Reconciliation needed in Iraq’s most violent city

326987.jpgBy DENIS D. GRAY

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — It’s a dirty, numbing, dangerous job in Iraq’s deadliest city, and pays a modest $500 a month. But when the police department recently advertised for college graduates to fill 200 positions as traffic policemen, it was deluged with 2,000 applications.

“Half of the terrorists would be defeated if we defeat unemployment,” says police Gen. Khalid Soltan, citing an example of how desperately Mosul citizens scour for jobs.

As U.S. and Iraqi forces battle insurgents in the streets, Mosul faces economic and political problems that could unravel Iraq’s third-largest city even if the military campaign succeeds.

Fixing Mosul is a test of whether the Baghdad government can successfully grapple with potentially explosive forces beneath a still fragile stability achieved elsewhere in Iraq.

The solutions offered seem straightforward enough: more jobs, good cops and a generous dose of brotherly love. But the devil is in Mosul’s wrenchingly complex catalog of woes.

A dozen Sunni insurgent groups alongside a spectrum of others. Hostility among the province’s seven major groups and 26 tribes. Neglect, probably calculated, by the central government. Unemployment running more than 60 percent and electricity spluttering in for an average of four hours a day.

The city is al-Qaida’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq and a flashpoint along a dangerous Kurdish-Arab divide. Its local government is too paralyzed to kick-start the crucial economic engines.

“Mosul has been off the political map of Iraq,” says Alexander Laskaris, a U.S. State Department official who heads the Provincial Reconstruction Team.

This, and more, five years after the U.S.-led invasion.

Violence — from car bombs targeting police to masked gunmen slaying Christians — occurs daily in this ancient, in parts graceful, city known as the “Pearl of the North,” a place once famed for its refined culture, learning and tolerance among ethnic and religious groups.

But more than 22,000 Iraqi and U.S. forces — “the Mosul surge” as troops call it — are blanketing the city of 1.8 million, and attacks are substantially down from several months ago.

U.S. commanders say that the “security piece” is moving ahead, but the politics and economy of Mosul have failed to follow.

Much hope is pinned on elections expected by Jan. 31 for a provincial council, which is currently unrepresentative of the city and the surrounding Nineveh province. It has failed to provide basic services to an angry population.

With Sunni Arabs largely boycotting the January 2005 elections, 31 of 41 council seats were captured by the Kurds, who make up less than a third of the population, whereas the Sunnis account for some 60 percent.32597.jpg

This time around 517,000 registered to vote, one of the highest rates in the country, and there’s no boycott in sight. But the outcome is unpredictable: Sunni political parties have begun to splinter and the Kurds are putting forward a solid front while Baghdad does its best to shape the results.

Major army units in Mosul that were dominated by Kurdish soldiers and officers have been replaced by largely Sunni ones. U.S. commanders say some Sunni troops have been telling residents they had come to liberate their city from the Kurds.

“The city is like a game piece between the Kurds and the Iraqi government, and now it’s a stalemate,” says Maj. John Oliver, an operations officer in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fontana, Calif. “It’s going to require a lot of reconciliation and that’s not happening yet.”32621.jpg

If election results please the central government, development funds it had earlier withheld for political reasons could flow.

But unpredictable is the Kurdish reaction at a time of conflict between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government over Kirkuk and other disputed territories, including towns around Mosul. The Kurds have semiautonomous control over three northern Iraq provinces.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflicts around the world, warned that the Arab-Kurdish schism, with Mosul as one of its epicenters, could arguably exceed the Sunni-Shiite divide that spawned the 2005-2007 sectarian war.

The election “will tamp down some of the violence, but not all of it. There will still be al-Qaida and the rejectionists,” says Lt. Col. Robert Molinari, serving with the key U.S. military unit in Mosul. And there will still be the economy to set right, something U.S. planners say may take a generation.

“We’ve (the Americans) been here five years and the city has seen a steady decline. The people are despondent. So we have been handed a monumental job — to fix the third largest city in Iraq,” says Lt. Col. Kirk Fernitz, planning chief for the Mosul Reconstruction Operations Center, a new joint U.S.-Iraq effort to apply “rapid, shock treatment” and win some dispirited hearts and minds.

“It’s the non-lethal aspects of our operations that will do it in the long term. The lethal stuff, we could do this forever, and we don’t have forever,” says Molinari, the regiment’s executive officer, from Fort Hood, Texas.

About $13 million is already being spent on removing war rubble, repairing schools and hospitals, supplying chlorine for the water treatment plant. The Iraqi government is watching how this money is being spent before injecting a crucial $100 million into long-range projects, including electricity generation, says Fernitz, of Strasburg, Pa.32655.jpg

The dearth of electricity has also contributed to joblessness with Mosul’s few large enterprises hobbled and unable to expand. A decrepit banking system is reluctant to extend loans to would-be small-scale businessmen, while a fourth year of severe drought has left some 100,000 farmers in the province desperately seeking any employment — including that of roadside bomb planters.

Whether the current projects are Band-Aids on a festering wound or foundations of a solid economy is still open to question.

But whatever it takes, the Iraqis will have to carry it out. Irrespective of what President-elect Barack Obama decides about U.S. involvement in Iraq, the Americans are winding down programs and preparing to hand many more to Mosul officials — ready or not.

Fernitz expects the center will turn over all its work to the Iraqis within six months. This year will be the last for Americans in the innovative Community Stabilization Program, which has helped set up some 700 small businesses, started the provincial soccer league and provided after-school sports, arts and vocational training for nearly 62,000 male youths from the age of 11.

The Iraqi army, with vital U.S. backup for now, is doing the bulk of the fighting, but probably just for a matter of months. Waiting to take over are the local police, who U.S. commanders say are improving from their low during the 2005 election when they disintegrated. But they still widely viewed as corrupt and poorly trained.

“It is the police who will ultimately win or lose the city,” says Molinari. “The army is just occupying it. Unless you get the police up and running, you are not going to get real security.”