November 23, 2004
By Michael Howard in Mosul
Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, faces elections at the end of January without a reliable and effective police presence, the senior US military commander there has said, after three-quarters of the 4,000-strong force either deserted or joined insurgents during a two-day uprising in the city this month.
"We have the daunting task of rebuilding a legitimate and loyal police force in the city, and that's going to take a long time - and we don't have a long time," Brigadier General Carter Ham told the Guardian.
"The elections are coming and we need to have police for security, so that's a pretty big task ahead of us."
On November 10 and 11, groups of militants rampaged through the city. Nine police stations were overrun and looted. Several were set alight and others were blown up.
Offices of Kurdish political parties were also attacked. Most police officers either fled or joined the insurgents. The US drafted in reinforcements from Kurdish units of the Iraqi National Guard and a police commando unit.
The chief of police, General Mohammed Khairy al-Barhawi, was fired and later arrested on suspicion of assisting the rebels. Since then the city has been "under control, but tense", Gen Ham said.
A leading figure in the Association of Muslim Clerics, an influential Sunni group, was killed yesterday in a drive-by shooting in the city. There has been a wave of assassinations of prominent figures, of both pro- and anti-US sentiment.
On Sunday the independent election commission gave the go-ahead for the country's first free vote in decades. But the "clearly disappointing" performance by the police in Mosul has cast doubt on their ability to secure polling stations in the ethnically diverse city of 2 million people.
Insurgents have burned a warehouse full of voter registration forms, and election officials in the city have been threatened by the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. At least four have fled.
Food shop owners are supposed to distribute voter registration forms along with monthly food rations, and several have been threatened.
Mosul was a stronghold of the former regime, providing some 33,000 army officers and thousands more ranking officials for Saddam Hussein's security apparatus. The city has also seen a surge of Islamism since the US-led invasion.
Gen Ham said former regime loyalists and religious extremists in the city were bent on derailing the voting process.
"While those two groups have very different long-term goals, their immediate goals are fairly well aligned," he said. "That is, get the multinational forces out, discredit the interim Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces, and create an environment of instability throughout the region that allows these two groups to grow and to flourish instead of democracy to take root."
Gen Ham ruled out a Falluja-style offensive to secure the city before the elections.
"Falluja was accepting of the insurgency while the overwhelming majority of Mosul rejects it," he said.
"I don't want to make things sound better than they are. There are neighbourhoods in which the insurgents are welcome. That's clear. But there are no no-go areas."
"The ineffectiveness of the police force means we have to take a more active role than frankly we would like. We won't hesitate to conduct operations when it is necessary."
US forces have stepped up cooperation with the two main Kurdish parties, which have a strong network in the city.
Kurds and other minorities are subject to increasing attacks, part of what Gen Ham said was a "deliberate attempt by militants to create a civil war".
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004