MOSUL, Iraq (AFP) â€” The ear-deafening blasts of car bombs targetting US or Iraqi security force patrols shatter the calm daily in Mosul, the northern city which military commanders say is the last urban bastion of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Chased out of other parts of the country, especially by Sahwa (Awakening) anti-Qaeda fronts, jihadists and insurgents have fled to Nineveh province and its ethnically-diverse capital Mosul.
“It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste,” Major Adam Boyd, intelligence officer of the US army’s 3rd Cavalry Regiment, told AFP at a military base on the outskirts of Mosul.
“A Sunni insurgent, when feeling the pressure, will not go down south, where the Shiite Arabs are, because that would not be a permissive environment,” he said.
Unlike other Sunni-dominated provinces which are largely homogeneous, Nineveh, with a population of 2.8 million people — of whom 1.8 million live in Mosul — comprises 60 percent Sunnis, 30 percent Kurdish, five percent Shiites and five percent other communities, including Christians.
Here the Sahwas, recruited initially by the US military but now on the payroll of Baghdad, are not welcome — especially by Kurdish parties and their powerful militia, the peshmergas.
“With seven ethno-sectarian divisions, the moment you start arming a tribe, every tribe will want to be armed,” said Boyd.
In this cosmopolitan city, a trading crossroads since antiquity, it is easy for a militant cell to operate. The result — on average no less than 10 to 12 car bomb blast every day.
On Sunday, the convoy of Iraqi Colonel Mohammed, who uses only one name, was hit by a bomb hidden in a truck on a main thoroughfare. His armoured vehicle was struck by shrapnel which punctured three tyres but there were no casualties.
In mid-October the Iraqi government ordered a massive deployment of forces to Mosul, swelling the numbers of police and troops in the city to around 36,000.
Among them is police Captain Hassan Ali. Perched at his hilltop headquarters, he explained, “Elsewhere, the people have understood. They said ‘chase these terrorists’. But here, that has not yet started.
“The communities live very separately: the Kurds only listen to the Kurdish parties, the tribes think only of their own interests,” said Ali.
“The level of corruption and intimidation is very high. It is usual that a guy we hold for terrorism is very quickly released. People don’t want to speak because they fear revenge. This is the reason the terrorists are still powerful in Mosul.”
In Baghdad, national security adviser Muwafaq al-Rubaie said Mosul was also the last stronghold of members of the Baath party of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Mosul has thousands of former regime elements and former high ranking Baathists. This is the last bastion of the Baath party,” Rubaie told AFP.
“It’s political, it’s religious and it’s also ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds and you have the Turkomen also, so it is very complicated. It will take some time to solve that.”
With an unemployment rate exceeding 50 percent, Nineveh with its thousands of idle youths is an ideal recruiting pond for around 15 active insurgent groups in the area, says American Major Scott O’Neal, chief of operations of the 3rd Cavalry.
“Elsewhere, the Sahwa has taken away one of the prime elements of the insurgency in these areas, which is the lack of employment,” said O’Neal.
“A lot of these guys were working with the insurgency only to put food on the table. Here, this doesn’t exist yet.”