Compilation of news and analysis concerning Afghanistan and Iraq, New Cold War.org, Aug 24, 2017
Enclosed are the full texts of the following:
- Military leaders consolidate power in Trump administration, by Robert Costa and Philip Rucker, The Washington Post, Aug 22, 2017
- Covering Up the Massacre of Mosul, by Nicolas J S Davies, Consortium News, August 21, 2017
- Endtimes in Mosul, by Patrick Cockburn, London Review of Books, Vol. 39 No. 16, Aug 17, 2017
Plus weblinks to related readings.
Military leaders consolidate power in Trump administration
High-ranking military officials have become an increasingly ubiquitous presence in American political life during Donald Trump’s presidency, repeatedly winning arguments inside the West Wing, publicly contradicting the president and even balking at implementing one of his most controversial policies.
Connected by their faith in order and global norms, these military leaders are rapidly consolidating power throughout the executive branch as they counsel a volatile president. Some establishment figures in both political parties view them as safeguards for the nation in a time of turbulence.
Related news on Afghanistan:
- Former State Dept. official Mathew Hoh who quit in 2009 speaks out on Trump’s Afghanistan troop surge, interview with Mathew Hoh on Democracy Now!, Aug 22, 2017
- New U.S. strategy for Afghanistan is ‘dead-end’ – Lavrov, RT.com, Aug 24, 2017
- End the war in Afghanistan, commentary by Ajamu Baraka, editor and columnist, Black Agenda Report, Aug 24, 2017
- U.S.-led airstrikes are killing hundreds of civilians in the battle for ISIS-held Raqqa, groups say, Washington Post, Aug 23, 2017
- In Kiev, Mattis says Moscow wants to redraw borders by force, Associated Press, Aug 23, 2017
On the 26th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence from Moscow, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis accuses Russia of menacing Europe and suggested that he favors providing Ukraine with defensive lethal weapons.
Trump’s elevation of a cadre of current and retired generals marks a striking departure for a country that for generations has positioned civilian leaders above and apart from the military.
“This is the only time in modern presidential history when we’ve had a small number of people from the uniformed world hold this much influence over the chief executive,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA who served in seven administrations. “They are right now playing an extraordinary role.”
In the wake of the deadly racial violence in Charlottesville this month, five of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were hailed as moral authorities for condemning hate in less equivocal terms than the commander in chief did.
On social policy, military leaders have been voices for moderation. The Pentagon declined to immediately act upon Trump’s Twitter announcement that he would ban transgender people from the armed forces, instead awaiting a more formal directive that has yet to arrive.
Inside the White House, meanwhile, generals manage Trump’s hour-by-hour interactions and whisper in his ear — and those whispers, as with the decision this week to expand U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, often become policy.
At the core of Trump’s circle is a seasoned trio of generals with experience as battlefield commanders: White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. The three men have carefully cultivated personal relationships with the president and gained his trust.
Critics of the president welcome their ascendancy, seeing them as a calming force amid the daily chaos of the White House.
“They are standouts of dependability in the face of rash and impulsive conduct,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “There certainly has been a feeling among many of my colleagues that they are a steadying hand on the rudder and provide a sense of consistency and rationality in an otherwise zigzagging White House.”
William S. Cohen, who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, said that Trump “came in with virtually no experience in governance, and there’s no coherent strategic philosophy that he holds. There has been a war within the administration, and that has yet to be resolved. . . . The military has tried to impose some coherency and discipline.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, praised Trump’s circle of generals and recommended McMaster and Kelly for their posts. He said the impression in some quarters that military leaders are hawks by definition is misguided.
“What many people in Washington don’t understand is that generals are usually the most reluctant to commit troops to combat because they are the ones who have to write letters home to parents when they have fallen,” Cotton said.
Among some on the right, however, the view is more suspicious. Some Trump supporters, for example, worry about blurring the line between military and civilian leadership, as exemplified by recent headlines at Breitbart News, the conservative website run by Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief White House strategist, who clashed with several military leaders over policy.
