Joining the stench of lead filling the air of the battlegrounds, puffs of dust are also wafting through Mosul’s streets. This time, it was not the result of air raids by the Islamic State’s (IS) bombing of a mosque, shrine or other building. The dust came in fact from road-paving and cleaning and lighting projects, among others. The city has not witnessed such works since 2003, and many are asking why they're happening now.
When asked about services 10 months into IS rule, 15 people living in different areas of the city told Al-Monitor that Mosul has become cleaner than it was under the Iraqi government’s control, and its services have been improving. Residents outside Mosul were surprised.
What kind of change in services took place in Mosul, though?
IS quickly got involved in all departments, including the Municipality Directorate, where its influence started before the fall of Mosul in June 2014. IS succeeded in deploying its members in all departments and institutions to blackmail the managers and employees in Iraq.
The first step consisted of moving the equipment left behind by Iraqi forces, who were fighting IS in June 2014 and withdrew from Mosul, especially the concrete blocks. The services departments acted under IS orders to, as it later turned out, dig deep trenches and used these blocks to build a wall around the city of Mosul.
As soon as IS established a managerial structure for its state in Ninevah, the “services office” rose as one of its most active branches and started to provide the main services to Mosul residents.
The fear factor played an important role in pushing employees to work hard, and it was then that the citizens noticed the improvements. Civil activist and head of the Liberation Organization Abdul Aziz al-Jarba told Al-Monitor, “Street cracks were fixed and roads were cleaned and trees were planted on the sides of the roads.”
Jarba noted that IS realized early on the value in controlling a city like Mosul, which accommodates 2 million people and has important economic resources. IS threatened employees with flogging if they did not obey its orders.
The services office focused on markets and worked to establish several in the city center, moving the stores that did not comply with IS rules and requirements, such as not extending onto the main streets and sidewalks, there. Al-Madina Souq was one of these, established upon the ruins of the oldest police station in Mosul. IS imposed annual taxes reaching up to $1,500 paid by grocers in the covered market.
IS overcame a major challenge in providing oil derivatives, such as fuel, from the oil fields in Iraq and Syria under its control. The group also brought its experience in incineration — acquired in primitive recycling factories — from Syria to Mosul, and it has been producing oil in Mosul since July 2014. Despite its mediocre quality, this oil is relatively widely available.
IS treaded carefully when it came to the Internet and communications. At the end of November 2014, IS disabled telecommunication towers in Mosul. As a result, all mobile networks became almost completely dysfunctional, and they remain so. The Iraqi government reportedly decided to suspend Internet service in the city to prevent IS from using it to spread its messages. In response, IS allowed Internet service providers to resume their operations through satellite networks outside the control of Iraq's National Communications and Media Commission.
Officials in the Ninevah government are watching from afar. Ali al-Zoubai, a member of Ninevah's governorate council who lives in Erbil, told Al-Monitor that citizens in Mosul informed him over the phone that services in the city have indeed improved. He added that IS is trying to gain legitimacy and popular support by providing services that elected governments failed to provide in the past. According to Zoubai, this is one of the most dangerous IS tactics yet.
The services office accorded attention to the entertainment sector, as well. On May 1, it reopened the Ninevah Oberoi Hotel, one of the most important hotels in Mosul, and changed its name to Al-Warithin Hotel. The group also removed the murals it deemed forbidden and sinful and invited Mosul families to a ceremonial lunch. The services office announced that it would give newlyweds free accommodation for three nights in the hotel, meals included.
IS went so far as to open the presidential palace built by Saddam Hussein for citizens to visit, contemplate the refined building and sit in the beautiful gardens. This is exactly what US forces did when they invaded Mosul in April 2003.
Each step that IS takes is preceded and accompanied by a large-scale media campaign primarily targeting the citizens. The slogan repeated most often is “Mosul Flourishes under the Caliphate,” according to Iraqi journalist Sarmad Ahmad, who lives in Baghdad. He gave a pseudonym to protect his family still in Mosul.
Ahmad explained IS' behavior as an attempt to delude everyone into thinking that the organization will stick around for a long time, to win more support and followers and to boost the morale of its own members as well.
IS mostly boasts about the return of electricity to Mosul after the city had suffered from a power cut that lasted seven months. The organization managed to convince people that this happened following an alleged deal with Iraqi Kurdistan, without providing any details.
Ninevah Gov. Atheel al-Nujaifi wrote on his Facebook page March 17, “200 megawatts have arrived today, and the provision of electricity will increase in the coming days, in proportion to the amount of water reaching the Mosul dam and the possibility of releasing it.”
IS is regaining ground in Mosul in an unprecedented way and increasing its popularity, especially among civilians. It is worth noting, though, that the services are offered by the services department employees, who still receive their salaries from the Baghdad government. IS is working to prove to Mosul’s citizens that it is an organized entity capable of ensuring security and providing services — a goal the previous Iraqi governments and security forces failed to achieve over the last 11 years.
IS' efforts to rehabilitate the services sector in Mosul will further complicate the mission of the Iraqi forces and the international coalition against IS, if they decide to conduct military operations to regain control of Mosul.