MOSUL, Iraq – What is life like in Mosul after nearly three years of living under the Islamic State?
Mosul was overrun by jihadis in June 2014 and transformed into their caliphate capital. The eastern half of the city was recently liberated by Iraqi forces, helped by U.S. airpower. But across the Tigris River, the battle for the western side of the city continues. The boom of rockets and bombs is constant as puffs of black smoke plume skyward.
While West Mosul roads are sealed off to trap Islamic State fighters, the area east of the Tigris River is open to movement, although militia and police checkpoints are frequent. The main road is lined with piles of rubble, alongside a crush of badly parked cars, in front of stalls selling food, clothing and supplies; youngsters hawk gasoline from plastic jerry cans. Bridges over the river’s tributaries are bombed out and cars snake up and down dirt roads to cross at shallow spots.
Bombed-out storefronts pockmark commercial streets and some residential homes are flattened. However, residents say U.S. and coalition bomb strikes were well-targeted, hitting sites commandeered by Islamic State fighters (local resisters secretly phoned in targeting data).
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A few bakeries and grocery stores are putting out wares, and an occasional restaurant is open. But there is no electricity or water; generators and petrol to run them are expensive.
Schools have reopened, but teachers aren’t getting paid, nor are other government workers, including those trying to fix the electrical grid the Islamic State blew up. Locals are still wary; the Islamic State swore vengeance on East Mosul as its fighters retreated. Islamic State snipers are gone, but last month the jihadis sent drones across the river to drop grenades on crowds.
The popular My Fair Lady restaurant (Sayidati al-Jamila in Arabic) that had reopened on a busy traffic circle was blown up in mid-February by a suicide bomber. Its blackened ruins offer a dire warning to passing drivers that liberation may be a mirage.
Almost every middle-class Maslawi I met are debating whether to leave the city for good, for Kurdistan or anywhere that will take them. They complain that the government is providing no reconstruction aid, and only the army is delivering water. They rail against the corruption in Baghdad and Mosul’s civilian government that led to the city’s fall.
Residents fear that sleeper cells may be watching them. Foreign Islamic State fighters – from Russia, Asia, the Gulf, Syria, and North Africa, and, some say, America – and local Islamic State leaders known to the community are dead or gone. But everyone I spoke with believes that other Islamic State adherents have shaved their beards and are waiting to regroup.
Without a political (and economic) plan to follow the military campaign to liberate Mosul, Baghdad officials and their U.S. ally may yet lose the war.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.