Adam Holloway is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Gravesham. He is pictured above with Iraqi Shia militia loyal to Iran.
Last week, I travelled to Mosul via the Kurdish region of Iraq. I was in the country during the Iraq wars of 1991 and 2003, and have visited several times as an MP. This time, I wanted to get a closer look at what is happening around the city, and to try to understand more about the underlying causes of what is going on in the region and what may happen in future. Islamic State’s “Caliphate” is collapsing, but I fear that this will not be the end of conflict – but the beginning of more and worse.
To drive the hour or so to Mosul, Dyar, my friend and interpreter from the war against Saddam Hussein, picks me up in his car. We head through the multiple checkpoints on our journey towards the city. Once we leave the territory controlled by the Kurds and their Peshmurga forces, the uniforms and badges become more exotic, the troops better equipped.
Most are member of the Iraqi army, but many are from the feared Shia “Popular Mobilisation Forces” – more loyal to Iran than their native Iraq. Ambulances drive past, lights flashing. There are so many people getting hurt that there is a sense of the routine delivery round in the way they drive. Then a startling sight at a checkpoint: hundreds of people, mostly women dressed all in black carrying children, heading away from the city. One woman has two babies in her arms, and a toddler walking behind. I am looking at people who have in the last few hours come straight out of west Mosul where the remaining ISIS fighters – foreign and Iraqi – now have no way out.
As we enter the city, we drive amongst the bomb craters and see the local population who are still in danger from ISIS’s drones and rockets. There are people about, but the city feels sparsely populated (the cause may have been the mud and rain). But normal life is going on here, in the east of the city – right up to about two blocks from the river.
On the other side of it, ISIS are fighting for their lives. I stand on the disserted road leading up to one of the bridges – the other side of the bridge is held by ISIS. I last came to the city on the morning of its liberation in 2003. Then, there were a few bodies on the streets where people had been settling scores; American jets were screaming ulta-low over the city; people were looting. But there was nothing like the destruction and vandalism of today. One young woman said of ISIS: “They built nothing, they did nothing – they just stole from us, and killed us and broke our city”.
At the very first sound of distant gunfire on the other side of the river, we retreat to higher ground. I look down and across the river at the plumes of smoke, and hear the horrible clatter of machine gunfire. I can’t see any planes in the sky, so the thuds I hear must be artillery or mortar fire. Many of the poor trapped civilians down there live in narrow streets: mortar bombs are “area” weapons.
Heading away from the city, I make friends with a group of soldiers at a checkpoint. Exaggerated pleasantries are exchanged and photographs taken. Later someone looks at the photos, and sees from the badges that two of them are definitely Tehran-supporting Shias: “Far right epaulette: Labaik ya Ali + two Zofogar sabres. These two seem to be running the checkpoint”.
I have just encountered two small cogs in the latest extension of what some claim is the Iranian master plan to build a “Shia Crescent” from Iran, though Iraq, now including the self-proclaimed Kurdish state of “Rojava” in northern Syria, and onto the Golan Heights and Mediterranean. (Rojava is territory held in northern Syria by the Syrian Kurdish group the YPD, and the proscribed Turkish Kurdish separatists the PKK. Ironically, it is the YPD that the US is arming, and the YPD, too, that the Turkish army is targeting in its move into northern Syria in Operation “Euphrates Shield”. The situation is complicated.)
The Iranians are also infiltrating there present allies the PKK into Iraqi Kurdish areas – up to a hundred hardened PKK fighters arrived in Kirkuk a couple of weeks ago to secure corridors across northern Iraq. If Iran succeeds, it might be able to stop energy supplies moving north from the Gulf, continue to supply its ally Hezbollah against Israel – and encircle Turkey.
President Erdogan of Turkey has warned of this. Just because we don’t like what he does internally, it does not follow that he is wrong in this instance. I know that we do have experts who are very concerned about this development, but I see no evidence yet of their worry translating into policies that might secure our long term interests and security.
Back in the capital of the Kurdish region, a senior diplomat explains that when Mosul falls it will be only a new beginning for Iraq and the region’s problems. We may see the following: Kurd fighting against Kurd, in the form of the PKK against the Peshmurga in the west around Sinjar; Shia militias fighting with the Peshmurga over the disputed territories and oilfields around Kirkuk, and Shia fighting against Shia (Shias in the south around Basra are angry at not getting any share from the sale of their own oil from the government in Baghdad).
Finally, there is the prospect of Sunni on Sunni. Most of the victims of ISIS are Sunni, and another version of ISIS could emerge if Sunnis once again feel oppressed by the Shia, and feel that their areas have no investment, no share of oil wealth, no jobs, no security and no respect. I heard from one person that there are large Sunni families being kicked out of their homes because one family member was in ISIS: this is hardly a way to win hearts and minds. It feels as if we have been so focused on the defeat of ISIS that we have forgotten quite how many unresolved issues there are.
I spend my last day with the humanitarian arm of the European Union, ECHO, seen in Iraq asone of the jewels of aid world. We drive south of Mosul to the Qayyarah Airstrip Emergency Site. Today there are 43,997 people in the camp – over 7,000 families. Just under 25,000 of these people have arrived in the last ten days from west Mosul.
When a family arrives, it is assigned a tent, and given a portable cooker, blankets, mattresses: it also gets a “One Month Dry Ration” of rice, oil, tea and sugar. The day before I arrived, a baby was born and a lady had died of cancer. Save the Children are giving children three hours of schooling a day, and there is a small clinic with one doctor.
I ask: why there is not a mosque? “Until now, nobody has approached us for a mosque”. Here in the safety of the camp, far fewer women are covered head to toe in black, and the improvised barbers’ shops have been very busy removing beards, though it is reckoned that between five to ten per cent of the women and children in the camp are the families of ISIS fighters. Someone tells me that he is sure these wives are not proud of their husbands.
We go into a tent to see a family that arrived from the hell of west Mosul the day before. There is a baby and her mother, a young man and an elderly lady, who is lying in the corner with a gunshot wound in her back. She is clearly in pain. ISIS won’t let people leave Mosul. So, like thousands of other families, they ran for their lives at the first opportunity when the ISIS fighters were coming under pressure in their street from the Iraqi army. As they moved away as fast as they could, ISIS fighters shot at them: three of the uncles were killed and the old lady was wounded. She had another two hours to walk to safety. Many elderly people are left behind.
What is happening in west Mosul is ISIS’s last stand in the city that launched the Caliphate, but all the grievances that gave rise to the early support given to the organisagtion by discontented Sunnis in Iraq remain. My weekend in Iraq reminded me once again that we spend billions chasing the symptoms of problems, rather than trying to work out the root causes and play our part in addressing them.
I think people here need to step back, and make a proper effort to start to try and understand the drivers of radicalisation, the root causes of the chaos in Iraq and Syria, and thus the reasons why Iran is proving able to dominate such vast areas. A couple of years ago one Middle Eastern ambassador with a medical background put it this way: “You must diagnose a sickness properly before you can treat it – and you must treat the root cause. Palliative therapy does not result in a cure.” The present disastrous ignorance has thrown hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East into unimaginable insecurity.
The effort to defeat ISIS in Iraq brought the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds together. It tempoarily untied the Peshmurga, the militias of the “Popular Mobilisation Forces”, and the Iraqi Security forces together. But after ISIS has been defeated, all the problems already facing the country and region will remain and come into sharper focus. I fear that we will come to see the liberation of Mosul not as the end, but the start of worse things to come – and that what we hear now is “the great big sucking sound of a power vacuum”.