Trump’s announcement Monday that he would escalate troop levels in Afghanistan was covered on Breitbart with alarm. Headlines warned of “unlimited war” and “nation-building” led by military leaders without links to Trump’s base.
Commentator and Trump ally Ann Coulter tweeted Monday, “The military-industrial complex wins.”
The concerns extend to the political left as well. At ThinkProgress, a liberal website, recent articles have rapped Trump for having a government that benefits “military insiders.” One headline this month declared: “Military figures are taking over Trump’s administration.”
Trump has revered military brass since his youth, when he attended a New York military academy. He holds up generals as exemplars of American leadership and views them as kindred spirits — fellow political outsiders.
“To some degree, Trump is playing president, and I think the whole idea of being able to command a group of warriors is deeply satisfying to him,” McLaughlin said.
Robert M. Hathaway, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said: “It should not surprise us. Candidate Trump suggested he would defer to the people he called ‘my generals’ on a whole host of issues, and they are doing just that.”
Trump idolizes swaggering commanders, such as the cinematic portrayal of George S. Patton Jr., the World War II general. But R. James Woolsey Jr., a former CIA director and undersecretary of the Navy who advised Trump during last year’s campaign, said a better comparison to Kelly, Mattis and McMaster would be George C. Marshall Jr., the Army chief of staff during World War II who went on to serve in President Harry Truman’s Cabinet.
“I think these guys are more Marshall-like than Patton-like,” Woolsey said. “They have distinguished combat records, but they’re the sort of career military men who have the intellectual capability and propensity to deal with civilian matters.”
Kelly, Mattis and McMaster are not the only military figures serving at high levels in the Trump administration. CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke each served in various branches of the military, and Trump recently tapped former Army general Mark S. Inch to lead the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Together with other allies in the administration, Kelly, Mattis and McMaster see their roles not merely as executing Trump’s directives but also as guiding him away from moves that they fear could have catastrophic consequences, according to officials familiar with the dynamic.
But if a narrative takes hold that these generals are manipulating the president, Trump could rebel. He chafes at any suggestion that he is a puppet and at the idea of his advisers receiving credit for his decisions. He reacted angrily in February when Time magazine put Bannon on its cover with the headline “The Great Manipulator.”
In his first month as chief of staff, Kelly has kept a low profile, sitting for no major interviews and discouraging aides from self-promotion.
Democratic lawmakers are quick to criticize Trump on just about every issue, but they hold back when it comes to the preponderance of military figures in traditionally civilian positions.
“There might be a temptation to be critical of the president in this context, but I for one am glad they’re there — because they’re thoughtful . . . because they’re lawful and because they’re rational,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in an interview. “I feel like the concern about the need to maintain civilian oversight of the military is a totally legitimate one, but that concern should be addressed at a later time. In the meantime, we should be reassured that there are competent professionals there who want to make smart choices.”
That position is shared by many figures in the Republican establishment who worry about Trump’s ideas and temperament.
“The only chance we have of trying to keep this thing from blowing apart is some military discipline,” said Peter Wehner, who served in the three Republican administrations prior to this one and who opposes Trump. “It’s not military rule or a military coup.”
Although Trump mostly has been following the military’s guidance, he easily could turn away from his generals if new problems emerge, according to people close to the president. They described Trump as with the military in spirit but guided more by his transactional instincts. They pointed out that it took weeks for him to go along with a watered-down version of the initial proposal from Mattis and McMaster on additional troops in Afghanistan.
Trump has also had a strained relationship with McMaster for months, in part because of stylistic differences between the two men. The president has little patience for the methodical and consensus-oriented policy process that McMaster employs at the National Security Council, which counts two other generals on the senior staff.
