SPECIAL REPORT-Inside the proxy battle that keeps an Iraqi city on its knees

    By John Davison
    MOSUL, Iraq, June 11 (Reuters) - Three years ago, the world
rejoiced when Iraqi forces backed by the United States and Iran
liberated this ancient city from the brutal rule of Islamic
State. The people of Mosul hoped to rebuild their shattered
    Today, a different battle plays out.
    Taking place largely behind the scenes, from legislative
halls that overlook the city's bombed-out streets to hotel
meeting rooms in Baghdad, it is a power struggle among parties,
politicians and militiamen. Some are backed by Iran. Others
favour the United States.
    At stake: political control of Nineveh province, of which
Mosul is capital – a region rich in natural resources and a link
in a supply route from Tehran to the Mediterranean. The route
serves Iran-backed militias, Washington's fiercest enemy here
since the defeat of Islamic State.
    Iran's allies had been winning. They installed a governor
favoured by Tehran a year ago. But then anti-government
protests, U.S. sanctions and the assassination of Iran's
military mastermind Qassem Soleimani challenged Iranian
influence. The pro-Western camp replaced the Nineveh governor
with a longtime U.S. ally.
    The contest mirrors a wider struggle over the future of Iraq
    Speaking to Reuters over the span of a year, around 20 Iraqi
officials involved in the political tussle over Nineveh
described how Iran and its allies developed the networks to
influence local government, how pro-Western officials tried to
hit back, and how this tug of war has crippled Mosul's recovery.
If any side prevails, many of these insiders believe, it will
ultimately be the side aligned with Iran. Iran helps its allies
with money, political backing and sticks with them, explained
Nineveh councilor Ali Khdeir. The United States, in contrast,
"has left no real mark on Iraq."
    Mosul, meanwhile, lies largely in ruins. Traffic snarls
across battered bridges and disabled war victims sell tissues,
cigarettes and tea at junctions - the kind of misery that Iraqi
officials fear is the perfect breeding ground for Islamic State
to reemerge.
    Two changes of governor in 2019 meant contracts for projects
worth at least $200 million were not awarded by the local
government last year. They included building a new emergency
hospital, procuring vehicles to clear rubble from bombed-out
homes and bolstering the fleet for Mosul's under-equipped
first-responder teams, according to officials and a local
government document seen by Reuters.
    A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State accused Iran
of  working "overtime to dominate every aspect of Iraq's
political and economic life." The United States is committed to
helping Iraq build its economic prospects and improve stability
and security, said the spokesperson, Morgan Ortagus.
    A spokesperson for Iran's mission to the United Nations in
New York, Alireza Miryousefi, insisted: "Iran does not interfere
in Iraq's internal affairs."
    The Iraqi government didn't respond to detailed questions
for this article. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi told Reuters
in response to a question about Mosul that corruption and
political infighting hampered the city's recovery, but denied it
was part of a proxy contest.
    Rasha Saeed's young family is one of thousands suffering
from the failures of city hall.
    Still mourning the death of their nine-year-old son, killed
in a U.S. coalition air strike in 2015, the family returned to
their neighbourhood after its liberation from Islamic State.
They found their home had been destroyed by bombs and bulldozed
over. Rasha, her husband Luay Shaker and their three remaining
children live in debt and in limbo in a partially-repaired
rented flat nearby. They watch grass grow on the earth where
their old house stood. Residents say Islamic State fighters'
bodies are buried beneath.
    Luay, a manual labourer who ferried supplies before the war
to stores in Mosul's historic Old City markets, cannot work
while he recovers from an operation to remove a tumour from
behind his ear. Limited space at the West Mosul medical complex
nearby – where a new hospital was meant to go up – means
follow-up treatment is sporadic and slow. "It can be a long wait
between appointments because Luay's doctor can take only three
patients on site a week," Rasha said.
    The medical complex is a cluster of portacabins on a vast
bombed-out site that once boasted five fully-equipped hospitals
