Mosul is a historic Middle Eastern crossroads as well as modern Iraq's second-largest city. Its sensational capture by the Islamic State in 2014 signaled the ascent of the extremist group, whose specious "caliphate" was declared from the city's al-Nuri mosque. Now, the jihadists have been mostly driven out. Clad in a black military uniform, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went to the city last week and hailed "the collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood." But it came at a hideous cost.
Close to a million civilians were driven out of their homes; tens of thousands are suspected to have perished. The elite Iraqi units that pushed through Mosul, neighborhood-by-neighborhood and street-by-street, suffered up to 40 percent casualty rates.
Large swaths of the city are a pock-marked moonscape. Some 120 miles of roads are in need of clearing or repair. An analysis by the United Nations suggests that, in more than a dozen of the city's districts, the majority of the buildings are uninhabitable. Mosul's main airport, train station and university lie in rubble. Repairing the city's basic infrastructure will cost more than $1 billion.
Not even the al-Nuri mosque, famed for its "hunchbacked" medieval minaret, survived the conflict. The building withstood the ravages of Mongols and generations of warlords, but was pulverized by the Islamic State's explosives.
Digital Globe, a commercial satellite company, recently released a series of bird's-eye images of Mosul before and after the government-led siege of the city. The first set of photos was taken in 2015, when Mosul was firmly in the grip of the Islamic State. The second set shows how the battle to remove the jihadists laid waste to the city.
Part of the damage is the direct result of the militant group's tactics. They desecrated numerous ancient sites in and around the city that, in their puritanical version of Islam, they viewed to be heretical. They hid behind civilians — and in civilian institutions like schools and hospitals — as airstrikes pummeled their positions. And they deployed myriad booby traps and suicide car bombs in their grim defense against the combined efforts of Iraqi government troops, Kurdish forces and other allied militias.
As The Post reported, the Islamic State mined and booby-trapped vast sections of the city. The battles have left behind debris fields littered with unexploded ordnance, including hand grenades and artillery shells. The very act of rebuilding will be fraught with risk.
"When I look around the world, in some ways there’s nothing like Mosul that we’ve encountered," a State Department official told my colleagues last week, describing the scale of the challenge ahead. "The level of contamination, though, is not one of those where we’re talking weeks and months. We’re talking years and maybe decades."
Of course, it's not just the physical city that is in need of recovery.
"With the heavy death toll in Mosul's west, and with hundreds of thousands of people dispersed to refugee camps and other Iraqi provinces, each with a horrifying story to tell and a much-needed recovery to achieve, the emphasis on buildings seems rather vain," wrote Rasha al-Aqeedi, a fellow at the Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai and a native of Mosul. She added that the "Moslawi reaction to the demolition of the Nuri mosque ... has varied. Peak lamentation came from Mosul’s older diaspora, some of whom had left Iraq in the 1970s. But for today’s residents, the loss of the famous landmark is the least of their current worries."
Humanitarian groups warn of food and water shortages in the city and in the camps where tens of thousands have sought sanctuary. They also point to the more intangible damage wrought by months of war and years of Islamic State occupation. "Children's deep physical and mental scars will take time to heal," said UNICEF in a recent statement. "Some 650,000 boys and girls, who have lived through the nightmare ... paid a terrible price."
Meanwhile, there are reports of Iraqi troops and allied militias carrying out extrajudicial killings and executions of those suspected to be Islamic State sympathizers.
"As Prime Minister Abadi enjoys victory in Mosul, he is ignoring the flood of evidence of his soldiers committing vicious war crimes in the very city he’s promised to liberate," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement on Wednesday. "Abadi’s victory will collapse unless he takes concrete steps to end the grotesque abuses by his own security forces."
In a part of Iraq that has little love for the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, rebuilding trust and confidence in the state will prove a desperately difficult task. Nor is there much faith in outside powers. By one account, suspected civilian casualties as a result of coalition airstrikes have roughly doubled under the Trump administration. The death and destruction lay the seeds for a deeper political crisis.
"Obama smashed Iraq," one local told the New York Times when interviewed in a camp for the displaced. "And Trump? Trump will not leave any humans alive in the universe."
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