In Islamist-ruled Mosul, resentment of militants grows

An Islamic State fighter mans an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the rear of a vehicle in Mosul on July 16. Reuters

BAGHDAD—In Islamist-held Mosul this week, a local doctor watched insurgents berate and arrest a man in a public market, accusing him of adultery.

When Islamic State militants then stoned the man to death in public, the doctor chose not to go watch. But many others did, and not by choice. The fighters repeatedly screened a video recording of the killing on several large digital monitors they erected in the city center.

More than two months after the Sunni extremist group took over on June 10, such displays of public brutality and humiliation have become part of a constant drumbeat of indignity endured by the population of Iraq’s second largest city, according to about half a dozen residents interviewed by phone.

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A United Nations report published Wednesday said Islamic State militants, who have captured large swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq, hold executions, amputations and lashings in public squares regularly on Fridays in territory they control in northern Syria. They urge civilians, including children, to watch, according to the report.

Initially, many in the Sunni-majority city of Mosul were pleased to see Islamic State fighters send the mostly Shiite Iraqi army fleeing after sectarian tensions in the country worsened under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But that enthusiasm faded fast.

“People aren’t sympathizing with them anymore,” said the doctor. “People wanted to get rid of the Iraqi army. But after the Islamic State turned against Mosul, the people of Mosul started turning against them.”

Residents say the rising resentment has come alongside rumors that homegrown militias are mustering troops in secret to overthrow the militants. Two such groups in particular, the Prophet of Jonah Brigades and the Free Mosul Brigades, have formed in the past few weeks, residents said.

But few people in Mosul expect the city’s residents to succeed where the Iraqi army has failed, unless they have outside help. Unlike most Iraqis, the people of Mosul were left largely unarmed after the Iraqi army went house to house a few years ago and confiscated weapons in a bid to reduce violence in the city.

With pressure mounting, the insurgents appear to be bracing for the worst. They have been spotted placing improvised explosive devices around the center of the city so they can detonate them in case of a ground attack, said Atheel Al Nujaifi, the former governor of Nineveh province in northern Iraq, where Mosul is located.

On Tuesday, Mr. Nujaifi said the insurgents rigged bridges connecting the city’s two opposing banks with plastic C4 explosives, though that couldn’t be independently verified.

The planting of land mines and other explosives in an effort to stave off counteroffensives is part of the Islamic State’s unfolding battlefield strategy. They used the tactic at the Mosul Dam, but failed to hold the strategic site in the face of Kurdish ground offensive backed by Iraqi special forces and U.S. airstrikes. They have employed it with more success in the city of Tikrit, where repeated Iraqi counteroffensives have failed so far.

A local civilian uprising against Islamic State wouldn’t be unprecedented. In January, civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo who were disgusted by the group’s cruelty helped more moderate fighters expel the group that was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

Many in Mosul are afraid to complain publicly. But those who do describe a blighted city that is now almost entirely void of the black-clad, masked militants—many of whom were clearly foreign. They once paraded through the streets, boasting about their victories over the Iraqi military while passing out religious literature.

“Before, they were proud and they were telling people about their victories. ‘We’re fighting here, we’re fighting there’,” said another Mosul resident. “But now they don’t talk about their victories and how proud they are that they’re fighting. In terms of morale, they are not like before.”

Some estimate that there are fewer than 500 militants now policing the city of 1.7 million. Most of those who remain are local collaborators who are securing the streets while hard-bitten insurgents repel increasingly fierce attacks from the Kurdish regional forces known as Peshmerga and elite Iraqi units further east.

Still the paucity of policing hasn’t kept the radical group from imposing its austere version of Islam.

Among the rules that have most infuriated the public have been limits on amusement. Public smoking, cards and dominoes have been outlawed. Music shops have been closed, except for those willing to sell CDs of the Islamic State’s own religious chants and propaganda DVDs, restrictions reminiscent of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

Women are made to wear face-covering veils and those who expose their faces are publicly beaten on their legs with wooden rods, as are their husbands or male chaperones. Nurses who come to work without them have been turned away.

“People are horrified by this,” said the doctor. “People mutter ‘may God get rid of them,’ or ‘may God curse them’ as they walk past.”

Though the Iraqi government had imposed strict rules, the Islamic State’s police and judicial system is more terrifying and capricious in comparison.

Those who are arrested, even for petty crimes, are never heard from again, residents said. They seem to disappear into the city’s massive Badush Prison without facing trial.

Some unscrupulous residents have used the perfunctory legal system to settle old scores, accusing rivals and creditors of false crimes, residents said.

But the most pressing problems are economic. A city that used to get 12 or 13 hours of electricity a day now only gets two to three. Some 30% of businesses have closed for lack of customers, and those that remain open are struggling, one resident said.

Without reliable imports, commodities such as milk, rice and oil are dwindling.

Hospitals are running critically low on basic supplies such as high blood pressure medicine, syringes and insulin. Of the city’s 11,000 cancer patients, many have been told to stop coming for their regular chemotherapy sessions, said the doctor.

“Those patients who have money, they flee to Kurdistan,” he said, referring to the semiautonomous Kurdish region nearby. “Those who don’t have money, they’re just staying in Mosul waiting for death.”