with hundreds of beds. It currently has around 80 emergency ward
beds for a population of more than a million people living in
the area, doctors say. They describe a lack of equipment and
medicine, including masks and gloves – a concern especially as
cases of COVID-19 rise in Iraq. A spokesperson for Iraq's Health
Ministry responded that protective equipment is available in all
state health institutions.
    Rasha's temporary home stands alone amid destruction on a
hill above the Tigris River, overlooking Mosul.
    "We had a modest life before Islamic State, simple dreams to
live without violence, for our children to be educated and maybe
one day to afford a bigger home. That is now impossible," Rasha
    The political contest for Nineveh is part of a wider picture
across Iraq's northern Sunni-majority provinces, former
strongholds of dictator Saddam Hussein which hold strategic
value for Tehran - and where Washington wants to curb Iranian
    The fertile plains of Nineveh flank Syria to the west, where
Iran's Revolutionary Guards have fought alongside President
Bashar al-Assad's forces. Beyond is Lebanon, home to Shi'ite
Iran's Hezbollah allies. The provinces of Anbar, bisected by the
vast Euphrates River, Salahuddin, home to an important Shi'ite
shrine, and Diyala, which borders Iran, form the rest of that
mostly Sunni land corridor. Many of the 5,000 U.S. troops in
Iraq - a number that is being reduced - have been deployed at
bases dotted through three of these provinces and are regularly
harassed by rocket attacks that U.S. officials have blamed on
Iranian proxies who want U.S. troops to leave.
    Iran firmly established dominance over Baghdad and Iraq's
southern Shi'ite provinces after the 2003 U.S. -led invasion
that ousted Saddam. But the country's Sunni areas, home also to
minority groups of Kurds, Christians, Shi'ite Turkmen and
Yazidis, presented more of a challenge. They became hubs for a
Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces in the mid-2000s and
strongholds for Islamic State, which made Mosul its capital in
    After Iran-backed militias helped drive Islamic State from
Mosul in 2017, the militias stayed put. Their flags fly
throughout northern Iraq, next to banners and billboards that
honour their leaders, including the late Soleimani.
    Twenty local government officials, Baghdad lawmakers and
tribal leaders interviewed by Reuters described how Iran then
deepened its political influence until it had allies in almost
every provincial administration.
    Central to such efforts in Nineveh, these sources said, were
two powerful Sunnis - Khamis al-Khanjar, an Anbar businessman
turned politician, and Ahmed al-Jabouri, widely known as Abu
Mazen, a former governor of Salahuddin province, now sitting in
the Iraqi parliament.
    Khanjar was an outspoken opponent of Iran. He supported
Sunni protests against the Iran-backed Baghdad government in
2013 and later accused Iran-allied Shi'ite militias of human
rights abuses. Abu Mazen was once a U.S. ally. He described
working closely with U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion.
    In 2018, Khanjar and Abu Mazen unexpectedly joined a bloc of
Iran-backed parties and militia leaders in the Iraqi parliament.
Explaining this shift, Khanjar said: "The strongest on the
ground can get things done … I go with the bloc that's
(strongest) on the ground. If that coalition has Iranian links,
that's not on us." He denied being an ally of Iran. Abu Mazen
declined to comment for this article.
    Then, in May 2019, Khanjar and Abu Mazen intervened in the
selection of Nineveh's new governor, according to nine sources,
including several members of the regional administrative council
and relatives of the two men. A majority of Nineveh's 39
councilors, tasked with electing the new governor, initially
favoured a candidate critical of Iran, these sources said. But
two days before the council was due to vote, Abu Mazen and
Khanjar invited nearly two dozen council members to a meeting in
a hotel in nearby Erbil, said several people, one of whom
    The council members were promised local government posts or
payments of up to $300,000 apiece from the men or their offices
if they voted for a different candidate, Mansour al-Mareid, a
Sunni favoured by Iran and its allies in Baghdad, these people
said. One council member told Reuters he accepted money and used
it to buy a new home.
    Mareid was duly elected with the votes of 28 of the 39
council members.
    Khanjar confirmed he and Abu Mazen met with councilors in