“When you look at the president’s tensions with McMaster, you can see how he could move away from them if things don’t improve in Afghanistan over the next six months,” said a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment. “He’s not giving them some sort of blank check.”
One example is retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who lasted a mere 24 days in his job as national security adviser. Trump fired him in February after Flynn was allegedly not truthful with Vice President Pence about communications with the Russian ambassador during the transition.
“Individuals can be corrupt or incompetent, and that extends at times to people in the military,” Wehner said. “Things can go wrong with anyone.”
Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post. Philip Rucker is the White House Bureau Chief for The Washington Post.
Covering up the massacre of Mosul
When Russia and Syria killed civilians in driving Al Qaeda forces out of Aleppo, U.S. officials and media shouted “war crimes.” But the U.S.-led bombardment of Iraq’s Mosul got a different response.
Iraqi Kurdish military intelligence reports have estimated that the nine-month-long U.S.-Iraqi siege and bombardment of Mosul to oust Islamic State forces killed 40,000 civilians. This is the most realistic estimate so far of the civilian death toll in Mosul.
But even this is likely to be an underestimate of the true number of civilians killed. No serious, objective study has been conducted to count the dead in Mosul, and studies in other war zones have invariably found numbers of dead that exceeded previous estimates by as much as 20 to one, as a United Nations-backed Truth Commission did in Guatemala after the end of its civil war. In Iraq, epidemiological studies in 2004 and 2006 revealed a post-invasion death toll that was about 12 times higher than previous estimates.
The bombardment of Mosul included tens of thousands of bombs and missiles dropped by U.S. and “coalition” warplanes, thousands of 220-pound HiMARS rockets fired by U.S. Marines from their “Rocket City” base at Quayara, and tens or hundreds of thousands of 155-mm and 122-mm howitzer shells fired by U.S., French and Iraqi artillery.
This nine-month bombardment left much of Mosul in ruins (as seen here), so the scale of slaughter among the civilian population should not be a surprise to anybody. But the revelation of the Kurdish intelligence reports by former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in an interview with Patrick Cockburn of the U.K.’s Independent newspaper makes it clear that allied intelligence agencies were well aware of the scale of civilian casualties throughout this brutal campaign.
The Kurdish intelligence reports raise serious questions about the U.S. military’s own statements regarding civilian deaths in its bombing of Iraq and Syria since 2014. As recently as April 30, 2017, the U.S. military publicly estimated the total number of civilian deaths caused by all of the 79,992 bombs and missiles it had dropped on Iraq and Syria since 2014 only as “at least 352.” On June 2, it only slightly revised its absurd estimate to “at least 484.”
The “discrepancy” – multiply by almost 100 – in the civilian death toll between the Kurdish military intelligence reports and the U.S. military’s public statements can hardly be a question of interpretation or good-faith disagreement among allies. The numbers confirm that, as independent analysts have suspected, the U.S. military has conducted a deliberate campaign to publicly underestimate the number of civilians it has killed in its bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.
The only rational purpose for such an extensive propaganda campaign by U.S. military authorities is to minimize the public reaction inside the United States and Europe to the killing of tens of thousands of civilians so that U.S. and allied forces can keep bombing and killing without political hindrance or accountability.
It would be naive to believe that the corrupt institutions of government in the United States or the subservient U.S. corporate media will take serious steps to investigate the true number of civilians killed in Mosul. But it is important that global civil society come to terms with the reality of the destruction of Mosul and the slaughter of its people. The U.N. and governments around the world should hold the United States accountable for its actions and take firm action to stop the slaughter of civilians in Raqqa, Tal Afar, Hawija and wherever the U.S-led bombing campaign continues unabated.
The U.S. propaganda campaign to pretend that its aggressive military operations are not killing hundreds of thousands of civilians began well before the assault on Mosul. In fact, while the U.S. military has failed to decisively defeat resistance forces in any of the countries it has attacked or invaded since 2001, its failures on the battlefield have been offset by remarkable success in a domestic propaganda campaign that has left the American public in near-total ignorance of the death and destruction U.S. armed forces have wreaked in at least seven countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya).
