In Mosul’s Old City, the rule of the Islamic State group is not a distant memory of horrors long past. On every block are reminders: bombed out houses, piles of rubble and families toiling daily, just to survive.
“An IS family lived over there,” says Sahara Mahmoud, a mother of 11, pointing to a sparse pile of rocks that was once a house. “And another house over there. That’s why they bombed those houses directly.”
“Families?” I ask. It’s odd for anyone living in Mosul to sound remotely sorry for the deaths of IS fighters.
“There were children in there,” she says.
It has been more than four years since IS was driven out of Mosul, and the possibility the group could reemerge and take over again seems far-fetched to many Iraqis. But here in the Old City, they are wary. Some say the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has them on edge, dredging up memories they wish they could forget.
In other parts of the city, and in the far-off Iraqi capital, Baghdad, locals say the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan sent them a signal: The U.S. is no longer interested in policing the region.
For some, this is a good thing, and they welcome U.S. plans to end the combat mission in Iraq this year. But others, including Warqa Talib, a mother of five in the Old City, fear IS will be emboldened by the move and try to reclaim the towns and cities it held between 2014 and 2017.
“It’s 50/50 that they will come back,” Talib says, poking her head out the door of her house.
From the outside, her home appears to have been mostly rebuilt since the neighborhood was pummeled by international coalition airstrikes that rained down on IS fighters in the Old City for months in 2017. But, she tells us, the outside repairs are mostly superficial, only partially alleviating the postwar strain on her family.
“If you look inside,” she insists, “you will see we have nothing.”
Will dark days return?
Across town, the lush University of Mosul campus has largely been rebuilt since the war destroyed 80% of its buildings, school administrators say.
The campus is a study in contrasts. A bullet-riddled dorm and a fenced-off parking lot littered with broken streetlights stand neglected, while, nearby, an imposing new library and a cafeteria painted with murals sprawl across a carefully tended garden.
Students here are more confident than Old City residents that the days of IS rule are over, citing the public’s general loathing of the group, and the national security forces’ apparent determination to prevent its resurgence. But watching the Taliban take control of Kabul on TV was shockingly eerie, say medical students Ibrahim Saddam and Omar Ahmed.
“It was exactly like it happened here in 2014,” Saddam says, laughing nervously. At that time, most Iraqi security forces departed ahead of the takeover, leaving Mosul in the hands of IS in a matter of days or, in some places, hours.
During IS rule, Saddam lived near the oil fields of Qayyarah, a town south of Mosul where militants often lit the fields on fire, supposedly to guard their positions from coalition airstrikes.
The sky above Qayyarah darkened, and many locals, their skin and clothes smudged with black, developed a cough. “There was a time we didn’t see the sun for six months,” Saddam says.
Unless elements of Iraq’s currently fragile peace change drastically, Saddam says, those dark days are unlikely to return.
But, he says, the U.S. drawdown could be concerning for reasons unrelated to IS. Troops are expected to stay in an advisory role, but what that will mean for security in Iraq is unclear.
Considering this eventuality gives both young men pause. Ahmed contends that the situation in Afghanistan is not comparable to that in Iraq. The Taliban were poised to take over when the U.S. withdrew, while IS has been mostly in hiding for years.
More likely, Ahmed says, the U.S. drawdown could increase the power of Iran inside Iraq’s borders. Iran and the U.S. both heavily influence local and national politics in Iraq. And in Iraq’s sectarian landscape, if Iran has more power, so, too, will Shiite political leaders and militias, which is not considered a good outcome in Sunni-dominated Mosul.
“No,” Ahmed says, shaking his head. “It will not be safe for us if the U.S. withdraws.”
About 400 kilometers south, in Baghdad, many locals are more optimistic about the U.S. drawdown, with reactions ranging from relief to annoyance. Few are worried about an IS comeback.
“This confirms what we always knew,” says Mushriq al-Freaji, an activist-turned-politician who leads the Taking My Rights movement. “That the U.S. doesn’t care about the countries it occupies. If they are leaving, let them.”
Many others tell us the country is now secured by a massive semiregular group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), or the Hashd Shaabi. Originally an informal collection of mostly Shiite volunteer fighters, the PMF was folded into the Iraqi state security system in recent years after playing a large role in defeating IS.
In Mosul, residents are noticeably hesitant when asked whether the PMF will protect them from IS. The group is believed to already wield considerable power in Mosul, where the Shiite fighters are often seen as outsiders and potential threats.
But at the university, Amina and Ayesha, communications students, say living under IS rule was far more terrifying than living under any of today’s government forces.
As a teenage girl under IS rule, Amina says, she was forced to wear a burqa in the street and could go out only with a male escort. She says she sympathizes with the women and girls of Afghanistan who now face similar restrictions. But, she adds, under IS rule, she was far more concerned about safety than about oppressive regulations.
“I was more worried about my family staying alive than anything else,” she says.