When the Sunni extremists ruling Mosul destroyed the shrine of a prophet whose story features in the traditions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism — the most important of nearly two dozen marked for destruction by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in the first seven weeks of its reign — small groups of residents gathered to mourn.
“We were crying when they detonated it,” said Abdulmalik Mustafa, a 32-year-old unemployed man who lives near the site, believed to be the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah, which was razed last week. “We couldn’t believe that the history of Mosul has disappeared. I wanted to die.”
Then rumors swirled that the next goal of the ISIS militants would be toppling the city’s ancient leaning minaret, which is older than the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy and is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar bank note. Residents gathered at the minaret and, according to witnesses, confronted the group’s fighters.
The angry public reaction to the attacks on Mosul’s cultural history — including the eviction of Christians (*) by militants, which outraged many Muslim residents who celebrate Mosul’s reputation for tolerance — appears to be the first spark of rebellion against harsh Islamic rule. Although population figures in Iraq are notoriously unreliable, Mosul is considered the country’s second-largest city, with a population of about 1.5 million.
When militants swept into the city on June 10 and Iraqi soldiers shed their uniforms and fled, many residents seemed to cheer their arrival. Much of Mosul’s Sunni Arab population had become increasingly resentful of abuses suffered at the hands of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated central government. For a time, people welcomed the new authority.
It is too early to declare that a wide-scale rebellion is underway, or that ISIS, whose brand of ascetic Islamic law deems shrines heretical, is losing its grip of control on the city. But it suggests that the militants are wearing out their welcome to some degree.
Informal armed gangs of residents have already clashed with ISIS militants over the destruction of the tombs and shrines, residents say. Some militants have been killed in the clashes, they say, which have also led to the arrests of residents and could result in their executions.
“There are unorganized groups fighting ISIS now,” said Khalis Jumah, 32, a Mosul resident interviewed by phone. “If we had the power and the supplies, we could have kicked ISIS out of Mosul by now.”
Mr. Jumah said the rising anger in Mosul was directly related to the destruction of historical sites. “This is a huge disaster for Mosul and Iraq,” he said. “It’s a crime against the city and its history. We have been crying since the first day they started destroying our religious and historical landmarks.”
The rising public anger also resonates with a strategy being pushed by American officials and some moderate Sunnis here: working to win over some of the Sunni insurgent groups that have allied with ISIS.
Those groups — which include former Baathists who were once close to Saddam Hussein’s government and have already, in some places, fought with ISIS — are opposed to what they regard as the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government. But they are also seen as unsympathetic to the stated goal of ISIS to establish an Islamic caliphate under hard-line theocratic rule.
The strategy of trying to peel off the non-ISIS Sunni groups is a familiar one in Iraq, with a decidedly mixed legacy. It was born with the so-called Sunni Awakening program the Americans established in 2007, when Sunni tribal groups were paid to switch sides and fight against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the forerunner of ISIS.
The Awakening found success after Al Qaeda had alienated Sunni communities with its brutal rule. But its gains were unsustainable, particularly because Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government was unwilling to widely integrate Sunni militias into the country’s security forces.
Still, there is no doubt that ISIS has begun alienating some in Mosul.
Almost immediately after capturing the city, militants began imposing Islamic law. They banned smoking, forced women to wear full-face veils and carried out some summary executions of government employees they deemed disloyal to their authority.
But it has been the destruction of more than a dozen mosques, shrines, tombs and statues that has seemed to galvanize public anger within Mosul, an area that was once the capital of the Assyrian Empire and is believed to have first been settled in 6000 B.C. Over the centuries, various conquerors — Persians, Arabs, Turks and others — have come and gone, each leaving an imprint.
With so many shrines being destroyed, this week relatives of Saddam Hussein removed the former dictator’s body from its burial place in Awija, a village near Tikrit, and moved it to an undisclosed location, one of Mr. Hussein’s cousins said in a brief interview. Relatives worried that the grave, which had become something of a shrine for Mr. Hussein’s sympathizers, would become a target for government airstrikes or for the Shiite militias active in the area.
It is not just religious monuments like the prophet Jonah’s tomb that have been destroyed, but also statues of Abu Tammam, a famous Arab poet, and Mullah Othman, a beloved 19th-century musician and poet.
Militants even removed a statue of a figure representing an old Mosul profession: a man selling a drink of licorice, for which the city is famous. Even today, men walk the streets with a pouch of the drink slung over their shoulders and clang copper goblets to signal their presence.
“We realize the licorice man from the music he plays,” said Talal Safawi, a sculptor who carved the statue in 1973 and has remained in Mosul.
“This statue is part of my body as I am part of him,” he said. “He is my friend. He is everything to me. I can’t forget the face of my statue.”
More than a century ago, when Mosul was loosely governed by the Ottoman Empire, Gertrude Bell, a British traveler and writer who would later help establish modern Iraq after World War I, toured the ancient sites and reflected on the city’s traumatic history.
“Upon the unhappy province of Mosul hatred and the lust of slaughter weigh like inherited evils, transmitted (who can say?) through all the varying generations of conquerors since first the savage might of the Assyrian Empire set its stamp upon the land,” she wrote in 1909.
She was happy to report, though, that despite what she called Mosul’s “turbulent record,” the city had “lost nothing of its quality during the past few years.”
The same cannot be said now, with ISIS determined to erase a heritage that many previous conquerors left intact.
Bashar al-Kiki, the chairman of the Nineveh Provincial Council, who tracks events in Mosul from the Kurdish region in the north, said that armed civilians had recently attacked ISIS and that four militants had been killed.
“The people of Mosul are intensely angry at ISIS,” he said. “They can’t bear them anymore. This volcano of anger will explode soon.”
"The New York Times," July 31, 2014
(*) The old Armenian community of the city (380 families in 2003) was completely evacuated, while its church was destroyed ("Armeniaca").