In 2015, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) co-published a report titled, “Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War On Terror’.” This 97-page report examined publicly available efforts to count the dead in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and concluded that about 1.3 million people had been killed in those three countries alone.
I will examine the PSR study in more detail in a moment, but its figure of 1.3 million dead in just three countries stands in striking contrast to what U.S. officials and corporate media have told the American public about the ever-expanding global war being fought in our name.
After examining the various estimates of war deaths in Iraq, the authors of Body Count concluded that the epidemiological study headed by Gilbert Burnham of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in 2006 was the most thorough and reliable. But just a few months after that study found that about 600,000 Iraqis had probably been killed in the three years since the U.S.-led invasion, an AP-Ipsos poll that asked a thousand Americans to estimate how many Iraqis had been killed yielded a median response of only 9,890.
So, once again, we find a vast discrepancy – multiply by about 60 – between what the public was led to believe and a serious estimate of the numbers of people killed. While the U.S. military has meticulously counted and identified its own casualties in these wars, it has worked hard to keep the U.S. public in the dark about how many people have been killed in the countries it has attacked or invaded.
This enables U.S. political and military leaders to maintain the fiction that we are fighting these wars in other countries for the benefit of their people, as opposed to killing millions of them, bombing their cities to rubble, and plunging country after country into intractable violence and chaos for which our morally bankrupt leaders have no solution, military or otherwise.
(After the Burnham study was released in 2006, the Western mainstream media spent more time and space tearing the study down than was ever spent trying to ascertain a realistic number of Iraqis who had died because of the invasion.)
As the U.S. unleashed its “shock and awe” bombardment of Iraq in 2003, one intrepid AP reporter spoke to Rob Hewson, the editor of Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons, an international arms trade journal, who actually understood what “air-launched weapons” are designed to do. Hewson estimated that 20-25 percent of the latest U.S. “precision” weapons were missing their targets, killing random people and destroying random buildings across Iraq.
The Pentagon eventually divulged that a third of the bombs dropped on Iraq were not “precision weapons” in the first place, so altogether about half of the bombs exploding in Iraq were either just good old-fashioned carpet bombing or “precision” weapons often missing their targets.
As Rob Hewson told the AP, “In a war that’s being fought for the benefit of the Iraqi people, you can’t afford to kill any of them. But you can’t drop bombs and not kill people. There’s a real dichotomy in all of this.”
Fourteen years later, this dichotomy persists throughout U.S. military operations around the world. Behind euphemistic terms like “regime change” and “humanitarian intervention,” the aggressive U.S.-led use of force has destroyed whatever order existed in at least six countries and large parts of several more, leaving them mired in intractable violence and chaos.
In each of these countries, the U.S. military is now fighting irregular forces that operate among civilian populations, making it impossible to target these militants or militiamen without killing large numbers of civilians. But of course, killing civilians only drives more of the survivors to join the fight against Western outsiders, ensuring that this now global asymmetric war keeps spreading and escalating.
Body Count’s estimate of 1.3 million dead, which put the total death toll in Iraq at about 1 million, was based on several epidemiological studies conducted there. But the authors emphasized that no such studies had been conducted in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and so its estimates for those countries were based on fragmentary, less reliable reports compiled by human rights groups, the Afghan and Pakistani governments and the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan. So Body Count‘s conservative estimate of 300,000 people killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan could well be only a fraction of the real number of people killed in those countries since 2001.
Hundreds of thousands more people have been killed in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Palestine, the Philippines, Ukraine, Mali and other countries swept up in this ever-expanding asymmetric war, along with Western victims of terrorist crimes from San Bernardino to Barcelona and Turku. Thus, it is probably no exaggeration to say that the wars the U.S. has waged since 2001 have killed at least two million people, and that the bloodshed is neither contained nor diminishing.
