As Iraq militants proclaim nation, Mosul residents find new regime incompetent

The Washington PostJune 30, 2014 

— When Sunni extremists swept into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, many residents welcomed them, claiming that the masked gunmen had liberated them from oppression by Baghdad. But three weeks on, discontent is surfacing.

On Monday, a day after the militants announced the creation of a formal Islamic state in a grandiose bid to erase the region’s borders, there were few reports of celebration in Mosul.

Gasoline lines that snake for miles and a scarcity of electricity, water and cooking fuel are chipping away at support for the city’s new, al-Qaida-inspired masters, residents say.

“People are suffering,” said Abu Othman, a 68-year-old resident who used a pseudonym for fear of reprisals for speaking out. “These people are fighters. They are not capable of running a state.”

For the Islamic State, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) renamed itself Sunday, such shifts of public sentiment in areas it controls could be disastrous, given its limited manpower. Rallying local support and maintaining alliances with other anti-government groups are vital to its state-building aspirations.

In apparent recognition of this, the Islamic State has wielded a noticeably lighter touch in Mosul and other Iraqi areas it has overrun since June 10 than it has across the border in northern Syria.

There, the militants routinely carry out lashings, beheadings and crucifixions as punishments. Images of them crucifying eight anti-government rebels as “apostates” on a specially constructed stage in Aleppo on Saturday were widely circulated online.

In Mosul, by contrast, the Islamic State’s strict interpretation of Islamic law is not, so far, being enforced. There have been no public executions. Cigarettes are still available. But it was the same at first in Fallujah when that city fell to the Islamic State in January. Six months later, residents report lashings and beheadings.

Already in Mosul, disappearances have unnerved residents, who describe a slow creep of authoritarianism.

A nun who went to buy gasoline with two other women three days ago has not returned. A statue of the Virgin Mary outside a local church has disappeared; another of a 13th-century poet was torn down.

The Tomb of the Girl, said to hold the remains of a young woman who died of a broken heart, has been bulldozed.

“People are discontented, but they cannot speak,” said Abu Fadi, a 31-year-old Christian.

Still, more than anything, it is the lack of services that is eroding support, Abu Fadi said. The government has stopped paying wages to public employees, meaning many are struggling to make ends meet – a situation that the Islamic State has yet to address, he said.

Residents describe spending up to six days sitting in line at the city’s one functioning gas station, sleeping in their cars and hoping a tanker will show up. More days than not, they say, the tanker doesn’t come.

As fuel supplies to the areas under its control dwindle, the Islamic State has spearheaded an ongoing campaign to break into the Baiji oil refinery, Iraq’s largest. So far, government forces have held them back.

The Islamic State’s alliances with other anti-government groups are also wavering. In Mosul, residents say, the militants have ordered that pictures of former president Saddam Hussein be removed from houses, angering his Baathist supporters.

And while the anti-government Naqshbandi Army shares the Islamic State’s aim of bringing down the Iraqi state, the two groups don’t have much more in common. Naqshbandis, who were close to Hussein’s regime and responsible for attacks on U.S. soldiers, have clashed with ISIL fighters in the northern town of Hawijah in recent days.

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