The dynamiting of some of Mosul’s most precious heritage has spurred a group of students and officers into the first act of armed resistance against the Iraqi city’s jihadist rulers.
Islamic State fighters have faced few challenges in holding the city since they took it over seven weeks ago, with Kurdish forces grounded at its gates and routed government forces in disarray.
But Anwar Ali, 23, hopes the snipers he said killed four jihadists on Sunday fired the opening shots of a broad popular uprising that will kick the jihadists back into the desert.
“With a group of mainly students, but also young civil servants and merchants, I joined something we named Kataeb al-Mosul (The Mosul Brigades),” he told AFP.
“But some people suggested we rename it Nabi Yunus Army in reaction to the blowing up by Daash (IS’ former Arabic acronym) of the shrines.”
On July 24, IS rigged the Nabi Yunus shrine, revered by both Muslims and Christians as the tomb of Prophet Jonah, with explosives and blew it up in a public display of might.
Other precious monuments deeply rooted in Mosul’s rich history were reduced to rubble.
“This campaign of destruction of our mosques, churches and heritage sites is an attempt to suppress Mosul’s identity,” Anwar Ali said.
Many residents from Mosul’s Sunni majority who watched the fearsome jihadists roll in from the western badlands on the Syrian border in June initially expressed relief at the riddance of a sectarian policing by Shiite-dominated government forces.
“The blowing up of the shrines was a turning point for people who had planned on delaying any clash with Daash,” said Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Mosul’s Nineveh province.
“The Mosul Brigades were supposed to come out of hiding later,” he said, speaking from Kurdistan where he had to flee when IS took Mosul on June 10.
– Wrecking ball on backswing? –
An officer in the newly-formed resistance group who asked that his name not be published said snipers picked off four IS militants in three different parts of Mosul at the weekend. Witnesses and Nujaifi spoke of five.
“We are now on duty. There will be more operations,” he said. “We warn the population not to cooperate with Daash in any way.”
The demolitions even appear to have alienated some of IS’ traditional following.
“You claim to follow in the path of the Prophet (Mohammed), but you are the first to stray from his word,” said one member of a jihadist Internet forum, writing under the name Faruq al-Iraq.
He said there was no theological justification for destroying the shrines, an argument echoed by many other posts from users who, only weeks ago, had fully endorsed the “caliphate” proclaimed by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last month.
By blowing up some of the ancient city’s proudest heritage, Mosul’s jihadist rulers may have become the architects of their own downfall, as fear slowly gives way to outrage.
“I think popular opposition may be the only way left to save the remaining historic monuments,” Ihsan Fethi, from the Iraq Architects Society, said after the first destructions.
“I know I am asking and hoping for a very difficult action in view of the horrific record of these fanatics but some courage is needed now before it is too late,” he said.
– Mosul’s Eiffel Tower –
There are signs that his wish could come true.
When IS militants announced that the “hunchback” (Hadba), a 12th century minaret that leans like the Tower of Pisa, was next some residents formed a human chain to protect it, witnesses said.
“That might just be what turns it around,” said Patrick Skinner, an analyst with the US-based intelligence consultancy Soufan Group.
“IS militants don’t have numbers on their side if enough people say enough,” he said. “There would be bloodshed, but they could kick IS out in hours.”
Mosul has a population of around two million while IS fighters in the city are thought to number between 5,000 and 10,000.
Skinner said IS militants were likely aware they could be overplaying their hand by blowing up the Hadba, a national icon featured on 10,000 dinar banknotes.
“This is like Mosul’s own Eiffel Tower. I would think (its destruction) would trigger what is missing in Iraq: a national reaction… So I imagine there’s a calculation on the part of IS.”
Nujaifi said a grassroots Sunni mobilisation against IS was the necessary starting point of any fightback and he appealed for foreign assistance.
“For the moment, the Mosul Brigades have no funding and nothing but themselves. If they get support and supplies, they can defeat Daash, because they have support from a majority of Muslawis (Mosul residents),” he said.
“In the meantime, they can at least ensure that Daash does not enjoy peace.”