Erbil to agree on the governor and negotiate over provincial
posts. He also confirmed he supported Mareid, but denied that
votes were bought. "I didn't pay a single dinar," he said.
    Mareid, the winning candidate, said he had no knowledge of
bribes being given to councilors and he denied any loyalty to
Iran, but he added: "Council members can be bought, so it
wouldn't surprise me, and nothing can happen in this country
without Iran approving it."
    The gathering in Erbil wasn't the only meeting that took
place around that time. Three of the councilors interviewed by
Reuters described further meetings and contacts with senior
Iraqi paramilitary officials who were trying to win support for
    Another Nineveh councilor recounted that he and a colleague
were invited to a hotel in Baghdad shortly after the vote to
meet a senior Iranian diplomat and an Iraqi militia leader loyal
to Iran. The councilor, who had loudly criticized Mareid's
appointment, said he was offered a post in the Nineveh
government if he would drop his opposition to the new governor.
He said he declined the offer. The Iranian embassy didn't reply
to questions about the meeting. Reuters couldn't reach the
militia leader. The Iraqi state paramilitary Popular
Mobilisation Forces (PMF) that oversees militias didn't respond.
    Within a few months the pendulum had swung again.
    The United States imposed sanctions on Iran-aligned militia
leaders and on their Iraqi Sunni allies – among them Abu Mazen
in July and Khanjar in December.
    The U.S. Treasury said it was freezing Abu Mazen's assets
because he had protected "his personal interests by
accommodating Iran-backed proxies that operate outside of state
control." It targeted Khanjar in a round of sanctions against
Iran-backed militia leaders, accusing him of bribery and saying
he had spent "millions of dollars in payments to Iraqi political
figures in order to secure their support."
    Abu Mazen and Khanjar denied any wrongdoing at the time and
condemned the U.S. sanctions as interference in Iraq's internal
    Abu Mazen felt under pressure as a result of the U.S. move,
said a relative and five Nineveh councilors. The measures helped
persuade Abu Mazen, these sources said, to withdraw support for
Mareid and back a former military commander and U.S. ally, Najm
al-Jabouri [no relation], to replace him as governor. In
November, 23 of the council's 39 members voted to dismiss Mareid
and appoint Jabouri.
    Jabouri's appointment and the pressure on Iran's allies
across the country from U.S. air strikes and sanctions have
given militia groups pause in Mosul, local officials say. Their
military presence has reduced on inner city streets where
Shi'ite and militia flags once flew atop mosques and junkyards
they controlled.
    Pro-U.S. officials in Mosul hope that the government of
Prime Minister Kadhimi, who is accepted by both the United
States and Iran, together with fractures among Iran-backed
militias following the death of Soleimani, will turn the tide
against Tehran's influence. But they also complain that Governor
Jabouri is mostly hamstrung against Iran's militia and political
allies in Mosul.
    "Jabouri is weak politically," said Mosul council member Ali
Khdeir. "Because of their power on the ground, he'll have to
deal carefully with the militias at first."
    Jabouri told Reuters that any governor would face criticism
and he defended his record. He conceded that political rivalries
were impeding progress in rebuilding the city. "It makes my work
harder," he said.
    Four local officials said some administrative posts have
changed hands and are no longer controlled by allies of
Iran-backed militias, but others are still held by officials
with links to militia groups. The militias also have offices in
Mosul, these local officials said, through which they win
construction and other business contracts, even though such
offices were banned by a central government decree last year.
The militia groups did not respond to Reuters questions about
their activities.
    Amid this chaos, reconstruction stalls.
    The power vacuum between Mareid and Jabouri just weeks
before the end of 2019 prevented contracts being awarded at a
crucial time when the annual budget needed to be spent, a senior
local administrator and a second official said.
    A document signed by the head of municipalities, Abdul Qadir
al-Dakhil, and reviewed by Reuters showed that provincial
authorities failed to award contracts worth more than $200
million in Nineveh province in 2019. They included the new
