Political battle lines drawn as Mosul in ruins

It is election season in Mosul and the Iraqi city is awash with campaign posters.

For the first time in half a decade, faces of women – some without hijabs – beam out on to the streets of the former Daesh stronghold.

“Some of these candidates with billboards don’t even care if they win, they just want to be seen, show they’re not afraid anymore,” said Rayan Al Hadidi, an activist from Mosul.

“The only good thing that came out of Daesh is this freedom we have now. The single-party tyranny of Daesh led us back to democracy.”

It has been more than nine months since Iraq’s second city was liberated from the terrorists, but in one way or another Daesh will be on the minds of every Moslawi heading to the polls on May 12.

Most The Sunday Telegraph spoke to last week agreed the security situation was the best it had been since before the US invasion in 2003.

Thousands of Daesh fighters and sympathisers are behind bars and police-manned checkpoints offer some peace of mind. The car bombs and suicide attacks that used to plague the city have become so rare that the few there have been were the only topic of conversation for days after.

Many Moslawis, including Al Hadidi – who fled the country years ago – have returned to take advantage of the relative stability while it lasts.

But half the city – the oldest part on the western side – lies in ruins after being levelled in the largest urban battle in modern history and reconstruction has yet to begin.

“There were 40,000 homes and buildings destroyed,” said Al Hadidi. “This has made the people hungry.”

The “hungry”, as Al Hadidi calls them, are the first to comment on the profligate election spending. Some of the candidates – and there are some 907 running for Nineveh province’s 34 seats – say they have spent upwards of $15,000 (Dh55,050) on their marketing campaign.

“If they had given $15,000 to 900 families in the Old City, most of it could have been rebuilt by now,” lamented Aouf Abdulrahman, a resident, as he ripped up one of the candidate’s fliers in protest. “These politicians keep coming around, telling us they can help, but we haven’t seen anything.”

Selling sweets and fizzy drinks near the once-famous but now destroyed 12th century Grand Nuri mosque, Abdul Rahman is one of only a handful who have moved back to live among the ruins.

The vote had been scheduled for September, but was pushed back to give sufficient time for those displaced by the fighting to return to their homes.

But tens, if not hundreds, of thousands are still in refugee camps dotted around the north of the country, many of whom are without their ID cards and unable to cast their ballot.

How the northern city votes will be seen as a judgment of Haider Al Abadi, the incumbent prime minister, who is heading the Nasr Al Iraq coalition, or Victory Alliance, list – a name capitalising off the victory against Daesh.

He is either a liberator or conqueror depending on who in Mosul you ask.

The Sunni-majority city’s relationship with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has been one characterised by deep mistrust since the fall of Saddam Hussain, the former Iraqi president, when the country’s politics became drawn along sectarian lines.

Nouri Al Maliki, who is seeking a political comeback after he stepped down as premier in 2014, leading the rival State of Law coalition, alienated large sections of the Sunni population by concentrating power with his Shiite base.

Daesh exploited the growing discontent among the country’s minority here, many of whom initially welcomed the extremist group.

Some voters cited Al Abadi’s decision to visit Mosul only twice during the nine-month offensive as indication of the Shiite leader’s lack of interest in the city. They hold him – and the Shiite militias that supported the army – responsible for its destruction, which they saw as wanton and largely avoidable.

But younger voters see Al Abadi as the strong nationalist leader the country needed to unify behind after Daesh. Many said they were tired of sectarian and tribal alliances being used as a tool by the political elite to stay in power.

“Candidates have always run along sectarian platforms. No one knows what any of them even stand for because they didn’t need to have any policies,” said Mohammad Al Hamzawi, a third-year chemistry student at Mosul University. “That’s not good enough any more.”

About 60 per cent of Iraqis are 27 or younger and many young people in urban areas recently surveyed by the Baghdad-based Bayan Centre think-tank said they wanted a secular government.

Perhaps in recognition of this growing exasperation, Al Abadi and other Shiite competitors have sought a cross-sectarian coalition.

Several Sunni candidates are being fielded under the Nasr list and opinion polls project it will win a significant number of seats from Sunnis.

“Iraq appeared divided and partitioned, and was pushed towards becoming ethnic and sectarian cantons… but we have turned that page,” Al Abadi said earlier this month at a campaign stop in Fallujah – a largely Sunni city and hotbed of extremism no senior Shiite politician has dared step foot in in 15 years. “In victory we achieved unity.”

Brigadier General Wathiq Al Hamdani, the former police chief of Mosul who is now hoping to win a seat, agreed. “Shiite militias, Sunni militias, the army, everyone united to fight a common enemy,” he said.

“Where once people were 100 per cent driven by their sect at the ballot box, Iraq is slowly coming out of that way of thinking,” he told us from his campaign headquarters in east Mosul. “But it will take some time, it doesn’t happen overnight.”

If Sunni communities think that the vote is not fair, however, it could undermine the goal of bringing about a more inclusive government to maintain a unified state.

And if Mosul continues to feel ignored, it could look once again to whichever zealots promise to listen.

“People won’t forget what happened under Daesh easily,” said Mr Hamzawi, the student. “But Mosul can no longer be treated like a second-class city.”