Masked Sunni gunmen chant slogans during a protest against Iraq’s government in Fallujah on January 7 (Reuters).Iraqi leaders driven into exile by ISIL plan to raise a militia to recapture their city and recruit teams of experts in health, education and public services to run it once the extremists are defeated.
Council members for the city of Mosul and the region’s governor say a locally-run force would form part of a United States-led coalition to win back vast areas of Iraq captured in June.
The plan is fraught with obstacles and the leaders, who are living in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan, are already squabbling over details. However, they all agree that a force of local fighters will be crucial to wresting back control of the city and the overall defeat of ISIL.
“It is clear that we, the people and leaders of Mosul, must take a lead role in liberating our city,” says Bashar Mahmoud, an ethnic Kurd who heads the provincial council. “We must have military officers and experts who know and understand our people.”
The formation of such a militia would dovetail with efforts by an international coalition that includes the US, the UAE, the Iraqi government, Iraq’s Kurdish leaders and other Arab countries to defeat ISIL.
The US began airstrikes on ISIL positions in Iraq in August and last week the campaign was extended to bomb militant strongholds in Syria. The US efforts in Syria were aided by its Arab allies.
However, the local leaders say the only way that they will be able to fully rid their country of the group, which has carried out mass executions, beheadings and forced vast numbers to flee their homes, will be through local support.
“The people of Mosul must feel like they are being liberated and governed by people from Mosul,” Mr Mahmoud said.
He and other council members criticised the tactics employed by the Shiite-dominated security forces in the city by Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki ahead of the ISIL takeover.
Residents of Mosul, especially its majority Sunni Arabs, viewed his military and police as little more than a brutal, sectarian militia, and as a result, many of them did not resist ISIL’s June invasion.
Iraq’s new government under prime minister Haider Al Abadi has promised to address the sectarian policies of Mr Al Maliki, a Shiite who ostracised Sunnis and who many in Iraq blame for the ISIL takeover.
Mr Al Abadi, also a Shiite, has indicated he would support reforming the military to be more representative of the local populations where they serve. That bodes well for Mosul officials and their plans to retake the city.
They envision fielding a force that would consist of local officers and recruits from the tens of thousands of displaced people from Mosul who have taken refuge in Iraq’s Kurdish region.
The officials have also held meetings with Mosul’s displaced teachers, medical professionals and former employees of the electricity and water authorities to form teams that could quickly assume control of the city’s public services after retaking it from ISIL.
“These people are skilled and ready to help us run the area,” said Hashim Brifkany, a Kurdish member of Mosul’s council who is involved in the planning effort.
He said the council intended to discuss presenting the plan to the government in Baghdad during a meeting in the Kurdish city of Dohuk on Sunday.
Yet, there are already deep divisions between the Mosul politicians over their contribution to the coalition effort. The 39-member council has been at odds with Atheel Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital. He has been promoting his vision for forming his own local militia to remove ISIL from Mosul in Arab and foreign media.
Members of the council have threatened to exclude Mr Nujaifi from the planning efforts, accusing him of attempting to wrest control of the decision-making process.
“Mr Nujaifi is in this for himself and that he has no following among the people of Mosul,” says Khalaf Al Hadidi, a council member in charge of strategic planning before taking refuge in Kurdistan in June. “He is hurting our efforts.”
Mr Nujaifi, a Sunni, tells The National that he had already started to fund resistance groups operating secretly inside Mosul. Those groups, which he says he provided with cash and small arms, have begun carrying out attacks on ISIL forces.
The council members have been angered by these claims and say they have no knowledge of such resistance efforts.
Mr Hadidi, who also is Sunni, calls Mr Nujaifi’s claims “pure exaggeration”.
There is also a question mark over the loyalties of tribesmen in Iraq’s largely Sunni areas, whom the council members claim have expressed backing for their plan.
Ali Hatem Al Suleiman, who heads Anbar province’s Dulaim tribe and has an office in Erbil, doubted that Iraqi tribesmen would buy into the military plan. He says the key to winning Sunni-tribal support was to first obtain more concessions from Baghdad, including greater provincial control over governance and resources.
“Unless the Sunnis are given their rights, none of these plans will work,” says Mr Al Suleiman, who has close contacts with tribal figures in Mosul.
Kenneth Pollack, an Iraq expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, calls the Iraqi tribes’ relations with ISIL “one of the big unknowns” that US intelligence is trying to ascertain in its Iraq plans.
He also doubts efforts by Mosul politicians to field their own fighting force, but says that “if the [Obama] strategy is going to work, those are exactly the kind of people we are going to have to find ways to empower”.
Mr Nujaifi, the governor who was appointed this month as one of Iraq’s three vice presidents, agrees with the latter assessment. But he also expresses optimism for efforts to build a local militia from the new government in Baghdad. He recently visited the capital to discuss the idea with officials, he says.
“You have a situation now where politicians in Baghdad, including Shiite politicians, understand the consequences of the lack of cooperation that affected us during the Maliki years,” he says.
“They understand that this helped empower the extremist Sunnis and empower Daash [ISIL] and that they have to find ways to support the moderates.”