News Middle East

Friday 6 December 2019

We can learn from Isil rule, says exiled Mosul leader

Iraqi government forces advance towards the centre of Saqlawiyah, north west of Fallujah. Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi government forces advance towards the centre of Saqlawiyah, north west of Fallujah. Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Josie Ensor Erbil

The former governor of Mosul has formed his own personal militia to try to liberate his city from Isil - but while he wants the jihadists overthrown, he said there were things to be learned from their rule.

Atheel al-Nujaifi has recruited a cadre of Sunni former Iraqi generals and displaced residents for his army, Hashd al-Watani, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

At their base in Bashiqa, 18km east of Mosul in northern Iraq, they have begun training for an offensive to retake the city, which has become the heart of Isil's "caliphate".

The group, which is thought to number nearly 10,000 men, is being advised by Turkish troops on the ground and has received help from the US-led coalition, Mr al-Nujaifi said.

Whatever combination of Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga and sectarian militias free Mosul, in theory it will be the PMF that will then hold the Sunni-majority city, which is now home to some 1.5 million people.

"The people from Mosul must be the ones to liberate their city," said Mr al-Nujaifi, who fled when the jihadists raised their black flag over Mosul in June 2014 and now runs his office from the Kurdish capital of Erbil, 80km away.

He has since been dismissed as governor by the Iraqi parliament, which claimed that he bore some responsibility for the city's fall.

"While some residents of Mosul just want to be free from Daesh (Isil) at any cost, the majority believe it's better to be trapped under them then freed by a Shia army," said Mr al-Nujaifi, who is in regular contact with people there.

The Iraqi army, made up mostly of Shias, is highly feared by most Sunnis, particularly after reports of killings and destruction when they retook the city of Tikrit further south.

"Daesh managed to take Mosul in 2014 because at the time the people thought their government didn't care about them.

"They saw the Iraqi army as an occupying force which did not represent them," said Mr al-Nujaifi. "For many, the idea of an Islamic caliphate led by Sunnis was appealing."

Isil took hold in Iraq at a time when the country's Sunni minority was ripe to accept the group as a bulwark against the political marginalisation and persecution by the then prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

While acknowledging that life has been tough for people living under Isil's brutal rule, which sees residents flogged, imprisoned and executed for crimes as minor as smoking, the former governor said the city had in some ways flourished.

"What Daesh has managed to do is decentralise governance," he said. "No longer is Mosul's future determined by politicians in Baghdad.

"We agree with some of the things they (Isil) have done and don't agree with others," he said. "But we need to follow the changes, not to go back to what we had before."

Asked what he would do with Isil leaders should they be caught, he said: "Only the people (of Mosul) know who the criminals are and they will be brought before a judge."

When he fled the city that summer, Mr al-Nujaifi never imagined that he would be gone for two years.

"I couldn't believe that Iraq and the world would just let it fall," he said. "If they had intervened then, Daesh wouldn't be so entrenched."

He can see himself returning to govern a newly liberated Mosul, but said he would first want to hold elections to determine whether he still had the popular support.

Mr al-Nujaifi wants a federalised northern Iraq made up of three semi-autonomous cantons: one Sunni, one Shia and one Kurdish, which he said would help enfranchise the country's minorities and sap power from prime minister Haider al-Abadi's government.

Mr al-Nujaifi said he welcomes support from Washington, despite their past differences.

"The Sunnis in Iraq were treated badly after the US invasion in 2003 but they should back us now if they want to see a free and stable Mosul." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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