Days after Iraq’s second-largest city fell to al-Qaida-inspired fighters, some Iraqis are already returning to Mosul, lured back by insurgents offering cheap gas and food, restoring power and water and removing traffic barricades. Many people appear excited to return, taking sectarian pride in the extremist Sunni group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Some see them as liberators.
“I hope God supports them and makes them victorious over the oppression of al-Maliki”, said 80-year-old Abu Thaer. He spoke at the Khazer checkpoint on the northern frontier of the largely autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, 65 miles (105 kilometers) from Mosul. Five veiled women and six children were crammed into the back seat of his car.
They were among tens of thousands of people who fled their homes as Islamic State fighters and other Sunni militants seized much of northern Iraq, including Mosul and Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. Many Sunni Arab men and women said they left, not because they feared the insurgents, but because of the risk of retaliatory airstrikes by Iraqi government forces.
Their return underscores the profound sectarianism cleaving Iraq and the depth of anger that many Sunnis harbor toward al-Maliki’s government, which they accuse of discrimination and harassment and pushing Sunnis to the political margins. “We see that they have made Mosul better,” said Abu Mohammed, a 34-year-old taxi driver who ferries returnees back to the city. “The water is back. The electricity is back. The prices are lower”, he added.
The anger many Iraqis felt toward al-Maliki’s government only increased after soldiers abandoned Mosul, fleeing before civilians. It’s likely that many Iraqi troops fled because they sensed insurgents would be welcomed by long-resentful Sunnis, and they did not want to risk their lives for a senseless battle. “The army was only good at oppressing Sunnis, but it was nothing more”, Abu Thaer said.
It wasn’t clear how many Iraqis sought to return to Mosul. But during a single hour on Friday afternoon, an Associated Press reporter saw an 18-seat bus crammed with men, women and children and their luggage. A taxi driver was making regular trips to the city. And about seven other families were crammed into four vehicles, heading home.
Many of those who fled said relatives who remained in Mosul began urging them to come back, saying the Sunni insurgents had restored power, water and were promising not to harm returning residents. In a move that immediately improved their popularity, insurgents also emptied out prisons, said 22-year-old Abu Sulaf. The young man said mostly Shiite forces had harassed and unfairly detained many Sunnis.
Islamic State fighters also removed concrete barricades that snarled traffic through the city and lengthened commutes, often by hours, residents said. Returning residents said relatives told them the insurgents slashed the prices of key staples: A liter of gasoline for vehicles or diesel for generators, a necessity because of frequent power cuts, dropped from 42 cents to 30 cents, said taxi driver Abu Mohammed.
A canister of cooking gas dropped from $6.85 to $3.40. The fighters forced traders to offer vegetables and key foods at half price, he said. News of the discounts, but not the exact prices, were echoed by other returning residents. The efforts by fighters to win over hearts and minds may appear odd for a group whose tactics include beheading their rivals, chopping off the hands of thieves and imprisoning local activists.
But the fighters conducted similar goodwill campaigns after seizing areas of neighboring Syria. It was only later that the darkest side of their rule emerged. So far, only Sunni Arabs appear to be returning, suggesting a fundamental change to the city’s demography.
Nazar Ali, a Shiite from the Turkoman ethnic minority, fled with his extended family, even before harvesting their wheat crop from a village near Mosul. Other Turkomen families said Islamic State fighters were seizing their sons. Rumors spread that they were raping young women or seizing them for forcible marriage.
There was no hope of returning, Ali said. “It’s sectarian. We are Turkoman, and we fear they will harm us”. Most returning residents, who appeared to be mainly conservative Muslims, shrugged when asked of the insurgents’ warnings that they would soon impose their version of strict Islamic law, which includes ordering men to grow beards, making smoking illegal and forcing women to cover their faces.
Clean-shaven, smoking men, said insurgents, had not bothered them. “They aren’t harming people,” insisted 50-year-old Umm Ghufran, who was returning to Mosul with her extended family. She wore a Muslim headscarf, but did not cover her face.
It appeared that the Islamic State had so far held off on imposing their extreme version of Islamic law because they needed to appease other Sunni fighting groups and more secular former Baathists loyal to Saddam Hussein, who all claimed a stake in seizing the city, returning residents said.
Videos uploaded to social networks showed Mosul residents excitedly greeting the Islamic State fighters, who rode around in large cars, their faces covered with scarves, proudly brandishing their assault rifles.
“Sunnis now feel more safe, much more than before,” said Ouf al-Awaidi, son of a prominent tribal elder of the northern city of Kirkuk, whose ancestral village is now run by Sunni fighters. “If the insurgents remain like this, their support base will only grow bigger.”