Latest News

Mosul a test case for coalition's effort to win over Sunni strongholds

MOSUL, Iraq—Mohammed Adnan Ismail al Dabagh, 25, was polite and close to tears, but his words were edged with menace as he approached the American military colonel in charge of watching over Mosul University.

Adnan, a policeman, had been apolitical until his brother was killed. Now he clutched his brother's photograph and bloodstained plaid shirt as he pointed to the bullet holes in his brother's sweater, which he wore.

"I asked for my brother's rights and for a judge to sentence the American soldier who shot him," he said, moments after meeting the American colonel. "I told him if they will not do this, then I will kill 10 American soldiers."

The details of the shooting of Rabee Adnan Ismail al Dabagh, 28, during a demonstration were unclear. But his death sparked widespread fury among thousands of students who demonstrated in Mosul this month in support of ousted leader Saddam Hussein.

Mosul, a major northern city with about 2 million people, has become increasingly dangerous for American forces. Coalition forces have been attacked daily with homemade roadside bombs, in drive-by shootings or from suicide car bombers. This month four soldiers were killed in a string of four attacks over four days, and a suicide bomber detonated a bomb at the gate of a military base west of Mosul, injuring 58 soldiers.

The coalition's management of the tension in Mosul is an important test case of the overall effort to win over rebellious Sunni strongholds.

The U.S. military division based in Mosul, the 101st Airborne, is commanded by Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, an expert in nation building. Shortly after he arrived in late April, Petraeus met with local leaders and arranged city council elections. He also opened the border with Syria to trade, launched a local newspaper and started train service.

Mosul at first was more peaceful than other cities in the predominantly Sunni region northwest of Baghdad. In June, soldiers shopped in the city's markets without helmets.

But in mid- to late November, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, attacks on U.S. soldiers in northern Iraq approached nearly 40 a day, before dropping back to about six a day. Just before Thanksgiving, two soldiers in Mosul were ambushed, shot and dragged from their vehicle, and their bodies were looted for valuables.

A chief investigative judge said to have been investigating Baath Party activists was gunned down last week near his home in Mosul, the second such attack on a judge in two months.

Anger here is sparked by shortages of gasoline, electricity and heating oil, and by the sacking of thousands of people who were affiliated with Saddam's Baath Party.

Mosul residents routinely go without electricity for 12 hours a day because the American-led coalition has ordered the city to send much of the electricity it produces to Baghdad. When homes and bath water cannot be heated in winter, tempers rise.

Electricity has been uneven since the fall of Baghdad, and many people believe the Americans turn it on and off at will, especially after a spate of attacks on the military.

At the onset of winter, truckers made more room for propane, which squeezed the benzene, or gasoline, supply. Then, a two-week trucker strike made the problem worse. Unfounded rumors of rationing for heating oil prompted a hoarding scare. All of these issues have been addressed, the military said, but there are still some problems with distribution.

The coalitions tough de-Baathification policy had a particularly severe effect in Mosul because so many people in this Sunni-dominated city benefited from the old regime. Many were former army and intelligence officers who saw Saddam as the symbol of their country. The new policy means many of them are jobless.

Unemployment is the No. 1 challenge, said Brig. Gen. Frank Helmick, the division's assistant commander for operations. "If a guy would pay someone $500 to put an IED (improvised explosive device) in place and explode it on a coalition force, who wouldn't take it when he has no money, no job and no future?"

Mosul is made up of both Kurds and Arabs. Many residents blame outsiders for wreaking havoc. Some blame the former Kurdish militia.

"They (outsiders) saw Mosul was quiet so they wanted to stir things up," said Sufian Michael, 30, a member of Mosul's sizable Christian community and manager at al Fanar restaurant.

"Fallujah was the center of gravity for attacks, and I'm sure they're looking around for other targets," said Maj. Hugo Lentze of the 9th battalion of the 101st Aviation Regiment, based in Fort Campbell, Ky., as he tried to explain the increase of attacks in Mosul.

Petraeus, the military commander, has been more flexible about allowing some former Baath Party officials to keep their jobs at the university and elsewhere.

"If you purge all the Baathists, there ain't going to be anybody left," Lentze said.

The 101st Airborne has opened Internet cafes and started a tax-free economic zone to spur trade, and it plans to open a Wal-Mart-style supermarket. The military also has fixed street curbs, removed graffiti and provided financial incentives for the best-kept yards.

"More money, less attacks," said Maj. Trey Cate, a spokesman for the division, which has funded more than 4,000 projects in the region with millions of dollars in Iraqi assets that had been seized by the old regime.

But even though soldiers have done everything from pothole repair and tree planting to rebuilding a new central bank, many residents are still unsympathetic and see only an occupying army.

"They say that Saddam was not democratic, but in his time if the military came into the university, they turned in their weapons," said Muhanad Mehdi, 20, a Mosul University engineering student angry at the soldiers on campus last week escorting Col. William Harrison, who was investigating the shooting death of Adnan's brother.

Family members say that during a student demonstration on Dec. 17, Rabee Adnan Ismail al Dabagh was confronted by a soldier who pointed a gun in his face. When he brushed away the gun, it went off, shooting him in the abdomen.

A spokesman for the 101st Airborne said no Iraqis were fatally shot by U.S. soldiers during the demonstrations. Cate said Harrison was trying to determine what happened.

Meanwhile, a black banner that flutters on the university's front gate calls the former law student a martyr and a hero.


(Fan reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-MOSUL


Related stories from McClatchy DC