emergency hospital, equipment for another nearby hospital,
providing additional vehicles for the civil defence rescue
services and rehabilitating 13 schools, Dakhil told Reuters.
    Dr Omar Hamudat, who helps run the West Mosul emergency
medical complex, worked in Mosul hospitals under international
sanctions in the 1990s and under Islamic State's occupation.
Hamudat said healthcare infrastructure was the worst it had ever
    "Once we could carry out 200 emergency operations a day
here. Now, we manage about 15," he said, speaking in his cramped
portacabin office at the complex.
    Nineveh province had hospitals with a total of about 4,000
beds before the arrival of Islamic State. It has a little over
1,000 now, including in what Hamudat called his "caravans," a
reference to the portacabins.
    Mosul's civil defence chief, Hossam Khalil, said a provision
of emergency vehicles such as fire engines and ambulances,
expected in 2019, had not come through. "Sometimes we have to
use our own cars for work," Khalil said, "but try not to do that
for crucial life-saving work, or putting out fires."
    Residents of Mosul have praised Jabouri's handling of the
COVID-19 crisis, where a lockdown has so far avoided a mass
outbreak, but some worry he is not up to the task of rebuilding
the city. Many just want a competent governor, regardless of
political affiliation.
    "Mareid began getting things done," said Safwan al-Madany, a
30-year-old activist who has been involved in voluntary aid
projects for his city since 2011 and rebuilding work since the
fall of Islamic State.
    During Mareid's six-month tenure, some bridges in the city
were fixed. "He had the contacts, power and connections in
Baghdad to make things happen, even if those were
paramilitary-linked. He's an engineer by trade and understands
construction. Jabouri is a military man. We wish Mareid would
come back," said Madany.
    Across the rest of the Sunni provinces that lie between
Nineveh and Baghdad, regional councilors, tribal chiefs and
members of Iraq's parliament say Iran's efforts to entrench
local political allies will likely outlast the U.S. tactics of
air strikes and economic sanctions.
    Potential friends of America lament what they see as a lack
of U.S. interest or ability to blunt Iran's influence in the
country allied troops invaded 17 years ago. In February 2019,
the head of Salahuddin provincial council, Ahmed al-Krayem,
travelled to Washington to drum up U.S. support for his region
and help counter Iran.
    "The visit wasn't fruitful," said a senior Iraqi lawmaker, a
relative of Krayem.
    "Whoever he met didn't seem interested in his proposals for
a bolstered U.S. troop presence and U.S. investment."
    The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which hosted Krayem at a
private event during that trip, declined to give details about
the gathering. Krayem also declined to comment.
    A Salahuddin official said that by contrast, "the Iranians,
including their diplomats at the embassy, reach out to people
you'd never expect them to, at a local level."
    Asked about U.S. engagement in Iraq, Department of State
spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said: "We will continue to stand
with the Iraqi people in support of their calls for reform and
change, and to help them achieve an Iraq that is economically
prosperous, a pivotal country in the region, and free of foreign
    Other Salahuddin Sunni chieftains have met Shi'ite
paramilitary officials to plead over the return of Sunni
families displaced by the war with Islamic State and scattered
in camps and temporary homes across northern Iraq. They worry
about the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, saying it opens up
their regions to the danger of a resurgent Islamic State.
    "A few years ago I would never have dealt with Iran-backed
officials," said Sheikh Khalid al-Nasseri, a senior leader in
Saddam Hussein's clan. "Now I'll work with anyone to get
services for our people and return families to their homes from
miserable camps."
 (Reporting buy John Davison, additional reporting by Ahmed
Rasheed, Ghazwan Hassan and Kamal Ayyash in Iraq and Michelle
Nichols in New York, editing by Janet McBride)

For a web version    https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/iraq-iran-mosul/


The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.


More Related Articles

Info icon

This data feed is not available at this time.

Sign up for Smart Investing to get the latest news, strategies and tips to help you invest smarter.