When the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran Iraq’s second city of Mosul, many feared sectarian massacres and brutal violence from the extremist Sunni militants. As many 500,000 people fled the city on the first day, according to the UN.
Now, many citizens have returned. Instead of imposing its extreme interpretation of Islamic law and carrying out threats of killing Shiites wherever it found them, ISIS has remained more moderate. As a result, it has found support among local residents, some of whom told VICE News that they are happy with life under their new leaders.
At the borders between Iraqi Kurdistan and the newly seized ISIS territory in Northern Iraq, Kurdish peshmerga fighters describe the militants as terrorists and are obviously uncomfortable with their new neighbors.
Nevertheless, on the road from Erbil to Mosul, things have remained quiet between the forces. It’s only 500 yards from the last peshmerga position to the first ISIS checkpoint. While that’s as close to Mosul as it’s sensible to get for an obvious non-Iraqi with a healthy aversion to kidnapping, local residents travel easily between the two territories. Traffic flows both ways and those people going in and out say the militants manning the ISIS checkpoint aren’t ruthlessly hunting down non-Sunnis. A quick glance inside and each car is waved on.
Elsewhere in Iraq, ISIS-led militants are involved in heavy fighting with government forces, and south of Kirkuk it has clashed with peshmerga as well. It has also bragged about mass atrocities, posting pictures on social media channels claiming to show some of the 1,700 Shiite troops it says it has executed.
This appears to be part of an overall ISIS strategy to drag Iraq into an all-out sectarian conflict and further its goal of establishing a cross-border Sunni Islamist caliphate. But Mosul is a huge prize for ISIS, and it seems either to have been running a hearts-and-minds operation to get local residents on its side, or ceded some control to local Sunni nationalist militant groups.
'The blocked roads are reopened, there is water and electricity, they are behaving well and people are starting to love them.'
This process has been made far easier by the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, which was largely resented in this majority Sunni town for its perceived corrupt and sectarian policies. Sahib, 60, described the fall of Mosul to VICE News as “an uprising against the tyranny of Maliki.”
There is more to it than that, however. ISIS fighters did distribute leaflets laying out their new, strict version of Islamic law: Women must wear the full veil and only leave home when necessary, smoking, drinking and drugs are banned, as is music. Everyone must pray regularly.
Instead of enforcing these rules with the brutal violence, ISIS-led forces seem to have concentrated on getting public services running and installing a governance structure of their own. Mosul residents told VICE News that they have done so successfully, winning new fans. Again and again, they said that services were better than they ever had been, that most shops were open, and normal life was returning to the city.
Colonel Mahmoud Ahmed Hussein, who heads the peshmerga forces on the Erbil-Mosul border told VICE News that this was very much a conscious decision: “Right now, they’ve changed strategy, they’re not killing for no reason because it isn’t in their benefit. They want to rule and they can’t in that way.”
The strategy is working. “People are starting to love them for one reason; services are better than before,” Ahmed, who runs a clothes shop in Mosul’s bazar, told VICE News. “The blocked roads are reopened, there is water and electricity, they are behaving well and people are starting to love them.”
'Being ruled by an unclear group is new to us, things cannot be guaranteed to remain good.'
Mosul had seen a high number of attacks from Sunni militants in the past, so Iraqi security forces had set up large numbers of checkpoints and blocked some roads, making getting across the city a hassle and generating traffic problems. With no concern of attacks, ISIS has removed them.
Residents also say that violence has dropped. Ali, from Mosul, who was buying a car in Erbil, said things were “quiet” now with no bombings or shootings. That perhaps isn’t surprising, given that Sunni militants committed most previous attacks.
The main worry now, residents said, was of violence if the government attempted to retake the city. “The situation is getting more and more normal. The shops are mostly open now and most of the people who fled have come back to the city, but there are still fears that the Iraqi army may shell the city,” said 32-year-old Zyad, a Mosul teacher.
Despite this concern, residents also reported that ISIS were locating their bases in densely populated areas of Mosul to avoid air strikes without attracting much local ire.
Some former residents have no intention of returning while ISIS remains in control.
Even some of those who would have most grounds to worry seem cautiously optimistic. Amin Ali, a musician in Mosul, told VICE News that despite the new ISIS rules, he had recently performed and hadn’t received any threats or warnings as a result.
However, ISIS has implemented similar strategies in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. Initially, it offered aid and “advice” on strict Islamic practice, before moving on to floggings, burning shops, and public executions.
Ali is still concerned that they might become stricter. “Being ruled by an unclear group is new to us, things cannot be guaranteed to remain good… Despite my positive impression on the new rulers of Mosul, I have fears that they may ban music or harm us for performing music. We have plan to have concerts and we won't give up, but the consequences for doing that remains unclear.”
Some former residents have no intention of returning while ISIS remains in control. In an IDP camp on the Erbil to Mosul road, Leyla, 45, said she would never go back to Mosul unless it leaves. “I hate them,” she says, adding that the group’s violence means that it cannot be considered Muslim.
Even if ISIS does avoid alienating Mosul’s inhabitants with strict sharia law, maintaining public satisfaction will rely on successfully keeping electricity, water, and transportation running. It may already be having difficulties. Speaking on Saturday, Zyad said that earlier in the day he had been to the bazar and bought everything he needed with no issues or shortages. Petrol, however, is hard to come by. “There is no almost no fuel, it is very, very expensive and ordinary people cannot handle buying it,” he said.
ISIS leaders are seemingly aware of this. Peshmerga Brig. Gen. Mohammed Rostam, told VICE News that ISIS had attacked specific villages south of Kirkuk due to their strategic value. Its commanders, Rostam said, maintained that the offensives were to destroy Shiite shrines, but he suspects that the real reason was to secure water supplies.
ISIS managed to seize Mosul from the Iraqi army in a lightning offensive despite being vastly outnumbered. If the militant group manages to win, and maintain, public backing in the city, however, then it will be far harder to dislodge, especially while resentment towards Maliki and his policies is still so widespread. “People are still satisfied with the Islamic state,” Zyad added. “For as far as the Iraqi army cannot come back to their city.”
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck