By Michael Georgy
MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Mohamed Mahmoud is relieved he no longer has to watch Islamic State militants hang corpses from electricity poles, now that Iraqi forces have cleared the group from his east Mosul district. But he still fears for his safety.
Like other Iraqis, he worries that destructive forces like sectarianism, which already provoked one civil war since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, will destabilize Iraq even if Islamic State is completely removed from Mosul.
The hardline jihadists were welcomed by some fellow Sunni Muslims when they seized Mosul in 2014 because the community, a majority in the city but a minority in Iraq, felt marginalized by the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.
Those bitter feelings have not faded, adding to the sense of uncertainty in a city with rows of buildings pulverized by airstrikes and desperate for water and electricity supplies.
“I am afraid of the Shi’ites, if they come to Mosul,” said Mahmoud, 68. “I have to do paperwork in Baghdad. But I am afraid to go there. I may be killed because I am a Sunni.”
Iraqi forces have retaken most of east Mosul and are preparing to widen their offensive against Islamic State to the western part of the city. Gunshots rang out and mortar bombs were fired near the Tigris River, which divides east and west.
The battle for Mosul, involving 100,000 Iraqi troops, members of the Kurdish security forces and Shi’ite militiamen, is the biggest ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
Mosul, the largest city held by Islamic State across its once vast but now shrinking self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and neighboring Syria, has been occupied by the group since its fighters drove the U.S.-trained army out in June 2014.
Its fall would mark the end of the cross border caliphate but Islamic State – which is also known by its opponents as Daesh – is widely expected to mount an insurgency in Iraq and inspire attacks in the West.
A few Mosul residents stood on streets inspecting the destruction, wondering where the Iraqi state would find the resources to rebuild what was once a trade hub and one of the most tolerant cities in the Middle East.
Few shops were open.
“There is no budget,” Abdel Sattar al Hibbo, head of the Mosul municipality, told Reuters as he walked down a road surrounded by buildings flattened by airstrikes.
Hibbo, who said he was shot several times by al Qaeda militants before Islamic State was established, also has other worries.
“There were thousands of Daesh members here. They killed some and caught some. The ones who were left over, some just shaved their beards and blended in with the population,” he said.
Across town in the Mohandiseen district, there were plenty of reminders of Islamic State’s reign of terror. Anyone who did not have the right-sized beard or trousers of the prescribed length was whipped.
A violation of a ban on televisions and mobile phones was punishable by beatings, jail, or worse.
Standing outside his house, which was taken over by the jhadists, Mohamed Ibrahim recalls how he was on the Islamic State blacklist, reaching into his jacket pocket for a court document. “They accused me of refusing to grow the right sized beard. They summoned me to court,” he said.
A nearby house once served as a holding area for women, possibly some of the numerous people that Islamic State turned into sex slaves. Baby strollers and clothes were abandoned in a room.
Next door was a makeshift prison and torture center, where plastic handcuffs were scattered in a courtyard.
Islamic State had taken the owner’s possessions, including children’s toys, and thrown it out onto a rooftop. On top of the pile of belongings lay an icepick with a bloodied handle.
“We used to hear the screaming at night,” said a neighborhood resident, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals against his relatives, who live in west Mosul.
(editing by David Stamp)