Iraq's northern capital stalked by suicide bombers

Posted in Iraq | 15-Apr-05 | Author: Patrick Cockburn| Source: The Independent

Iraqis look at the remains of a destroyed vehicle following a car bomb in the northern city of Mosul.

Anybody who believes Iraq has turned the corner and violence is diminishing should pay a visit to its northern capital, though they must be extremely careful when doing so. A suicide bomber detonated explosives in his car outside an army post in Mosul yesterday, creating a cloud of smoke and dust that hovered over the city.

Across the country, insurgents opened a new offensive with at least 18 people being killed by suicide bombs in Baghdad.

I was in a car a few hundred yards away when the bomb in Mosul went off. I was being driven by a Kurdish soldier who had disguised himself as a civilian by sitting on his pistol and wearing a long brown Arab robe over his uniform. Another soldier, concealing his machine gun, sat in the back, dressed in a tracksuit.

We were trying to reach the centre of Mosul to meet the deputy governor, Khasro Goran. We had driven from the Kurdish province of Arbil with four uniformed soldiers - all Kurds from the 1st Battalion of the Iraqi National Guard - to protect us. There was no trouble on the road between the two cities. But when we reached an army post on the outskirts of Mosul the soldiers looked apprehensive. Lt-ColYassin, commander of the base, said: "If I send you further into the city in a convoy with three vehicles and men in uniform, you are likely to be a target for suicide bombers."

Two of his men, disguised as civilians, drove us in a nondescript car at speed through east Mosul, a city of 1.75 million people, about 30 per cent Kurdish and 70 per cent Sunni Arab. Although we were in the mostly Kurdish and supposedly safer part of the city, the driver avoided main roads where bombers might lurk.

As we got close to the fortified office - once the headquarters of the local Baath party - of Mr Goran, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Mosul, as well as deputy governor, we saw smoke rising from a suicide bomber's car.

Mr Goran assured us the city was "much more secure than a few months ago and soon it will be better still". The insurgents could no longer establish checkpoints or kidnap so easily. But he admitted there were problems. He thought the 14,000 Iraqi police in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, were often in league with the insurgents. They were implicated in the assassination of a previous governor, Osama Kashoula, on 14 July.

Mr Goran said that in an uprising on 11 November last year, the police had largely disappeared or changed sides. "I tell my bodyguards not to trust the police and don't tell them our movements."

The 30 police stations in Mosul city have been largely abandoned. He is trying to have the chief of police fired. What happens in Mosul is of great significance. It is probably the second largest city in Iraq and most of the population is Sunni Arab, living on the west bank of the Tigris, with a long nationalist and fundamentalist Islamic tradition. Mosul was a recruiting ground for officers of the old Iraqi army and thousands still live here.

After Saddam's fall, "Mosul was a critical centre for the insurgents, more important than Fallujah," said Sadi Ahmed Pire, former leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Mosul.

The Kurds resented the efforts of the first US commander, General David Petraeus, to conciliate Sunni Arabs by keeping people who the Kurds regarded as Baathists in their jobs. They accused the US-appointed police chief, Mohammed Barhawi, of being a crypto-supporter of the insurgents.

Mr Goran says that, while he disagreed with General Petraeus, a critical mistake was the US replacement of the 21,000 strong 101st Airborne by the much smaller Stryker Brigade. He thinks there are now only 5,000 to 6,000 US troops in Nineveh.

For now, Mr Goran and Mr Pire are probably right in thinking insurgency is on the retreat. Intelligence has improved. Television confessions of captured resistance fighters, often doubling as criminals, have damaged the insurgents.

But the government has a faltering grip on Mosul. There is simmering ethnic conflict between Kurds and Arabs. "About 520 Kurds have been killed of whom 400 were civilians - often just because they were wearing Kurdish clothes," says Mr Pire. The war is far from over.