There has been a terrible sense of deja vu the past few days for those of us who covered the fall of Mosul in 2003. The photos of Iraqi army uniforms abandoned on the side of the roads leading away from the city; in 2003, I saw uniforms abandoned on the roadside as soldiers refused to die for Saddam Hussein. Kurdish peshmerga taking over Kirkuk; in 2003, peshmerga took control of Kirkuk. The roads from Mosul to Erbil packed with people fleeing to Kurdistan; in 2003 the same scenes. The central bank looted; ditto 2003 – except this time it had real money, dollars, as opposed to Saddam bills.
One thing that isn’t the same as in 2003: the delicately balanced relations among the many communities, ethnic and religious, in this most diverse region in Iraq have not been broken again. They were permanently shattered during the first five years of the new era. The what-might-have-been of a new Iraq disappeared with them.
Mosul must have been magical once. Smothered in history, it is yet another place where the past never dies and isn’t even past. And that past goes back to the beginning of civilisation. This was the home of the Assyrian empire. The ruins of Nineveh are directly across the river Tigris from Mosul. All subsequent imperial traffic has left a mark here.
I saw Mosul through the eyes of my translator, Ahmad Shawkat, a native of the city. For him, having been forced into exile from the area, Mosul was the pearl of the north, white and shimmering with Arabian Nights architecture overlooking the Tigris. As we drove around Kurdistan reporting on the war he talked not just of its beauty but of its precious ethnic and religious mix.
When we finally got to Mosul it was clear that my friend had a very romantic view of his hometown. The city had slumped into decay and was not pearl-like at all. It was dusty and crumbling.
We watched as a million-and-a-half people staggered around having been released from a totalitarian nightmare into a world of complete anarchy. The city was being looted from top to bottom. But there was truth in his description of the city’s cosmopolitan mix. As the years have gone by the tripartite version of Iraqi society has become a meme: Sunni, Shia, Kurd. Three communities that are irreconcilable and should never have been put together in one country. That’s the oversimplified version for the Bush officials who ran the occupation. But of course there was much more to it than that.
Ahmad was an embodiment of this society. He was a Kurd married to an Arab, but also a Shabak – one of the many obscure sects including Yezidis and Mandeans that have been born in this region over the millennia and still survive. The mix of Christian denominations is ancient and mind-boggling: Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Assyrian.
That’s just religion. Ethnically, Mosul was home to Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians. All the groups mixed freely and fairly easily, although in the last decade of Saddam’s regime that had already started to change. Radical Islam was already making inroads in Mosul in the 1990s. Then came the war, and when Saddam was gone a different conflict began. In the bazaars and at night there were whispers and threats against Christians, Kurds, Turkmen and those who tried to make democracy work.
People, including Ahmad, were murdered. A slow-motion ethnic cleansing began. The intricate cosmopolitan weave of the city was pulled apart. The west bank of the Tigris became almost exclusively Sunni Arab. Kurds and other minorities moved to the east bank where a fast drive can get you to Erbil in an hour – if all hell breaks loose.
Death stalked the Christian community, which had been functioning in Mosul for centuries before Muhammad was born. In 2004, four American missionaries were killed in the city. The following year the Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and released. In 2008, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop was kidnapped and murdered. By chance, I was in Kurdistan making a programme shortly after and met with some Chaldean refugees who had fled in the wake of the archbishop’s murder. They were never going back.
The truth is Mosul was never really pacified after the war, and has never been under effective government control. Unreconstructed Ba’athists made common cause with jihadists. They fought a guerrilla campaign against the Americans, and when the Americans withdrew they ruled with terror in the night while the government deluded itself that it controlled the city.
A mere 1,500 armed men from Isis took Mosul. But their arrival had been foretold when the city’s tolerant social mix was ripped apart in the first years after George W Bush’s mission was accomplished.
Michael Goldfarb is a journalist, broadcaster and the author of Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance.