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Security handover will test Mosul

Alexandra Zavis

MOSUL, Iraq – The date 11/11 is so ingrained in the memory of residents of this ancient citadel that it requires no further explanation than 9/11 does in the United States.On Nov. 11, 2004, the city that had been heralded as an American success story fell to Sunni Arab insurgents, and the local police melted away.It took U.S.-led troops months of fighting to reclaim Mosul, a diverse city of about 2 million people wedged between the Kurdish north and Arab south, about 60 miles from the Syrian border.Two years later, U.S. officials are again touting the city as an example of progress in an intensified effort to train Iraqi forces to take over security so American troops can start heading home.Thousands of new police officers and soldiers have been recruited here and across northern Iraq. Their U.S. handlers say they are better trained, better equipped and more motivated than their predecessors, allowing American forces to reduce their presence in the six northern provinces by more than one-third over the last year, to about 19,500.The 2nd Iraqi Army Division assumed security control over Mosul on Dec. 22, and is expected to fall under the command of Iraqi ground forces Monday, completing a handover that is a cornerstone of the U.S. exit strategy in Iraq.Yet the city where late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s sons Odai and Qusai died in a gunfight with U.S. forces in 2003 is far from subdued. Bombings and mortar barrages rattle residents almost daily; entire neighborhoods remain hotbeds of the Sunni Arab insurgency. And shadowy assassins have killed police officers, journalists, university professors, even a popular singer.Senna Ahmed, a 27-year-old primary school teacher, said she had not taken her three young children for a walk in more than a year. She lives in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of drab concrete homes that is a flashpoint of violence.Every day, she said, the streets are clogged with checkpoints – some run by the police, others by Americans, and some by insurgents. Fighters pull up at high speed, set up weapons and start firing at the security forces, sending residents scurrying indoors.”We are caught between the hammer of the insurgents and the anvil of the troops,” she said.U.S. military officials say insurgents inspired by al-Qaida and funded by exiled members of Saddam’s Baath Party are trying to regain a foothold in the city. Last month, the U.S. military announced the capture of a senior al-Qaida in Iraq leader who they said had returned to Mosul to reorganize the insurgency after spending months directing operations in west Baghdad.With the U.S. planning to deploy an additional 16,000 troops in Baghdad, officials predict that insurgents will soon redirect many of their activities to cities such as Mosul and nearby Tall Afar. But the province’s governor and police and army chiefs insist Mosul will not fall again.”We sacrificed our blood for this country,” said Duraid Kashmoula, who succeeded his slain brother as governor of Nineveh province and has survived assassination attempts. “We are not going to let it go now.”Yet he and others blanch at the possibility of a further American drawdown in their region, which receives little support from Baghdad.”It is not a good idea for them to leave right now,” said Mosul’s police chief, Gen. Mohammed Wathiq.Nobody wants a repeat of 11/11, they said.In the year after the invasion began in 2003, the United States had spent millions in Mosul refurbishing schools and factories, setting up a police force and fire department, and forming one of the first city councils to draw in members of all the major ethnic and religious groups. At the time, the councils were heralded as a model of representative government.But when U.S. forces reduced their presence, the police force proved no match for the insurgency, leaving Kashmoula to defend the governor’s palace with a handful of bodyguards.U.S. and Iraqi officials say they have again turned the city around. This time, they say, they have trained and equipped two divisions of soldiers, about 8,000 troops each, and more than 18,000 police officers for the province, of which Mosul is the capital.Police officers and soldiers who previously left their bases only rarely are now guarding checkpoints, cruising bustling shopping streets, collecting intelligence, conducting raids and breaking up insurgent cells, with U.S. forces taking an increasingly secondary role, U.S. officials said.When insurgents attack, the local security forces swarm to the fight, said Col. Steve Townsend, commander of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, based in Fort Lewis, Wash.”Sometimes they will say to us, ‘Why don’t you stay on the (base) today? We’ll take care of you,”‘ said Lt. Col. Fred Johnson, Townsend’s deputy. “That’s pretty powerful.”The U.S. effort in Mosul, they said, has benefited from close ties with a group of strong Iraqi leaders, including Kashmoula and Wathiq, who meet regularly to coordinate security in the city.The main problem, Wathiq said, is the justice system. Police and soldiers are making arrests, but judges are afraid to dispense harsh sentences.”The terrorists know where they live, and they are afraid,” he said, before tucking a pistol into his waist and racing off in a heavily armed convoy to watch a police team play the army in a soccer match.In a bid to counter the problem, the Nineveh criminal court has recently started bringing judges up from Baghdad to try terrorism cases, securing death sentences against at least five defendants, according to local media reports.There remains deep distrust between Wathiq’s locally recruited police officers, most of them Sunni Arabs, and the city’s predominantly Kurdish soldiers, who were brought in from the north by the U.S. military to help fill the security vacuum in 2004.Army commanders accuse the police rank-and-file of ties to the insurgency. The police and some residents treat the soldiers like outsiders.Corruption and inefficiency plague both forces. Residents grumble that police officers are as likely to commit crimes as solve them. And it can take months for ammunition, spare parts and other crucial supplies to reach the units that need them.Chronic electricity and fuel shortages compound the misery. Residents say they get only a few hours of power a day and can find no diesel to run generators, or gas to heat their homes during the winter.Iraqi officials worry that if services don’t improve, public support could swing back to the insurgency.”The locals are becoming our enemies because of the bad services they are getting,” said Brig. Gen. Aziz Abdal Hussein, a former army commander who heads Mosul’s Joint Coordination Center, the Iraqi equivalent of a 911 system.His biggest concern is the legions of young men with no jobs. They are easy prey for insurgents willing to pay $100 to plant a bomb.”If we don’t find them jobs,” he said, “the terrorists will.”


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