How will we, the American people, in whose name all these wars are being fought, hold both ourselves and our political and military leaders accountable for this mass destruction of mostly innocent human life? And how will we hold our military leaders and corporate media accountable for the insidious propaganda campaign that permits rivers of human blood to keep flowing unreported and nchecked through the shadows of our vaunted but illusory “information society”?
Nicolas J S Davies is the author of ‘Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq’. He also wrote the chapters on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.
Endtimes in Mosul
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On 22 May, Ahmed Mohsen, an unemployed taxi driver, left his house in the Islamic State-controlled western part of Mosul to try to escape across the Tigris to the government-held eastern side of the city. He and his mother, along with ten other people, carried rubber tyres down to the river: most of them couldn’t swim, and they planned to tie them together to make a raft. The siege of Mosul was in its seventh month and Ahmed was both desperate and starving: he and his mother were living on handfuls of wheat they cooked, though he said it made him feel sick. His friends believe that lack of food made him light-headed and led him to risk crossing the river. ‘Even if I die in the river,’ he told them, ‘it will be better than living here.’
IS snipers were shooting people who tried to leave. Their commanders calculated that holding the civilian population hostage, as human shields, would deter Iraqi government troops and the US-led coalition air forces from using the full extent of their firepower. This strategy had worked, to an extent, during the siege of east Mosul, which began on 17 October; it was three months before that part of the city was captured. But by the time the assault on west Mosul began on 19 February there was little sign of Iraqi or American restraint. As the bombardment intensified, the only plausible escape route for Ahmed was across the Tigris between the Fifth and Sixth Bridges, both of which had been put out of action by coalition airstrikes. He had already seen IS snipers kill three people who’d tried to cross and his luck was no better: a sniper shot him in the back and killed him, along with nine other members of his party, before they had even put their tyres in the water. Only one man, a good swimmer, got across to the other side. According to people living in houses overlooking the riverbank, Ahmed’s mother stayed beside his body for three days. Nobody dared to go to help her because they were afraid of being shot; on the third day, they say, they could no longer see her or the body of her son. They were probably thrown into the river, like hundreds of others.
I had got to know about Ahmed in an indirect way, two months before he died. After IS captured Mosul in June 2014 it became difficult for journalists or anybody outside the city to talk to people living under its rule. IS did everything it could to seal off the population from contact with the outside world. It blew up mobile phone masts, banned the use of phones and executed anybody caught using them in the few high places where there was reception. You could always interview people who had fled IS territory, but this wasn’t a satisfactory way of gathering information: refugees from Mosul arriving in Iraqi government or Kurdish-controlled territory were at the mercy of local military and civilian authorities and had every incentive to denounce IS as demonic, to dispel suspicions that they had been collaborators or members. Mosul is a Sunni Arab city and Shia, Kurds, Christians and Yazidis suspect Sunnis in general of colluding with IS. ‘I have never seen such terrified people in my life as a group of young men who had run away from Mosul waiting to be vetted by Iraqi security to see if they were former IS fighters,’ a human rights worker in a camp for internally displaced persons 15 miles south of Mosul told me. ‘One day I saw two men of military age walk into a tent for questioning. They were carried to the camp hospital on stretchers two hours later covered in blood.’
As the assault on west Mosul gathered pace, the IS strategy of isolating people behind its lines started to falter. The Iraqi government brought in a mobile phone mast mounted on the back of a truck and put it up at Nabi Yunus, the Tomb of Jonah, a shrine that IS had blown up as heretical in 2014, but whose ruins remain the highest point in east Mosul. Phones in the west of the city started working again and IS was too busy defending itself against army incursions to hunt down civilians talking on their mobiles. I knew someone who lived on the east bank of the Tigris: he found he was able to speak, over a poor connection, to relatives and friends in the IS-held territory on the other side of the river.
