MOSUL, Iraq — The 19-year-old resident of Mosul pulled up his shirt and showed a festering wound on his back. It came, he said, from Iraqi troops who detained him for three days and beat him, trying to get him to confess to belong to the Islamic State group.
His story and similar stories by others only deepen worries among many of Mosul’s mainly Sunni residents over what happens when the extremist group is defeated and Baghdad’s Shiite-led government resumes control.
Almost all those fleeing the city say they are relieved to see the end of the Sunni extremists’ grip. But they also have bad memories of Baghdad’s rule in the past.
Mosul’s Sunnis long complained that the Shiite-dominated security forces treated them with suspicion and targeted them in indiscriminate crackdowns. They say the government intentionally neglect them, focusing on Shiite areas in the south, leaving Iraq’s second largest city undeveloped and economically stagnant.
Mohammed Ayad said he was detained by troops earlier this month when he sneaked from his home neighbourhood, which is under ISIS control, across the Tigris River into a district recaptured by the military. He intended to buy cigarettes to sell back in his neighbourhood, where ISIS bans smoking.
“They arrested me while sleeping at friend’s house on the east side,” he said. “They suspected me when I showed them my ID that says I live on the other side,” said Ayad.
His interrogators beat him, asking him repeatedly when he joined ISIS. After they released him, he went to a camp of displaced people south of Mosul.
Several other Mosul residents at the camp said Federal Police, a Shiite-dominated force, barred them from returning to their homes in recaptured areas, now that they are relatively safe. A group of Sunnis who fled the recently freed town of Tal Abta, west of Mosul, said they too were barred by Shiite militias from returning.
“I feel like a third class citizen, like an Indian who will now have to live in a reservation,” said one bearded Mosul resident who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. “It is like they jailed us here,” he said of the camp.
There have been no reports of major or systematic abuse of Mosul residents by the military or security forces, which have been fighting since October to recapture the city. That’s a contrast to other former ISIS-held areas, where Shiite fighters are accused of pushing out or otherwise abusing Sunnis. The military denies torturing suspects and insists no one is denied permission to return to their homes.
But there is a recognition that Baghdad needs to reach out to Sunnis.
“I really cannot blame them for being apprehensive about the return of government rule,” said a top military commander in Mosul, who agreed to discuss the subject in return for anonymity.
“It is their right to feel that way. Before Daesh, there was too much corruption, and the security forces did nothing to help people,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been sending reconciliatory messages to Iraq’s minority Sunnis, speaking of a country reunited by the fight against ISIS. “Societal reconciliation is the appropriate answer to Daesh,” he said recently.
The military in Mosul has reached out to residents with goodwill gestures, including distributing food and water and treating wounded or ailing residents in their field hospitals. They have helped those wishing to leave the city. Children flash the “V” for victory signs to soldiers and yell “Mansoureen,” or “may you be victorious,” as they drive by in their Humvees.
“No matter how many times I say ‘thank you’ I can never give you your due,” one woman told a senior army general Thursday as he toured her frontline Mosul neighbourhood.
But there is also mutual suspicion and apprehension. Faced with consistent ISIS bombing and shootings in recaptured areas, the military fears sympathizers and sleeper cells among the population.
“All a Daesh member has to do is take off his clothes and shave his beard and he becomes a regular citizen,” said the military commander in Mosul. “That’s why we cannot drop our guard.”
The army’s security measures with the population don’t help ease any ill-feeling.
Every day, hundreds of men, women, children and elderly fleeing the city wait for hours in the biting cold by a main road outside Mosul while security officials run their names through a database for any possible ISIS links.
There are no chairs or benches and nothing to shelter them from rain and wind. A shortage of buses means that most of those cleared are loaded onto army trucks, where they stand with nothing to hold on except each other, to be taken to camps.
Conditions are tough for those who remain in recaptured Mosul neighbourhoods as well. Piles of trash are everywhere and green sewage water runs on the side of many streets. Water and power are still out.
Some residents close off their streets with makeshift barriers against suicide car bombs, and many motorists still fly a white flag, signs of the fragile security.
Some 120,000 people have fled Mosul since the offensive began. The resources of the cash-strapped government are limited. It is trying to provide medical care, food, water and heating fuel to those staying put in the city and those who fled. But distribution has been chaotic, leaving some without, and it excludes residents of areas close to the frontline.
Mosul hospital clerk Waad Amin said he’s glad the extremists are gone. While he’s wary of the government, “No matter what, they are still better than Daesh,” he said.
But “it is so bad here, it’s beyond description,” he said of government-held parts of Mosul. The 53-year-old father of six works in a government clinic and hasn’t been paid for nearly two years.
Amin is also worried that a wave of score-settling will break out among residents. Security forces have to keep control, but at the same time not get dragged in by informants wrongly accusing others of being ISIS members, he said.
“The government needs to have a security outpost in every neighbourhood. If not, the situation will be very dire. They cannot leave us to kill each other, as they did before Daesh took the city.”
Mosul long had a reputation as a bastion of Islamic militancy. Before ISIS captured it in 2014, the group’s fighters operated freely in some areas, attacking security forces and oil facilities. Militants ran protection rackets, and local government corruption was rampant. Authorities were seen as failing to dealing effectively with criminals and militants.
Ahmed Mohammed Hussein, a 52-year-old Mosul University, blames those government failures for the ISIS takeover of the city in June 2014. It has left him bitter and suspicious ever since.
He spoke in a camp for the displaced in the northern city of Irbil, where he fled with his family. Nearby, his wife stood in line with other women to receive heating oil rations.
“If they come back and wipe away my tears, pat me on the head and help me get back my life, then they are all welcome,” he said of the government. “But they will not be welcome if it’s all going to be about marginalization again.”