Only days after Mosul fell, Iraqis start returning

By Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, June 15 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this file still image posted on a militant Twitter account on Wednesday, June 11, 2014, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, militants parade down a main road in Mosul, Iraq. Days after Iraq’s second-largest city fell to al-Qaida-inspired fighters, some Iraqis are already returning to Mosul, lured back by insurgents offering cheap gas and food, restoring power and water and removing traffic barricades.

militant source via Twitter, File, Associated Press

KALAK, Iraq — Days after Iraq's second-largest city fell to al-Qaida-inspired fighters, some Iraqis are already returning to Mosul, lured back by insurgents offering cheap gas and food, restoring power and water and removing traffic barricades.

Many people appear excited to return, taking sectarian pride in the extremist Sunni group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Some see them as liberators.

"I hope God supports them and makes them victorious over the oppression of al-Maliki," said 80-year-old Abu Thaer.

He spoke at the Khazer checkpoint on the northern frontier of the largely autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, 65 miles (105 kilometers) from Mosul. Five veiled women and six children were crammed into the back seat of his car.

They were among tens of thousands of people who fled their homes as Islamic State fighters and other Sunni militants seized much of northern Iraq, including Mosul and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

Many Sunni Arab men and women said they left, not because they feared the insurgents, but because of the risk of retaliatory airstrikes by Iraqi government forces.

Their return underscores the profound sectarianism cleaving Iraq and the depth of anger that many Sunnis harbor toward al-Maliki's government, which they accuse of discrimination and harassment and pushing Sunnis to the political margins.

"We see that they have made Mosul better," said Abu Mohammed, a 34-year-old taxi driver who ferries returnees back to the city. "The water is back. The electricity is back. The prices are lower."

The anger many Iraqis felt toward al-Maliki's government only increased after soldiers abandoned Mosul, fleeing before civilians. It's likely that many Iraqi troops fled because they sensed insurgents would be welcomed by long-resentful Sunnis, and they did not want to risk their lives for a senseless battle.

"The army was only good at oppressing Sunnis, but it was nothing more," Abu Thaer said.

It wasn't clear how many Iraqis sought to return to Mosul. But during a single hour on Friday afternoon, an Associated Press reporter saw an 18-seat bus crammed with men, women and children and their luggage. A taxi driver was making regular trips to the city. And about seven other families were crammed into four vehicles, heading home.

Many of those who fled said relatives who remained in Mosul began urging them to come back, saying the Sunni insurgents had restored power, water and were promising not to harm returning residents.

In a move that immediately improved their popularity, insurgents also emptied out prisons, said 22-year-old Abu Sulaf. The young man said mostly Shiite forces had harassed and unfairly detained many Sunnis.

Islamic State fighters also removed concrete barricades that snarled traffic through the city and lengthened commutes, often by hours, residents said.

Returning residents said relatives told them the insurgents slashed the prices of key staples: A liter of gasoline for vehicles or diesel for generators, a necessity because of frequent power cuts, dropped from 42 cents to 30 cents, said taxi driver Abu Mohammed.

A canister of cooking gas dropped from $6.85 to $3.40. The fighters forced traders to offer vegetables and key foods at half price, he said.

News of the discounts, but not the exact prices, were echoed by other returning residents.

The efforts by fighters to win over hearts and minds may appear odd for a group whose tactics include beheading their rivals, chopping off the hands of thieves and imprisoning local activists.

But the fighters conducted similar goodwill campaigns after seizing areas of neighboring Syria. It was only later that the darkest side of their rule emerged.

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