Ahmed Mohsen, trapped with his mother inside the old city of Mosul, was 31 years old. His father was dead; he had a married sister living nearby and a brother who was a refugee in Germany. I asked questions through an intermediary he trusted and he gave detailed answers about the situation in west Mosul. ‘Dozens of civilians are killed every day, including children,’ he said. ‘Yesterday, two children were killed by a mortar shell of the Iraqi army coming from the eastern part [of the city].’ He derided American and Iraqi government claims that they were using ‘smart artillery’: the incoming fire, he said, was ‘stupid’ and indiscriminate. It became clear, as the assault on west Mosul went on, that the Iraqi and US generals were using their massive firepower more freely than they had in the east. The Americans had expected the siege to take two months from start to finish; by March it had already gone on for five months, with the heaviest fighting still to come in the alleyways and closely packed houses of the old city. By then, according to US Central Command, 774 members of the Iraqi security forces had been killed and 4600 wounded. The rules were changed: units on the ground could now call in airstrikes or artillery fire at will to destroy a building if they believed they had spotted an IS sniper operating from it. Alongside attacks from the air, Iraqi Federal Police and the Emergency Response Division, both heavily armed but inadequately trained, used artillery and rockets – none of them accurate – to pound the densely inhabited buildings where, even in the final weeks of the siege, 300,000 people were hiding in stairwells and cellars. Looking later at the ruins of central Mosul, I could see where shells and rockets had knocked sections off buildings and where bombs had turned a whole block into a mound of broken bricks. ‘Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition used imprecise, explosive weapons, killing thousands of civilians,’ as an Amnesty International report, At Any Cost: The Civilian Catastrophe in West Mosul, puts it. By the end of March, civilians behind IS lines were being killed in large numbers by shells, rockets and bombs. They were also beginning to starve. ‘People in our neighbourhood,’ Ahmed told me, ‘are searching in the garbage to find something that can be eaten to take it to their children.’ Vegetables and fruit had disappeared from the markets that were still open; Ahmed and his family had stored some flour and rice, but wanted to keep it as a final reserve for the children of their extended family.
The coalition had a lethally over-simplified list of signs visible from the air which indicated that a building was being used by IS. Ahmed had a tarpaulin draped over part of his house as a sunshade, a practice fairly common in Mosul, where the temperature in summer often exceeds 45°C. Disastrously, similar tarpaulins were being used by IS to cover alleyways or courtyards so that coalition surveillance aircraft couldn’t see armed fighters moving from house to house. The coalition had made an announcement that anybody using such a covering would be attacked as an IS target, but few in the west of the city had heard the news. On 28 March, a coalition drone flew over Ahmed’s house and dropped a bomb. It fell on a corner of the building, near a water tank, bringing down a wall near where Ahmed was standing. ‘I didn’t lose consciousness,’ he said. ‘After a few moments, I realised I was injured. I partly walked and partly crawled to a small temporary clinic nearby, but they couldn’t treat my leg properly.’ The medics said he needed surgery but they didn’t have the equipment for an operation and could give him only bandages. When we spoke to Ahmed again, he was back at home, in bed, crying as he talked because of the pain in his injured leg.
