in Mosul, characterized the friction among Iraqi security force units as a "healthy disagreement." The U.S. military hopes the 23 checkpoints along the boundary line of the disputed territory claimed by both Arabs and Kurds -- 12 in Nineveh alone -- will close the security gap that allows insurgent groups to operate, said Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, who commands U.S. forces in the north. The checkpoints are manned by a combination of U.S., Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

Both the province and Mosul are majority Sunni Arab, with a large Kurdish population as well as other minority communities. The United States has focused its efforts on defusing tensions as it draws down and on training the police to the point where they can take charge of Mosul's security.

The political uncertainty that grips Iraq hasn't helped. It has been four months since the national election, but there is still no government in Iraq because rival factions are deadlocked. Whoever ultimately takes charge will inherit the challenge of handling the disputed territories.

Kurds want to annex what they see as Kurdish lands into their semi-autonomous region; Arabs want to keep the land under central government control. The area is often called the "trigger line" because of its potential to turn violent quickly.

Ghazi Mohammed sees the violence regularly in the forensic medical center where he works. There are violent-death cases every day. He also examines court-referred allegations of torture by security forces, five to six a week. About 80 percent of those people have evidence of beatings and burn marks, he said.

"There are checkpoints everywhere, and the killings continue," Mohammed said in his office. On the wall behind him, charts track the ebb and flow of death in the province. Before the elections, assassinations rose. They then dropped off, and now he sees them rising again.

"It's a political issue," he said. "It's more than just insurgents and resistance."

Mohammed has begged for a transfer so he no longer has to endure threats from security forces and from the relatives of dead insurgents, he said. He has applied for asylum in five Western countries; every attempt has failed. "There is no trust, and the city is unstable," he said. "The security forces create enemies from inside the city every day."

In Mosul's western district of al-Borsa, police dodge grenades, gunfire from narrow alleyways and roadside bombs. Lt. Col. Shamel Ahmed Ugla patrolled the area with his men earlier this month. Police have become the biggest targets of Sunni insurgents in the province, but it's hard to tell who is a threat.

"They try to attack us every minute, but we are always chasing them," he said. "Mosul gave many sacrifices. It is tired now. It is sad."

He has arrested scores of people since he took over the area, but he complains that they often end up back in the streets.

"The judicial system takes the side of the terrorists," he said. "It's a revolving door. Some policeman's blood boils because he lost his cousin or brother or friend. He might hit [the detainee] in the face or with a stick, and the terrorist goes to the judge and says he was beaten."

That morning, his officers had arrested a man they thought was informing insurgent groups of police movement. In the man's store, the police said they found a clock with a list of insurgents' names, a list of potential victims and a bag of bullets hidden inside.

As Ugla patrolled the streets, the detainee was beaten with a stick by police officers back at the base. The detainee admitted to the police that he had been paid about $100 a month to help al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Later, Ugla denied that the man was beaten.

"If he was beaten, to hell with him," he yelled. "Stop asking these questions."

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