British-Iraqi doctor seeks to make her mark in Mosul election

After decades in the UK, Dunia Al Naemi returns to her war-battered home city to try to bring about change

It is a long way to West Mosul from the London borough of Wembley Park.

Yet for Dunia Al Naemi, both are home. A doctor who fled Iraq under Saddam Hussein, she settled in the UK, where she enjoyed a long career at some of the country’s top hospitals and universities. She spent years working on Bloomsbury Street, and teaching medicine at University College London.

Today, she has given up that life to run in Iraq’s parliamentary election — a long-shot candidate in a war-scarred city that feels ignored by its government.

Dr Al Naemi returned to Mosul in June, after Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, a former Iraqi minister of communications and one-time candidate for prime minister, asked her to stand as part of his list.

She says the idea appealed to her even though she has no experience in politics — something she hopes will work to her advantage. “I enjoy a challenge, and this country needs new faces, I thought”.

Dr Al Naemi quit her job and, with no big money behind her, began churning through her savings to fund her run for Iraq’s Council of Representatives.

Barely four years ago, Mosul was the final urban holdout of ISIS in Iraq. The brutal battle to retake the city culminated in its western old quarter, leaving scars that will remain for decades.

This is the city’s second election since the defeat of ISIS in late 2017, and a new election law means there are a record number of candidates — 432 across the Nineveh governorate of which Mosul is the capital. Many of them are running as independents and for smaller parties. Campaign posters are draped from the bridges in the city's east, there is barely a wall left uncovered. Scores of would-be MPs look on at cars passing through the busy intersections.

Outwardly at least, democracy here appears in good shape.

Yet dig down a little and it becomes clear that the things are not quite so peachy. As Dr Al Naemi walks the streets of the old city, she finds that, more than any rival candidate, her real opponent is chronic apathy.

On Friday, as a small huddle forms around Dr Al Naemi, young men referring to her deferentially as Doktora, a local policeman, his finger blackened with ink, passes by.

It is the first day of early voting for security forces. The policeman says he spoiled his ballot. “It will make no difference,” he says.

Again and again, people tell Dr Al Naemi they will not vote, or offer an unconvincing “inshallah”.

“Some people are just adamant they don’t want to vote. I don’t blame them, to be honest
Dr Dunia Al Naemi

“Some people are just adamant they don’t want to vote,” she says.

“I don’t blame them, to be honest. But I hope this election will produce serious people who will work for the Iraqi people.”

Few voters in Mosul have met any of the candidates, or even know their names, let alone their policies.

Some ask Dr Al Naemi who they should vote for. The question frustrates her. “When they are asking me that, they are asking who will give them the most money,” she says.

“Don’t you give your voice to anyone you don’t know, only people who you feel will serve the area. Only people who are transparent and decent. Give it to people who haven’t been elected before, and haven’t been involved in the last four years, or even since 2003,” she tells one man in the winding streets of the old city.

Mosul turns its back on its liberator

At the last election, former prime minister Haider Al Abadi made notable inroads in this largely Sunni region. He used his credentials as the man who oversaw the defeat of ISIS to draw support from local Sunni figures such as Khaled Al Obeidi, a popular former general and defence minister, and Qusay Al Ahmadi, the chancellor of Mosul University.

This support gave Mr Al Abadi's Nasr list victory here, with almost 18 per cent of the vote and a plurality of Nineveh’s 31 parliamentary seats.

Yet three years on, many former supporters have turned their back on the man who led Mosul’s liberation.

Mr Al Obeidi is running on his own list in Baghdad, while Mr Al Ahmadi is standing as a candidate on the rival Taqadum list of Mohammed Al Halbousi, the speaker of parliament. Another list headed by millionaire businessman Khamis Khanjar is also a leading challenger in the city.

Hassan Al Allaf is a candidate on the Taqadum list in Mosul. At his election headquarters in the city’s east, dozens of workers sift through voter lists and maps — a vast operation compared to Dr Al Naemi’s campaign.

Although he is deferential to Mr Al Abadi, Mr Allaf says the former PM had his chance in Nineveh and failed to deliver.

“The liberation battles that Al Abadi led drew the image of a strong man able to put Iraq on its feet again,’ he tells The National.

“Although he was able to win a lot of support last time, he failed to maintain it because of bad management. He didn’t follow up on promises — nothing has been done for Mosul since 2017.”

He says Taqadum hopes to win over many of those who previously backed Mr Al Abadi.

Rebuilding Mosul is a priority for every candidate standing in Nineveh, and Dr Al Naemi is no different. “This city has been completely destroyed and ignored for so many years. It has been treated differently by the political system in Baghdad — they haven’t given it a fair share. It has been a form of punishment,” she says.

“They haven’t built a single new hospital since I left in 1992; if I’m elected, I want to get just one hospital up and running to the standards I’m used to in the UK.”

Reconstruction is one of the few tangible policies that have been discussed in the campaign.

The government in Baghdad has been missing in action when it comes to rebuilding Iraq’s second-largest city. What has been rebuilt has largely been through Unesco and NGOs, while the UAE is financing the reconstruction of the historical Al Nuri mosque in the old quarter.

In eastern Mosul, shopping malls, and apartment blocks have been financed by private Turkish companies — it is hard to identify anything rebuilt by the government.

Dr Al Naemi vows to donate her entire salary to charity, and focus her efforts on Mosul’s women, especially those going through divorces and domestic violence. “These are our forgotten communities,” she says.

“I’d like to do something for my city. I studied here at medical school. I worked here for five years before I went to the UK.

“So I wanted to put something good in place so at least I can say 'This is me'."

Updated: October 9th 2021, 3:55 PM