When I wrote about Ahmed for a newspaper report, I changed his name and age and avoided any detail that might identify him to IS, of whom he was terrified. I hoped to meet him when the siege was over, though I could see from his own account that there was a good chance he wouldn’t survive. Mosul had been a dangerous place for a long time. I was there when Kurdish ground troops backed by US airstrikes captured it after the US invasion in 2003, and I watched as order collapsed within hours, as looters ransacked government buildings and Sunni clerics called from the minarets for people to man the barricades. Over the next 11 years, neither the Americans nor the Shia-dominated Iraqi government ever won full control over the city, and in June 2014 a few thousand IS fighters unexpectedly took charge, defeating an Iraqi government garrison of at least twenty thousand men. At the time, Ahmed, who came from a poor family, was driving his taxi between Mosul and Baghdad, a journey of about four hours. His friends say he was a friendly and generous man, who liked talking to passengers and who took great care of his car, of which he was proud. He didn’t own it outright, but had bought a share in it and was saving up to buy the rest. When IS overran Mosul, travel to government-held areas was still just about possible and Ahmed went on driving to Baghdad. But a few months later he was arrested by IS, accused of helping members of the Iraqi police and army to escape the city. As a friend of his put it, ‘he stayed in prison for three months and was badly tortured. He would talk a lot about that.’ He was released but could no longer work, and then he was jailed again for a month and a half. He worried about his mother: his brother in Germany was able to send back small amounts to support her but wasn’t officially allowed to work. ‘When Ahmed was freed for the second time,’ his friend said, ‘he sold his share in his taxi and spent the money over the remaining two years of IS rule. Recently, he went bankrupt.’
Despite these disasters, Ahmed and his mother remained optimistic well into the siege that IS rule wouldn’t last much longer and that things would improve. They planned to travel to Turkey, where Ahmed’s brother would meet them. This brother now appears to be the only surviving member of the family; he is trying to get a death certificate issued for Ahmed, which would entitle him to asylum in Germany and allow him to get a job. His married sister has disappeared: she is believed to have been killed in an airstrike, though her body hasn’t been found. This is far from unusual: at one stage, the Civil Defence Corps in west Mosul had just 25 men, one bulldozer and a forklift truck to search for bodies, estimated to number in the thousands, buried under the ruins. They haven’t been paid their salaries by the central government and won’t search for a body unless a relative can give them a clear idea of where it is.
Ahmed was one of Iraq’s five or six million Sunni Arabs, politically the dominant community under the rule of the Ottomans, the British and the Baath Party, though numerically a minority. But since 2003 the Sunni have been on the losing side in a sectarian civil war with the Shia who now control the Iraqi state: in 2006 and 2007 the Sunni were squeezed into small enclaves in Baghdad that one US diplomat described as ‘islands of fear’. IS’s victories in 2014 in Iraq and Syria allowed them a brief resurgence. But the Iraqi government counterattack, backed by American aircraft, wrecked their cities, including Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji and Tikrit, displacing many from their homes. ‘We are the new Palestinians,’ a Sunni journalist from Ramadi told me in 2015, predicting a future of flight and dispossession. At the time, there were half a million displaced Sunni Arabs in Kirkuk Province who have now been joined by a million people from in and around Mosul.
Most Sunni would argue that they never voted for IS, couldn’t refuse to co-operate without being killed, and were often as much its victims as anybody else. But this isn’t going to save them. Other communities, in both Iraq and Syria, suspect their Sunni neighbours of collaborating with IS, covertly if not openly. Sectarian and ethnic hatred runs deep, especially after such IS atrocities as the Camp Speicher massacre in 2014, when 1700 Shia air force cadets were killed near Tikrit. Fear of IS ‘sleeper cells’ is pervasive: a Syrian Kurdish commander advancing with his troops near Hasakah told me that he his two main problems militarily were the mountainous terrain in which he was fighting and the threat to his troops from Sunni Arab villagers. Some of them waved nervously at us as we drove past, but it seemed unlikely that they would be allowed to stay in their homes for very long. In Iraq, Sunni tribal leaders are expelling ‘Daesh families’ to underline their loyalty to the Iraqi state. Sectarian and ethnic cleansing is sweeping away Sunni communities across northern Iraq and Syria.
