MOSUL, Iraq — As the U.S. marks the official end of combat operations in Iraq, political deadlock and a lack of police officers in this troubled northern city are threatening hard-fought military gains, showing that the mission here is far from accomplished.
The city of about 2 million people is short 8,000 local police officers, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials in Mosul. About 700 officers are being trained, but the shortfall is unlikely to be addressed until politicians break their six-month deadlock in forming a national government, commanders with both countries said.
Violence is down dramatically this year in Mosul, but with American forces barely operating within city limits, Iraqi soldiers and police are regular targets, as are politicians, who have been the victims of a wave of assassinations.
Just last week, the city — whose bucolic nickname “The Mother of Two Springs” belies deep troubles — suffered a string of bombings and shootings as part of a nationwide wave of violence for which al-Qaida in Iraq has claimed responsibility. On Sunday, a grenade attack and shootout between insurgents and police left a local police officer and a civilian dead and six others wounded, according to Iraqi reports.
“There are a lot of assassinations of the Iraqi security forces, and this is now the problem the government faces,” said Iraqi police Maj. Ziad Mahmoud. “There are some areas and markets in Mosul where no Iraqi security forces can go because it’s too dangerous.”
In Iraq’s other major cities, local police are largely responsible for responding to violent crime and providing day-to-day security in neighborhoods. Not so in Mosul. Many police fled during the violence after militants streamed in to this heavily Sunni Arab northern city, chased from Baghdad and Diyala province during the “surge” by U.S. forces.
Save for a few neighborhoods, the Iraqi army and federal police — more a paramilitary group than police force — are almost solely responsible for security.
The soldiers and federal police officers who are securing the city are still facing regular attacks and rely on U.S. intelligence and air power for support.
Many Iraqi commanders, such as Maj. Gen. Nasser Ahmed Ganam, who leads the Iraqi army’s 2nd Division, worry about U.S. troops leaving.
"We have a long and hard way to go to completely get rid of these insurgents," he said.
The violence has stalled civilian-led reconstruction and governance projects, which have had uneven success even in quieter parts of Iraq.
Projects are only now gaining traction in Mosul, 16 months before U.S. forces are to withdraw from Iraq.
The provincial government, once dominated by minority Kurds due to a Sunni Arab boycott, is finally starting to respond to the needs of its constituents, said Col. Bryan Luke, a senior U.S. officer in Ninevah province, which includes Mosul.
"I wish that would have happened four years ago, but it’s happening," he said.
Mosul lies on the so-called Green Line, an arc of land disputed by Kurds and Arabs, and ethnic tensions remain high. The Arab governor of Ninevah was turned away from a Kurdish town at gunpoint in 2009 and has not traveled to the province’s Kurdish areas since.
U.S. forces play the role of mediator at checkpoints manned by both Iraqi army soldiers loyal to Baghdad and Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers loyal to the government of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, a peacekeeping effort that many experts see as key to keeping tensions from turning to violence.
Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, the top U.S. commander in northern Iraq, said the checkpoints have reduced the threat of civil war between Kurds and Arabs, a possibility experts see as the greatest threat to future stability in the country.
"What this has done is this has bought time for a diplomatic solution to these issues," Cucolo said.
Privately, though, Arab and Kurdish soldiers say they don’t trust each other, and the harmony that exists at some of the checkpoints is partly a result of the Iraqi army sending Kurdish, rather than Arab, soldiers to man them.
The territorial issues underlying the tension are no closer to being solved than they were shortly after the U.S. invasion, and unless Iraq and the U.S. rework their security agreement, American troops will be off the checkpoints by the end of next year, when American forces are scheduled to withdraw completely from Iraq.
Both U.S. and Iraqi commanders tout security gains in the city and improvements in the Iraqi security forces, but both acknowledge that holding onto those gains will fall largely to the bickering factions still wrestling for control of Iraq’s government.
"If the president told us to leave next month, the [Iraqi] forces here in Ninevah ... will be capable of providing security," Luke said. "What can break this is politics."