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In Mosul, early support for militants gives way to unease

When Sunni extremists swept into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, many residents welcomed them, claiming that the masked gunmen had liberated them from oppression by Baghdad. But three weeks on, discontent is surfacing.

On Monday, a day after the militants announced the creation of a formal Islamic state in a grandiose bid to erase the region’s borders, there were few reports of celebration in Mosul.

Gasoline lines that snake for miles and a scarcity of electricity, water and cooking fuel are chipping away at support for the city’s new, al-Qaeda-inspired masters, residents say.

“People are suffering,” said Abu Othman, a 68-year-old resident who used a pseudonym for fear of reprisals for speaking out. “These people are fighters. They are not capable of running a state.”

For the Islamic State, as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) renamed itself Sunday, such shifts of public sentiment in areas it controls could be disastrous, given its limited manpower. Rallying local support and maintaining alliances with other anti-government groups are vital to its state-building aspirations.

Islamic militant group, ISIS, allegedly declares a caliphate on the territories it controls in Iraq and Syria on a social media website. The group says its flag flies from Aleppo in northern Syria to Diyala province in eastern Iraq. (Reuters)

In apparent recognition of that, the Islamic State has wielded a noticeably lighter touch in Mosul and other Iraqi areas it has overrun since June 10 than it has across the border in northern Syria.

There, the militants routinely carry out lashings, beheadings and crucifixions as punishments. Images of them crucifying eight anti-government rebels as “apostates” on a specially constructed stage in Aleppo on Saturday were circulated widely online.

In Mosul, by contrast, the Islamic State’s strict interpretation of Islamic law is not, so far, being enforced. There have been no public executions. Cigarettes are still available. But it was the same at first in Fallujah when that city fell to the Islamic State in January. Six months later, residents report lashings and beheadings.

Already in Mosul, disappearances have unnerved residents, who describe a slow creep of authoritarianism.

A nun who went to buy gasoline with two other women three days ago has not returned. A statue of the Virgin Mary outside a local church has disappeared; another of a 13th-century poet was torn down.

The Tomb of the Girl, said to hold the remains of a young woman who died of a broken heart, has been bulldozed.

“People are discontented, but they cannot speak,” said Abu Fadi, a 31-year-old Christian.

Still, more than anything, it is the lack of services that is eroding support, Abu Fadi said. The government has stopped paying wages to public employees, meaning many are struggling to make ends meet — a situation that the Islamic State has yet to address, he said.

Residents describe spending up to six days sitting in line at the city’s one functioning gas station, sleeping in their cars and hoping a tanker will show up. More days than not, they say, the tanker doesn’t come.

As fuel supplies to the areas under its control dwindle, the Islamic State has spearheaded an ongoing campaign to break into the Baiji oil refinery, Iraq’s largest. So far, government forces have held them back.

At the same time, the Islamic State’s alliances with other anti-government groups are wavering. In Mosul, residents say, the militants have ordered that pictures of former president Saddam Hussein be removed from houses, angering his Baathist supporters.

And while the anti-government Naqshbandi Army shares the Islamic State’s aim of bringing down the Iraqi state, the two groups don’t have much else in common. Naqshbandis, who were close to Hussein’s regime and responsible for attacks on U.S. soldiers, have clashed with Islamic State fighters in the northern town of Hawijah in recent days.

The stirrings of unease in Mosul come as politicians in Baghdad scramble to form a government ahead of parliament’s scheduled first session Tuesday. U.S. officials, who are pressing for a more inclusive government, have expressed hope that the incorporation of Sunnis into the political process will do more to peel away support from extremists.

Shiite politicians met Monday night to grapple over the selection of a candidate for prime minister, as even members of the incumbent Nouri al-Maliki’s political bloc maneuver against him.

Meanwhile, the government pressed ahead with efforts to claw back territory, including a days-long assault to retake Tikrit, Hussein’s home town and a bastion of opposition to the mainly Shiite government that fell to ISIS on June 11.

However, its forces have struggled to gain the upper hand, and residents said militants had broken into the army’s base on the city’s outskirts Monday.

“We are trapped between two jaws: the army on one side and the militants on the other,” said Abu Ghaib, a 35-year-old Tikrit resident who has remained in the city with his wife and three children through days of heavy bombardment. “There are those that cheered the gunmen, but where are they now? They have all fled.”

Loveday Morris is The Post's Baghdad bureau chief. She joined The Post in 2013 as a Beirut-based correspondent. She has previously covered the Middle East for The National, based in Abu Dhabi, and for the Independent, based in London and Beirut.

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