The war within the war

By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 4, 2009

MOSUL, Iraq - Nooses fashioned from heavy black cables hang from the rafters, collecting dust in a smashed metal building across from an Iraqi army headquarters in this northern city.

The buildings, once used by insurgents to torture and execute those they considered infidels, stand as a monument to the sectarian hatreds that have made Mosul Iraq’s most dangerous city. Increasingly, though, they also represent growing tensions among those meant to defend the city from religious extremists.

As U.S. and Iraqi forces start to make gains in one of the last urban insurgent strongholds, a war of words among the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish military units here is threatening to widen the divisions among Mosul’s ethnic groups and to distract Iraqi soldiers and police from a crucial effort to clear the city of militants.

Pointing the finger

In the mind of Gen. Baha Hussein Abed, all of Mosul’s problems stem from foreigners. Syria, Iran, Kuwait, even the United Arab Emirates are sending militants to destabilize the city, according to Baha, though no one has done more harm, he says, than the Kurds.

"There is a conspiracy," the Sunni Arab general said of his Kurdish security forces counterparts’ alleged plans to control the city.

Blaming local woes on foreigners is not unusual in Iraq.

But Baha commands thousands of Iraqi army troops in Mosul who must work side-by-side with Kurds and Shiites.

When pressed on how many foreigners have actually been arrested on terrorism charges, he admits there have been only two in the past four months, and no Kurds.

For good measure, though, he also throws a barb at the Shiites, the religious majority in Iraq who share a common faith with most Iranians.

"They send terrorists to us and we build embassies there," he said of Iran.

A common slur against Shiites in Iraq is to call them "Iranians," though Abed adds that he harbors no ill-will toward Shiites or Kurds in general.

In fact, U.S. and Iraqi forces believe Sunni extremists are behind most of majority-Sunni Mosul’s security issues, a fact oft-repeated by non-Sunni Arab soldiers.

Brig. Gen. Azad Hawezi, who commands the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that control the northern outskirts of Mosul, goes so far as to blame Arab Iraqi army soldiers for having a hand in a recent suicide car bombing in the city that killed four U.S. soldiers, including a battalion commander, in a Humvee.

"How did that guy driving the car bomb know the commander was in the … truck?" he said.

U.S. in the middle

While rival military commanders cook up conspiracy theories, Mosul remains a deeply dangerous, economically ravaged city where Iraqi security forces are the main target of daily bombings, shootings and grenade attacks. Iraqi and U.S. forces are in the midst of Operation Ninevah Resolve, a months-long, house-to-house effort to rid Mosul of insurgents.

With Iraqi forces already in the lead, at least officially, and U.S. forces set to pull back from cities and towns on June 30, it will be commanders like Baha and Hawezi who decide the long-term fate of Mosul.

The tensions threaten to spill into violence, with U.S. troops already having stepped in twice this month to defuse standoffs between Kurdish and Arab forces in and around Mosul. It puts U.S. commanders in a delicate position between two allies, and means more time not spent on efforts to root out militants.

"I will not take sides between the Peshmerga and Jaish Iraqi," said U.S. Army Capt. Matt Sucec, using the Arabic words for "Iraqi army."

But the bad blood at the top filters down to the rank-and-file soldiers and officers, and there are already reports of harassment at checkpoints targeting specific ethnicities and religions. Sucec, of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, works with local Iraqi military commanders and said it’s important for the U.S. to play the role of "honest broker" between the groups to stem this trickle down effect.

"It has the potential to be a sticking point for Kurd-Arab relations," he said.

Hawezi, the Peshmerga general, sits in an office high above the deep blue waters of Lake Saddam just north of Mosul and next to a giant concrete metaphor for the city’s combustible ethnic mix of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians. His men guard a creaking dam there built haphazardly on soft rock ill-suited to hold the massive structure. All day, every day, engineers pump concrete under the dam to prevent it from bursting, a catastrophe that could put Mosul’s 2 million residents under 50 feet of water.

The general proclaims to harbor no ill will toward Arabs, but sounded an ominous note when talking about the possibility of Arab Iraqi army soldiers venturing into his territory.

"If they come here, there will be a problem."

A noose hangs from the rafters of an abandoned building on a bombed out block of Mosul. Insurgents used to torture and execute people in the building and ethnic tensions still simmer in Mosul.

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