When the Iraqi government lost Ramadi last month, Abu Yasser’s heart sank: the prospect of his own city, Mosul, shaking off jihadist rule had just faded farther into the distance.
Wresting back Mosul, Iraq’s second city, was always seen as the top prize and climax of any fightback against the Islamic State group.
But Moslawis fear that being saved for last could mean their turn will never come.
“We were shocked when we heard the news that IS had occupied Ramadi,” said Abu Yasser, who would not give his full name.
Even as the government vowed imminent operations to drive IS out of the western province of Anbar, the jihadists moved faster and seized its capital Ramadi in a devastating three-day blitz.
The way the security forces retreated was reminiscent of the debacle that saw IS-led forces roll through Mosul with barely a fight last June.
After taking back Tikrit in April, Baghdad turned to Anbar as a more achievable target than Mosul, so when security forces lost ground instead of advancing, residents were not encouraged.
“For Mosul, the political will to liberate it seems weak,” said Abu Yasser, a 44-year-old shop owner.
Timeframes for the big push for Mosul were announced multiple times by Iraqi and US officials.
First it was due by the end of 2014, pushed back to April-May this year, then to the end of 2015. Now officials are being even more cautious and the operation seems off the table.
– Mosul off the table? –
“The whole Mosul operation is going to be postponed indefinitely,” said analyst Ayham Kamel, director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group.
“Mosul is too big to be successful in the short term,” he said.
Tikrit, which is roughly a tenth of Mosul’s size, was empty by the time Baghdad moved to retake it in March.
Estimates vary but around half of Mosul’s population of two million is thought to have remained.
Residents wishing to leave Mosul need to obtain a permit from IS and provide guarantees they will return, such as property deeds and the name of a relative.
Jihadist-led forces began their attack in Mosul on June 9 and thrust deep into Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
When they took over the city on June 10, many residents were relieved to see the widely-reviled mostly-Shiite security forces run away and a halt to car bomb attacks.
A year on, however, the reality of IS rule has caught up with Moslawis, who have seen public beheadings, stonings and crucifixions and fear that any expression of discontent with their new masters will earn them the same fate.
“On my street, there are maybe 50 houses. Only one household supports Daesh (IS),” said one resident who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“But we’re afraid of talking even with friends, we’re afraid of being ourselves… It’s only once you’ve locked yourself up in your home with your family that you can say what you want.”
The Sunni forces trained in Nineveh province, where Mosul is located, with the declared goal of retaking the city are at an embryonic stage of their development.
– Fear of IS, fear of liberators –
A string of small-scale attacks and assassinations late last year had raised hopes the population would turn on IS, but no uprising ever took place.
Meanwhile, US-led training of Iraqi forces needs time to make an impact, leaving the controversial alternative of Shiite militias.
Salim al-Juburi, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament and a prominent Sunni politician, said Mosul residents had reason not to throw in their lot with the government at this juncture.
“The residents of Mosul must be confident that the forces coming to liberate them will bring about a better situation than the one they’re in now,” he told AFP.
“They’re afraid of Daesh and of who will free Mosul of Daesh.”
Tikrit was recaptured by government forces and allied militias more than two months ago but it remains a ghost town whose original inhabitants are either afraid of returning or prohibited from doing so.
Time is moving slowly for Mosul residents but resources are dwindling fast, with the city’s growing isolation taking a bruising economic toll.
“I have used all my money, borrowed from whom I could and sold my wife’s gold. I was better off than most but I am buried in debt,” said the same Mosul resident.
“Many people have done what they could to hold on for a year, hope gave them patience. But can we do this one more year? I don’t know.”