The battle for Mosul – where IS had declared its caliphate – was always going to be bloody. But the fight was even more destructive than anyone expected thanks to a number of mistakes made by the Iraqi government and the US. IS resistance was stronger and their own forces weaker than they imagined. Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, was convinced that people in Mosul would rise up against IS when given the chance, so as the siege came into operation locals were discouraged from leaving the city. But IS had a well-organised and ferocious security apparatus: anyone who showed signs of resistance was killed. And then there was its military expertise: it defended Mosul with a combination of snipers, suicide bombers, mines, mortars and booby traps. Swiftly moving from position to position, IS fighters inflicted heavy casualties on pro-government forces and minimised its own losses despite its enemy’s overwhelming superiority in firepower. The Iraqi government’s Counterterrorism Service, the division of between eight and ten thousand highly trained men who did the bulk of the fighting in east Mosul, suffered a casualty rate of between 40 and 50 per cent. Losses as heavy as this could not be sustained for long.
After east Mosul was finally won, the strategy for regaining the city west of the Tigris was revised. West Mosul had a larger population than the east – 750,000 compared to the east’s 450,000, according to a UN estimate – and the buildings were more tightly packed and easier to defend: many alleyways in the old city were so narrow that two people couldn’t walk abreast. Already short of combat troops, the Iraqi government and the US-led coalition decided to rely much more heavily on firepower than it had in the first phase of the siege. The Federal Police and the Emergency Response Division played a bigger part in the fighting, using mortars, artillery and rockets. Grad missiles – Soviet weapons from the 1960s – were fired in volleys of forty at a time from the back of vehicles in the general direction of IS-held territory. Locally made rocket-assisted munitions, with warheads weighing between 90 and 140 kg, were fired into what was becoming one of the most densely populated patches of ground on earth. Even before the government offensive began, IS had been forcing people from their homes in the villages around Mosul and busing them into the city. As IS’s territory shrank under the government forces’ onslaught, it compelled civilians at gunpoint to retreat deeper into the IS enclave: snipers killed anyone who tried to flee behind government lines; the metal doors of houses were welded shut; those caught escaping were hanged from electric pylons; survivors speak of 75 or more people being gunned down at one time by IS patrols as they tried to run away.
Nobody knows for sure how many civilians were killed in the city as a whole. For long periods, shells, rockets and bombs rained down on houses in which as many as a hundred people might be sheltering. ‘Kurdish intelligence believes that over forty thousand civilians have been killed as a result of massive firepower used against them,’ Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s former foreign minister, told me. People have disputed that figure, but bear in mind the sheer length of the siege – 267 days between 17 October 2016 and 10 July 2017 – and the amount of ordnance fired into a small area full of people. The Iraqi government ludicrously claims that more of its soldiers died than civilians, but refuses to disclose the number of military casualties and has banned the media from west Mosul. On his website Musings on Iraq, Joel Wing gives a figure of 13,106 civilian fatalities based on media and other reports, but adds that ‘the real number of casualties from the fighting in Mosul is much higher.’ The Civil Defence Force, looking only for bodies that relatives have located, is still delivering between thirty and forty of them to the city morgue every day. The UN says that out of 54 residential areas in west Mosul, 15, containing 32,000 houses, were completely destroyed; 23 areas lost half their buildings; and even in the 16 areas that were ‘lightly damaged’ some 16,000 houses are in ruins.
All the people I was in contact with inside the IS-held part of the old city are dead. Ahmed Mohsen was wounded by a drone and then killed by an IS sniper; his mother and sister have disappeared and are presumably dead. I was also in touch with Rayan Mawloud, a 38-year-old businessman with a wife and two children who had a trading company based in a shop in one of Mosul’s markets. He came from a well-off family and his father had a fleet of trucks that used to carry goods to and from Basra and Jordan. When the attack on Mosul began, a friend of Rayan’s says that he spent his savings buying food to give not just to his relatives ‘but also to many people whom he did not know’. Rayan, knowing that his family would probably be shot by IS snipers if they tried to escape, took the opposite decision to Ahmed Mohsen and stayed with his family in their house. It was hit in an airstrike on 23 June, killing his wife and five-year-old son. He remained in the part of the house that was still habitable, but it was hit by another airstrike on 9 July. He was severely injured and died three days later.
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