- - Sunday, December 30, 2018

MOSUL, Iraq — Iraqis recently celebrated the first anniversary of the defeat of the Islamic State.

But, as construction cranes slowly rebuild regions where the jihadis ruled until December 2017, echoes of the insurgency are still rebounding in the country’s second-largest city.

Residents of Mosul said they are increasingly facing the same corruption that bedeviled their city in the run-up to the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg rise to power in 2014. Government soldiers and local militia groups that run the city routinely commit human rights violations, including racketeering, unjust imprisonment and extortion.

“In prison, they threatened not to set me free and that they will accuse me with other terrorist crimes if I did not pay $30,000,” said Mohammed Omar, a 30-year-old who has an engineering degree but owns a clothing store. “The longer I delay paying, the more I’ll have to pay.”

Mr. Omar’s family sold a plot of land to pay the sum. They had been planning to build a house on it so he and his brother could marry and start families.

The fear of a revived threat from Islamic State has been given new urgency with President Trump’s surprise announcement this month that he would be withdrawing some 2,000 U.S. troops across the Syrian border, troops who have been working with local Arab and Kurdish allies to quash the Islamic State insurgency there. Mr. Trump contends that Islamic State has been decimated in Syria, but skeptics fear a premature withdrawal could give the deadly terrorist organization an opening to regroup on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The deteriorating situation in Mosul — which with Raqqa in Syria was one of the terrorist group’s two bases of power — only feeds the narrative that Islamic State remains a threat.

Security forces arrested Mr. Omar in June when they stopped him at a checkpoint and found his name on a list of wanted criminals and jihadis. They beat him and threw him into prison for two months.

But he was falsely identified, he said. Authorities routinely arrest people with little evidence other than their names matching those on a list of fugitives. Many Mosul residents avoid passing checkpoints out of fear that their names will appear on such lists in error.

About 350,000 people have the same names on a list of 60,000 terrorists, said Ahmed al-Jubori, a member of the Iraqi parliament representing Mosul and a member of Civilized Alliance (Tamadon), a coalition of left-leaning political parties.

“There are no accurate statistics on the number of detainees held by Iraq’s security authorities,” said Mustafa Saadoun, director of the Baghdad-based Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, who corroborated Mr. al-Jubori’s figures. “However … we know about hundreds or even thousands being released every month as false suspects. In Nineveh alone, we have documented 100 cases of mistaken names, but we believe the numbers to be much higher.”

In an attempt to address a rash of false imprisonments, outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered officials in October not to arrest anyone before checking their four names, a common practice in Arab culture.

“This is a measure to stop arresting innocents due to mistaken names and leave criminals and terrorists free,” said Maj. Gen. Faisal Kazem Al-Abadi, police commander in the eastern province of Diyala.

Government forces share the names on the lists to help militia forces raise money via extortion, human rights advocates say.

“They knew I am from a well-known family,” said Mr. Omar, who was arrested again in October on suspicion of terrorism but then released without having to pay. “But they kept contacting my family threatening them to get money.”

Old problems resurface

The corruption and shoddy security procedures Mr. Omar endured were prevalent before 2014. Weak and dishonest governance was among the reasons why so many Mosul residents, who are largely Sunni Muslim, welcomed the Islamic State, who are also Sunnis, when they invaded the city and easily defeated the larger and mostly Shiite Muslim government forces.

“Relations between citizens and security forces were bad and unstable because of [Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s] bad policies and the sectarian practices of some of the security forces,” said political scientist Ali Bashar of Bayan University in Irbil. Mr. al-Maliki left office in 2014 in disgrace as government forces ceded territory to the Islamic State.

“People’s reactions were sectarian, likewise,” Mr. Bashar said. “That enabled terrorist groups to fill the gap.”

In July 2017, after enduring a jihadi reign of terror for nearly three years, Mosul’s residents applauded the government forces when they defeated the Islamic State and retook the city. But the victorious militias are now plundering Mosul like the government forces before them, Mr. Bashar said.

“They took control of some buildings and lands, managing resources like gas stations and hauling the debris of destroyed buildings,” he said.

Mohammed al-Nu’aimi, 62, an owner of a gas station in Mosul, knows the problem firsthand.

“I feel as if we are working all the time to pay royalties to the militias,” he said. “They force us to pay illegal monthly taxes in large amounts to fund their forces, although they receive salaries from Iraq’s government.”

Mr. al-Nu’aimi blamed the militias, originally formed to beat back the Islamic State, for the recurrent high fuel prices and shortages in Mosul.

“They would block the roads to the gas stations that refuse to pay,” he said, adding that his complaints to local officials have produced no action. “It is a way to force us to pay, apart from filling their cars with gasoline for free and skipping the line at stations. No one can utter a word.”

While the militias prosper, the rest of the city is suffering.

Youth unemployment is about 80 percent, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. Most of the older, western side of the city is still in rubble. Even in less-damaged districts of the city, ordinary Mosul residents are struggling to move on.

Last year, Saad al-Jubori, 40, a civil servant at the city’s water department, bought a plot of land in east Mosul where he hoped to build a house. But officials blocked him.

“After months of tiring bureaucracy, one of the region’s military officers told me that I would not be allowed to build my dream house because it is located close to a weapons depot and military housing,” said Mr. al-Jubori. “Nobody would compensate me. Have they come to protect or strangle us? We were happy when they liberated our city. But now we are living in a new prison.”

For now, the security situation seems stable despite the widespread popular grumbling, but such increasingly growing wrath can turn everything upside down. Mr. Trump said during his surprise post-Christmas visit to Iraq that the estimated 5,000-plus U.S. troops in Iraq, unlike in Syria, will remain for the time being, but the American military presence is opposed by major factions within the recently installed coalition government in Baghdad.

Failure by the central government to deal with the rising unrest in Mosul could have major consequences, critics say.

“The Islamic State was a result of corruption, corrupt military leaders and local tension,” Mr. Bashar said.

The same problems are rampant today, he said. He worried that Mosul residents or another group might rise up in support of a new insurgency if Mosul’s many problems are not addressed.

“These problems should be solved to secure a long-term stability,” he said.

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