When you look at news reports of the fighting in Mosul, it is easy to overlook some of the basic facts about this huge city. Until recently, it had a population of almost 1.9 million people, and is the second largest city in Iraq after Baghdad. This makes it almost twice the size of Birmingham, England’s second largest city, and more than three times larger than Boston, in the USA.
Just imagine if those well-known cities were under occupation by a well-organised army of religious fundamentalists, and being attacked by forces from their own country helped by the US or a foreign power, as well as being bombed by British and American aircraft. Think how difficult it would be to deal with the potential for causing civilian casualties, or choosing which of the people you encounter is friend or foe. The maze of streets, the apartment blocks, rooftops, factories, industrial areas, and large airports. A major river, numerous bridges, shopping areas, markets, schools, hospitals, religious buildings, and administrative offices. Every wall or fence a potential hiding place. Every rooftop or balcony a spot for a sniper, and the ability for the enemy to hide in plain sight among crowds of distressed non-combatants.
For almost three years, this city has been a battleground between warring factions; international interventionists, and government troops. If you live in a city, or have ever lived in one, then you can only try to imagine what this must be like, as I do. Even allowing for the large numbers who have fled Mosul, it is estimated that more than 750,000 civilians remain there, possibly 1 million. That is still much larger than the population of Boston, and countless other western cities. By comparison, the largest city close to where I live is Norwich. This is the biggest city in the whole county, and covers a substantial area, including many suburbs, and an international airport. I cannot imagine fighting on the same scale happening there, yet the population is only 133,000.
Another fact overlooked, is that many of the residents remaining in Mosul actually welcomed the forces of Islamic State as liberators. They had previously suffered religious persecution from Iraqi government troops and sectarian militias, and were happy to have the intervention by the fundamentalists. Many joined them willingly, and some still fight alongside them to this day. Of course for many others, living under IS was unacceptable, as they were cruelly treated for many reasons, including religious ones. But as parts of the city are recaptured by the Iraqi army, their foreign allies, the police units, and the ‘Golden Brigade’, many civilians have been arrested, detained without trial as suspected members of IS. Many others now live in fear of reprisals by the army and militia units, as the old enmities between Sunni and Shia Muslims resurface in the ‘liberated’ areas of the city.
Naturally, I am no supporter of Islamic State. This horrible organisation has no place in the modern world. But we need to look behind the news reports, the five-minutes of combat footage, and the talking heads interviews, and to be aware that replacing one form of terror with another might well be what we are helping to achieve. Not only in Iraq, but in Syria too.