Seb Walker is Middle East bureau chief for VICE News Tonight on HBO.
I used to rent an apartment in Mosul.
It was January 2004, and the city was being run by Gen. David Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division. I was a stringer for Reuters, there to document the near-daily attacks on U.S. forces by an insurgency that seemed to be growing stronger by the week.
It was a beautiful place to live. Mosul is a historic city, full of ancient buildings, mosques, and churches, and home to Iraq’s second-largest university. In the evenings, Moslawi families would pack the street cafes or sit around open fire pits along the banks of the Tigris, roasting masgouf fish freshly caught from the river.
But things were taking a turn for the worse.
Mosul is also an army town, where many of the generals and officers commanding Saddam Hussein’s vast military came from. So the city wasn’t particularly happy when the U.S.-led coalition decided to disband the entire thing a few weeks after the invasion.
It meant that, overnight, hundreds of thousands of trained soldiers lost their jobs and found a new reason to resist the occupying forces. Eventually, that resistance started to take shape in Mosul in a way that was structured and organized. It was beginning to take off when I arrived there — assassinations of government officials, sniper attacks on U.S. soldiers, IEDs hitting convoys driving through the city.
It wasn’t long before armed insurgent groups started to base their leadership in Mosul, exploiting dissatisfaction with the U.S.-appointed government in Baghdad to gain a foothold. The manner in which ISIS was able to sweep in and establish Mosul as its headquarters in June 2014 was not so different — it was partly the product of years of discontent with the status quo. Many residents of Mosul saw ISIS as a better alternative to a Shia-dominated central government that they considered not representative of their interests.
Today’s battle for Mosul is far more complex than the good-versus-evil narrative that sometimes plays out in the daily media coverage.
The forces that started advancing on the city 13 days ago comprise a precarious coalition of ethnic and religious factions — Arab and Kurd, Sunni and Shia — many with competing interests and agendas far beyond the expulsion of ISIS. Iraq’s military itself is riven with sectarianism: Tanks and armored vehicles fly Shia religious flags as they roll into Sunni Arab towns and villages. There is a geopolitical dimension, too, with U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias working warily toward a common goal, but only in the short term. Meanwhile, Turkish forces wait on the sidelines, threatening to join the fray if things don’t unfold to their liking.
While the brutal rule that ISIS has imposed is unpopular with those still living in Mosul and advancing forces are being welcomed in neighborhoods where ISIS has retreated, the question of what happens next is the one I’ve been hearing the most.
Whether it takes days or months, Mosul will eventually fall to the combined might of Baghdad and its international partners. But once ISIS is gone, then what? Will the assembled armed groups who have fought their way there just pack up and go home? What kind of recriminations will come for residents of a city perceived to have opened its doors to an extremist group that threatened to tear the country apart?
Iraq’s prime minister has said that only the Iraqi army and the national police will be allowed into the city once it falls — it’s partly an attempt to avoid a repeat of the human rights abuses that took place after the recapture of Fallujah and other cities further south. But it’s also to prevent Kurdish and Shia militias from coming in and trying to establish facts on the ground – the liberators here are forces that are aligned for now, but they have deep political differences.
It’s a shaky group of alliances that most Iraqis I’ve talked to doubt will last long. The biggest concern is that if disagreements do emerge, Iraq could be facing something even darker than the storm clouds that were starting to gather in early 2004, when the impending battle for Mosul and other Iraqi cities gave way to a far bloodier sectarian struggle to shape the nation’s future.
Watch TERROR: The Islamic State in Iraq