A week ago the Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi visited Mosul to mark its liberation from the Islamic State. The human costs of that achievement – 1 million displaced civilians and at least 4,500 others killed by coalition airstrikes, according to a charity that monitors civilian casualties – reflect the near total devastation of the western half of city, and the scale of the challenges that restoring a semblance of normal life will entail. Current UN estimates for costs of the rebuilding of basic infrastructure exceed US$1 billion.
The fighting in Mosul lasted longer than the World War II siege of Stalingrad and it evinced a similar lack of concern for civilians. Towards the end, when defeat was inevitable, the Islamic State (IS) used explosives to level the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, a twelfth-century structure famous for its leaning minaret, rather than leave it intact for the Iraqi army. Equally nihilistic violence was directed at ordinary people. There were reports of IS suicide bombers sent into the midst of fleeing civilians, and of children used as human shields. During al-Abadi’s visit to the city, a Washington Post dispatch describes a pervasive stench of rotting corpses and notes the presence, inside the rubble in one neighbourhood, of “the arms of a young child, still wrapped in pale pink sleeves.” Elsewhere in the city, a reporter from the Observer was shown a mass grave dug in front of a former school house: it held 150 corpses –“women, children, young, old” – which had been individually gathered from nearby streets.
Even with these horrors, the liberation of Mosul is an important milestone in the effort to reoccupy IS territory. Three years after the group established its caliphate more than sixty per cent of its sovereign territory has been lost. Less clear, is whether the sectarian rifts that empowered IS can be rolled back in the same way. Last week the Associated Press reported that videos of Iraqi troops torturing suspected IS captives were released on social media. Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that the “horrific reports of mistreatment and murder have been met by silence from Baghdad … fostering the feeling of impunity among armed forces in Mosul.” HRW also raised concerns about the collective punishment against families who had been detained in a camp 12 miles east of the city because of their alleged links to the Islamic State.
While the Iraqi prime minister spoke of “total victory” during his visit to Mosul, his triumphalism carried troubling echoes of his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. The Maliki government alienated the Sunni population in the years before the rise of the Islamic State by disbanding the tribal security forces used during the so-called “Sunni Awakening” and by arresting thousands of Sunni citizens for suspected Baathist sympathies. Maliki’s sectarian bias – several Sunni ministers in his government subsequently fled the country, fearing arbitrary arrest – and his security forces’ unchecked violence against Sunnis quickly undermined the political accommodations the US Coalition Provisional Authority had worked to create. The resulting instability and mistrust of the Iraqi government is what allowed IS to enter Sunni areas of Iraq with such terrifying ease. Several years later, the political climate is not much improved and the presence of Iranian-backed Shia militias, which the Iraqi parliament approved last year, present the ominous possibility of history repeating itself.
Tragically the ruins of Mosul are merely the most vivid illustration of a much wider destruction visited on places like Fallujah and Ramadi, on Raqqa, Homs, Aleppo and other parts of Syria, and of the carnage that Saudi Arabia’s bombs are inflicting on civilians in Yemen. A series of disastrous post 9/11 conflicts has placed the United States at the centre of the mayhem in the Middle East and, paradoxically, made it likely that further chaos will result from its premature withdrawal. Within the United States, however, there seems to be little public awareness of the cost of these wars. As the editor Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, recently wrote, there has not yet been a “reasonable assessment of the true nature and effects of American warfare abroad: its imprecision, its idiocy, its destructiveness” and, given the early belligerence of the Trump administration, there seems little hope that one will emerge. The political ineptitude that made “total” victory in Mosul necessary will likely ensure the need for other Pyrrhic victories both in Iraq and the Middle East in the years ahead.