Mosul Under ISIS: Clean Streets and Horror

One year after Islamic State fighters captured Iraq’s second-largest city, residents tell their stories.

Youssef Boudlal / Reuters

On Wednesday, the United States announced that it would send up to 450 additional troops to Iraq to train Iraqi fighters as they aim to retake the city of Ramadi from ISIS.

The timing was eerie. It was almost exactly a year ago that ISIS achieved its shocking takeover Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. And just two months ago, Iraqi fighters scored their biggest success yet in the fight to take it back, when they defeated ISIS in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, which lies on the highway to Mosul. But as ISIS held on to that key city in Iraq’s north, it was also gaining territory in the west, and in mid-May the group swept in and took over Ramadi, the capital city of Iraq’s largest province.

The new deployment of U.S. troops is part of an anti-ISIS strategy that, to borrow Obama’s word, is not yet “complete.”

The picture of life in Mosul after a year of Islamic State rule is similarly uncertain. Accounts from the city give a (very) surprisingly textured portrait.

“Theft is punished by amputating a hand, adultery by men by throwing the offender from a high building, and adultery by women by stoning to death,” one resident told the BBC. “The punishments are carried out in public to intimidate people, who are often forced to watch.”

The report also noted the destruction of mosques, the conversion of churches, and harsh implementation of strict Shariah law, under which women are forced to cover up head-to-toe (including gloves), and which includes floggings for small infractions like smoking cigarettes.  A widowed mother of four told The Guardian she had had her hand chopped off for stealing.

Another Mosul resident declared himself a slightly ambivalent supporter and praised some of the group’s ability to impose order and provide public services. “Isis with all its brutality is more honest and merciful than the Shia government in Baghdad and its militias,” he said. Another resident told The Wall Street Journal, “I have not in 30 years seen Mosul this clean, its streets and markets this orderly.”

The admixture of strict rule, terror, and the creation of infrastructure has been a hallmark of ISIS governance elsewhere in its domain. It’s a model that will be exceedingly difficult to dislodge.