Who is in control of Mosul?

Power within Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, is a spectrum of forces from ISIS, Ba’athist elements and Sunni tribes, among others. How is this tenuous assortment of power connecting and coordinating in the running of the city?

Zana Khasraw Gul
7 July 2014

Mosul. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

On 11 June, between 2,500 to 3,000 fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. This came after a military campaign that started on 5 June, and that was waged for several days. The Iraqi army in Nineveh withdrew its forces, and many of them deserted. In Mosul, the branches of two major Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, reluctantly withdrew their staff and their few Peshmerga forces when they realised that the Iraqi army had scattered. Civilians fled Mosul because of the actions of the insurgent force and the consequent fear of a government retaliation. The UN refugee agency estimated that in Nineveh province, approximately 500,000 people have fled. 300,000 of those from Mosul are seeking shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan.

With very little damage, remarkable logistics, material seizure ($500 million in cash and assets), firearms, and psychological gains, the capture of Mosul has made ISIS the richest terrorist group in the world. ISIS’ victory in Mosul bolstered their offensive towards the Iraqi borders, Salah al-Din, and Diyala, and Anbar. 

But ISIS are not alone in control of the city. There are other influential players, such as the Naqshbandi army or, in Arabic, Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) which is predominantly composed of Ba’athist officers from Saddam’s regime. Headed by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, JRTN entered the city alongside ISIS. It is considered the second most influential group in Mosul, which has connections with many local individuals and tribes in locale. Other groups such as the Jihad and Reform Front, the Asaib Iraq al-Jihadiyya, the Mujahideen Army, and the Army of Ahmad bin Hanbal are also all operating. These groups have strong connections with Harith Sulyman al-Dari and they have declared that he represents them.  Al-Dari is the leader of the 1920 revolution brigade and of Iraq’s Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), a key figure for Sunni resistance against the Shia-led government.

Senior security analysts in the Iraqi Kurdish security agency in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) anonymously stated that three main councils were established in Mosul. Firstly, the  “General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries” is one of the most powerful councils based in Mosul, with tribal forces as a major component. Other influential groups in this council are JRTN and al-Dari’s insurgents. Secondly, there is ISIS, which has its own military council. The third council is composed of senior officers from the former Iraqi army and senior Baathists who were loyal to Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr (the Iraqi President before Saddam). There is a fragile connection between these councils but friction appears between ISIS and the other insurgent groups. Meanwhile, the Sunni tribes are closer to JRTN and its leader al-Douri, and the Baathist officers, than with ISIS or al-Baghdadi. The aforementioned councils share in the administration of Mosul, in its security and public services. 

Despite having different views on how the Iraqi state should be run, it is crystal clear that all councils and insurgents are against the Shia-led government, and they project the expulsion of the Iraqi army as a revolution. This was asserted on the BBC by the fugitive ex-Iraqi Vice President and an Arab Sunni political leader Tariq Al-Hashimi. On 17 June he emphasised that “we [moderate Sunnis] have different agendas than ISIS … we are not extremists … we share the same objectives with ISIS in toppling Maliki or the Shia-led government … but we are not allying or coordinating with them [ISIS]”. Moreover, Saleh al-Mutlak, Deputy Prime Minister and a Sunni political leader, on CNN’s 18 June Amanpour programme, acknowledged the danger of ISIS in Iraq but portrayed it as an uprising, “the Sunni elite who got nothing, some of the tribes, and those who were deprived from their rights are also uprising. We should isolate those from ISIS”.  This indicates that ISIS are not the sole drivers of the upheaval, but rather are an active part of the revolt.

Eyewitnesses in Mosul reported to the “Asayish” Kurdish security forces that on 6 June, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri entered Mosul wearing his old fashioned Iraqi military uniform and gave a speech to a crowd praising the “Mujahedeen” (insurgents), and in response, they applauded him. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, who has been seen in Mosul as well, gave a short speech to gathered fighters, claiming for himself the leadership of Al-Qaida. In one of his recorded announcements he lauded the tribes, thanking them for their position against the government and urged them to give more support. Another insurgent leader is Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed, a former senior member of the Ba’ath party in Iraq who controls a group of Ba’athist insurgents. Eyewitnesses reported that al-Ahmed appeared in Mosul after its fall. This is an indication that the appearance of the leaders of insurgents is aimed at bolstering morale and consolidating their presence.

According to the Kurdish Regional Government’s counter-terrorism experts, as ISIS’ offensive leads them towards other cities, this has reduced their number in Mosul itself. But considerable numbers of the JRTN remain. 

ISIS’ alleged honeymoon in captured territories would not last long. A Reuters article published on 24 June, argues for a fading euphoria after ISIS’ arrival in Mosul. The announcement of the 16-points document  (including the prohibition of alcohol, women’s clothing restrictions) as well as the negative impact on commerce have elevated local doubts and suspicions concerning the future of ISIS in Mosul. A friction has emerged between locals and tribes on one side, and ISIS on the other.

The agitation between other groups and ISIS has been expressed in a 20 June interview with Muzhir al-Qaisi on Al Jazeera. As the spokesman of the General Military Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries, he denied any relation with ISIS and illustrated the differences between them. The tenuous assortment in Mosul is likely to break up at any moment due to the differences of various insurgent groups’ agendas, beliefs and goals.

It could be said that ISIS, Sunni tribes, Ba’athist elements, former Iraqi army officers and intelligence officers, and less influential groups, with vague alliances across the spectrum, are controlling Mosul. But when the signs of conflict have already begun to surface, the question remains as to how long these forces can hold together.

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