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One Year On, People Of IS-Held Mosul Still 'Cut Off From The World'


People walk through the rubble of the Prophet Younis Mosque after it was destroyed in a bomb attack by Islamic State militants in Mosul in July 2014.

People walk through the rubble of the Prophet Younis Mosque after it was destroyed in a bomb attack by Islamic State militants in Mosul in July 2014.

Hung precariously on otherwise empty scaffolding above a dingy market stall in Mosul's Bab al-Tob neighborhood, the message of the Islamic State (IS) poster belies its surroundings.

"Mosul city is prospering under the caliphate!" it reads.

But for Mosul Eye, a local historian who has been secretly documenting IS's activities in Mosul since the militants overran the city almost exactly a year ago, and who shared a photo of the poster on Facebook this week, such IS propaganda is an insult.

"The pictures talk for their selves (sic) what kind if prosperity ISIL is spreading; the prosperity of death and destruction culture," wrote Mosul Eye, using a variant acronym for IS.

And with the first anniversary of IS's capture of Mosul rapidly approaching, the city of more than 1 million remains an IS stronghold, and plans to recapture it have stalled.

Analysts and activists warn that these delays are allowing IS to entrench its "death-and-destruction" culture in what was once known as the Pearl of the North.

Isolated In Mosul

The longer the operation to liberate Mosul is delayed, the more psychological advantages IS gains over the city's populace, says Shakir al-Bayati, chief editor of the Nineveh Reporters Network, a group of journalists originally from Mosul.

Since IS overran the city on June 10, 2014, Mosul's residents have been cut off from the rest of Iraq and subjected to the militant group's "huge propaganda machine," Bayati tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq.

IS backs up all its rulings with extensive quotations from the Koran and the Hadith (collections of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). As a result, some people in Mosul have begun to ask whether IS could be correct after all in its religious interpretations.

"They [IS] are winning over the streets," Bayati says. "Some say that they have begun to wonder: Is IS the true outlook? Were we wrong before?"

Hisham al-Hashimi, an adviser to the Iraqi government who is widely considered to be Iraq's leading expert on IS, tells Radio Free Iraq that their "enforced coexistence with IS" could result in Mosul residents being attracted to the group's extremist interpretations of Islam.

"Especially if they feel abandoned by the international community and their own government," Hashimi adds. "Those living under IS rule are at best neutral, and at worst supporters of IS."

Erasing Culture

One of the methods IS has reportedly used to impose its rule on Mosul is to get rid of the cultural symbols that connect the city to its pre-IS past.

While IS's destruction of priceless artifacts in Mosul's museums has been well documented, the gunmen have also destroyed modern items that they say are not Islamic.

Photographs shared by Mosul Eye appear to show that militants have destroyed or disfigured symbols of the lamassu, an Assyrian protective deity often depicted as a winged bull, that had adorned two of the city's bridges. The lamassu were not ancient, but they had a symbolic value because they represented an element of Mosul's cultural history.

"[IS] is literally erasing everything that is this city," Mosul Eye lamented.

And as it erases Mosul's culture and way of life, IS has attempted to establish its own cultural and societal norms, based on its extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam.

Islamic State militants prepare to throw a man from a rooftop in Mosul in January as punishment for being gay.

Islamic State militants prepare to throw a man from a rooftop in Mosul in January as punishment for being gay.

The militant group has put in place an array of laws that govern how Mosul residents must dress and when, or if, they can leave their homes.

IS has issued orders banning women from leaving their homes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on June 17, according to Bayati of the Nineveh Reporters Network. Under the new rules, all women, even the elderly and those who are about to give birth, will have to stay inside until after the iftar, the fast-breaking evening meal.

And after June 1, all males over the age of 15 will have to grow their beards, a move that Bayati believes is a "precautionary step" that will ensure all Mosul's men look alike in the event of an attempt to liberate the city.

Foreign Fighters Taking Over

Another major change that IS has introduced is to encourage foreign militants to settle in Mosul and for local women and girls to marry them.

IS provides housing for foreign militants in homes belonging to Christian, Yezidi, Shabak, and Turkmen families who fled Mosul a year ago.

"The foreign immigrants receive preferential treatment in every way," says Bayati.

Some of the female foreign militants are reportedly tasked with finding wives for their male counterparts.

Mosul Eye reports that one of these is a 36-year-old Uzbek woman who joined her IS militant husband and two children in Mosul. The Uzbek is a member of the all-female Al-Khansaa battalion, which operates mostly in the Al-Noor and Al-Muhandisen neighborhoods and which is mainly tasked with convincing girls and women to marry militants.

The women are usually seen out in groups between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., according to Mosul Eye.

A similar group with the same name is reported to operate out of Raqqa, IS's de facto capital in Syria.

Marrying Mosul women to foreign militants appears to be part of a strategy to embed IS fighters in the social fabric of the Iraqi city.

Iraqi government adviser Hashimi says that by marrying local women, foreign IS militants "become immersed in that society and coexist within it."

Delays, Setbacks

The Iraqi parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the city's capture by IS announced on May 23 that it had finally completed its work.

The committee's chairman, Hakim al-Zamili, told journalists that the final report on the fall of Mosul would be "big, important, and crucial."

But while Baghdad may be getting closer to finding answers for why Mosul fell to IS, plans to recapture the city have stalled.

In March, Iraq's military dropped 2 million leaflets over Mosul, urging residents to prepare for liberation.

"To the generous people of Mosul," the leaflets read in Arabic. "The day you were waiting for, your liberation, is close. It is time to drive out the infidels of ISIS from your holy land."

U.S. officials said in February that they hoped the Iraqi Army would be ready to retake Mosul in April or perhaps early May. But those hopes have faded.

"Setbacks are regrettable but not uncommon in modern warfare," was how General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, described matters on May 18 after the fall of Ramadi.

According to Noureddin Qaplan, the deputy chairman of the Nineveh Provincial Council, there are "many reasons" that have justified delaying the operation, including IS's recent capture of the city of Ramadi in Anbar Province.

But Qaplan says training of Iraqi forces is ongoing at camps belonging to the Iraqi police and the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi, a Shi'ite militia.

The local police camp in Nineveh has been "taking in large numbers" of men who will join the training efforts, Qaplan adds.

"Their numbers are increasing, but they still have to be equipped and armed," Qaplan tells Radio Free Iraq. "We also need a high level of coordination with the [U.S.-led] coalition and the Kurdistan Regional Government which will have a major role in the battle."

But while Iraq prepares for battle, IS is also recruiting and training its forces in Mosul.

"IS has succeeded in recruiting a 3,000-strong fighting force composed of teenagers, just in Mosul," says Iraqi government adviser Hashimi. "They have completed their religious and military training courses. This is a new army for IS and will pose a bigger problem than the actual liberation of Mosul."

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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