Erbil, Iraq // After almost two years under ISIL rule, Mosul’s beleaguered residents are getting increasingly desperate as the Iraqi government turns the screw on the city and the extremists impose an ever more draconian rule to compensate for their waning fortunes.
The Iraqi government’s strategy of cutting salaries and basic services and foodstuffs has succeeded in turning Moslawis – the residents of Mosul – against ISIL.
But the prospect of liberation is tainted by fear that controversial Shiite militias will be involved in the fighting, and predictions of a wave of revenge killings by locals.
"The situation is bad, and its getting worse by the day," says Mohammed, a Mosul resident who spoke to The National by phone.
Prices for food and fuel have doubled since coalition air strikes in November targeted oil infrastructure under ISIL’s control, and a Kurdish offensive on the town of Sinjar cut off the strategic highway connecting Mosul to Syria, according to Heba, a 32-year-old journalist who fled Mosul but remains in contact with relatives in the city.
The situation is made worse by Baghdad’s decision to stop sending salaries for government employees in the city. In the past, the monthly government paychecks had kept thousands of families solvent, but also provided ISIL with a revenue source, as the group taxed the income heavily.
“My family says that children are looking for food in the rubbish bins,” claims Heba, who now lives in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region.
As the situation deteriorates, many residents are looking for a way out, but paying a smuggler has become difficult for those deprived of their salaries, adds Heba.
She paid US$1,250 (Dh4,590) for a smuggler to drive her from Mosul to several ISIL-held territories in Syria, before she managed to cross into Turkey with the help of a fake ID.
With its income streams diminished, ISIL is looking for new ways to extort money from the population. It has extended its particular interpretation of Sharia, which frequently causes it to kill or maim those who digress from its reading of the rules, by imposing increasingly arbitrary fines.
“Daesh is looking to fine you for anything. No one wants to go outside the house anymore,” says Mohammed.
A beard that has been trimmed too short can cost a man 10,000 Iraqi dinar (Dh33.20), while a kandura that reaches too far to the ground can set the wearer back 25,000 dinar – no small amount to Mosul's cash-strapped citizens.
Such pedantry can even turn fatal in the hazardous environment of Mosul, which is under constant watch by coalition aircraft and drones.
According to Mohammed, a group of men who had fallen foul of ISIL’s rules were mistaken for ISIL members and killed by a US-coalition air strike after they returned from a graveyard, where they had been forced to demolish tombstones deemed blasphemous by the terrorists.
Declining revenues have forced ISIL to slash the pay of their fighters from $250 a month to just $50, says Maher Jubouri, who worked with the government’s intelligence service in Mosul before ISIL came, but remains in contact with sources in the city.
With the group’s momentum stalled and its aura of invincibility gone after a string of defeats, morale among the extremists is low. Sources in the city say that ISIL fighters are deserting in large numbers, and making their way out of Iraq via Syria and into Turkey.
“Many fighters are deserting ISIL because of the pay cut. Hundreds are leaving,” says Mr Jubouri.
The group is trying to compensate with a recruitment drive in the city, where stalls have been erected to play promotional videos in the streets, targeting the young in particular.
ISIL also seeks to bolster the ranks by canvassing in the countryside, according to Ahmed, who spoke to The National over the phone from his village near Mosul. But village meetings called by the group are often shunned by men of fighting age, and the rural communities practise a form of passive resistance, with only the old men attending the meetings, he says.
The extremists have had some success in recruiting among the civilians fleeing the government offensive at Ramadi, which was finally cleared of ISIL fighters this week after an eight-month campaign to retake the city.
Sources in Mosul say ISIL allocated houses to those who fled Ramadi, giving them homes vacated by families that had left the city, but the group soon began charging the new arrivals rent. Out of pocket, some where forced to join the militants.
“Some of the people coming from Ramadi have joined Daesh, either because a family member is already with them, or for the money,” says Mohamed.
Fed up with the strictures on their lives, and with deteriorating living conditions, many Moslawis are keen to see the back of ISIL.
“The people of Mosul now look at Daesh as monsters. They hold them responsible for what happened,” says Heba.
Aware of the destruction caused when ISIL was expelled from Ramadi and Tikrit, they remain anxious about the cost of purging the terror group from the city.
It is not clear when the government intends to launch the operation to retake the city that fell to ISIL in June 2014 without a fight. Baghdad has begun massing troops at Makhmour – about 80km south of Mosul – for an offensive that would cut Mosul off from ISIL-held territory to the east.
But there are doubts over whether the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish peshmerga are capable of taking a city the size of Mosul, defended by thousands of ISIL fighters.
Mosul’s inhabitants are also afraid of the Shiite militias that have taken up the fight against ISIL. Known as the Hashed al Shaabi, they stand accused of widespead human rights abuses committed against Sunnis, which predominate in Mosul.
The militias had been excluded from the Ramadi campaign, but are currently laying seige to nearby Fallujah. After the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014, they have become the main force in pushing ISIL back in Iraq, and Baghdad might deem it impossible to retake Mosul without their help.
Should the Hashed take part in the battle, they may have to contend with a hostile population.
“If the Hashed Al Shaabi come to Mosul, the people would side with Daesh,” warns Mohammed.
And in the absence of a functioning judiciary or sufficient policing, rough justice will be meted out to those suspected of having collaborated with ISIL.
“We are just waiting for Mosul to be liberated, so that we can take revenge [on ISIL collaborators],” says Ahmed, a Sunni.
With resentment against ISIL running deep, the bloodshed may continue long after the city has been rid of the terror group.
“The liberation of Mosul is just the beginning. In our culture, if you can’t find the guilty man, you kill his son or another relative,” says Raafat Alzrari, a former Mosul resident who runs the Nineveh Reporters Network.