Intense fighting has racked Mosul, once the most populous area under Islamic State (IS) control. Last October a coalition including the Iraqi, U.S. Armies and Kurdish Peshmerga forces began an assault to liberate the city. Now, approximately 1,000 Islamic State fighters are making a last-ditch effort in pockets of western Mosul where as many as 200,000 civilians could still be trapped.
The events at Mosul’s Grand al-Nuri Mosque are an apt illustration of the multiple paradigm shifts with which Mosul’s citizens have had to contend in the past three years. When the Islamic State took Mosul in 2014, it was Iraq’s second largest population center and a hub of economic activity in the region. In July of that year, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, used the medieval Grand al-Nuri Mosque as the backdrop when he declared the formation of the Islamic caliphate. In the more than two years between this declaration and the beginning of the ongoing siege of Mosul in October 2016, supporters of the self-styled caliphate used Mosul as an example of their ability to govern a large population. The city and its surroundings, such as the oil-producing town of Qayara which was liberated in August 2016, also played a key role in providing for the Islamic State’s material needs. Now that the Islamic State has lost close to all of its territory in Mosul, the mosque serves as the center of an increasingly violent fight to the end.
There are still as many as 200,000 civilians trapped within western Mosul. More than half, or 100,000, of those remaining in Mosul are children. As fighting has intensified and moved into the more densely populated western half of the city, civilians have found themselves at greater risk from both the Islamic State and coalition fighters. In May, as many as eighty civilians were killed in a coalition airstrike led by the United States. Now that fighting is almost exclusively confined to the densely populated Old City, civilians are at ever increasing risk of such attacks. Though the risk of being caught inadvertently in the crossfire is high, civilians are at even greater risk from Islamic State. Islamic State militants have reportedly used civilians as human shields and shot at those who attempt to flee. According to a United Nations reports, hundreds of civilians were shot by Islamic State forces as they attempted to flee Mosul, including one deadly attack which killed 163 people, including children. Since the city came under siege in October of last year, more than 800,000 citizens have fled the city. There are more than 316,000 internally displaced people within twelve camps around Mosul, all of which are run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR and other aid agencies fear that they do not have the resources to cope with the nearly five million internally displaced people in Iraq. Over 100,000 civilians have returned to eastern Mosul, adding to fears about civilian safety and effective aid distribution.
Were the Islamic State to be driven from Mosul in the very-near future, there would still be significant fear of humanitarian calamity. Islamic State fighters are known to leave extensive traps behind in territory they must cede and are also known to do significant damage to infrastructure as they retreat. Workers in Qayara, are still working to extinguish fires that Islamic State militants set to oil fields as they fled. 52,000 internally displaced people just outside of Qayara have had to weather extreme temperatures without adequate means of protection.
Fallujah, which had more than 300,000 residents prior to Islamic State occupation, was retaken by coalition forces in June 2016. If that city’s condition after Islamic State occupation is any indication, Mosul will require an enormous amount of work. When Fallujah was retaken from the Islamic State, it too had lost most of its population – the Iraqi army estimated that only five percent of its pre-war population remained. Much of the city’s infrastructure, including roads and water treatment plants, was nearly destroyed. Islamic State militants had left behind hundreds of explosive devices that threatened the safety of the returning population and necessitated costly and complicated removal.
Perhaps one of the largest concerns is the continued social disorganization and societal rifts. Iraqi citizens have accused one another of collaborating with the Islamic State, often in order to settle personal vendettas. In 2016, the United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated that seventy percent of the nation’s millions of internally displaced children had missed a year or more of school. Allegations of malicious denunciation and reports of lasting damage to educational progress such as these suggest that physical reconstruction will likely be easier than social and psychological rehabilitation. However, there is some cause for optimism; just last month, Fallujah’s main water treatment facility reopened. Now, sixty percent of the city’s residents will again have access to clean water.
Preliminary estimates suggest that the reconstruction of Mosul could cost between fifty and one-hundred billion dollars. For perspective, the United States spent just over sixty billion dollars attempting to reconstruct all of Iraq between 2003 and 2013. That reconstruction effort was plagued with chronic misuse and waste by nearly all parties involved. President Bush’s administration created the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) to track and prevent this misuse and waste. Just before closing in 2013, SIGIR had uncovered more than eight billion dollars in misuse or fraud and was still pursuing nearly 100 criminal cases.
The relatively speedy recovery of eastern Mosul, which has given hope to civilian and military leaders alike, threatens to bring its own problems. The sectarian schisms that predate the Islamic State’s occupation and the ongoing liberation are only estimated to widen, in much the same way that they have in Fallujah, if the western portion of the city does not receive aid soon.
Ginger Cruz, the CEO of Mantid International Group and the former Deputy Inspector General of SIGIR, paints a less optimistic, and like more realistic, picture of Mosul reconstruction. Cruz points to corruption and the subsequent lack of funds as the biggest obstacle to reconstruction in Iraq – perhaps eclipsing the low price of oil and even the possibility of sustained ISIS resistance.
“Currently, Iraq is over $100 billion in debt to contractors that have attempted to get the entire country back into some reasonable shape with basic infrastructure, buildings, electricity,” said Cruz. “The results have been miserable, and at least 30-40% of all the money has gone straight to corruption.”
According to Cruz, Iraq is also unlikely to get external investment so long as corruption remains rampant because investors do not see a high chance of return on their investment. The situation is made even more dire by the fact that the international community, which has already poured over sixty billion dollars into the last reconstruction effort, is neither capable nor willing to make up this gap.
“To put it bluntly,” said Cruz, “Mosul reconstruction is a fantasy.”