Seven months into the takeover of Iraq’s second-largest city by Islamist extremists, electricity, rice, flour and medical supplies are dwindling. The water is mucky. Religious minorities are confined to prison camps, and the overwhelmingly Muslim population of Mosul is subject to strict and increasingly arbitrary religious rules.
Those who disobey Islamic State’s fundamentalist edicts — including banning smoking or doing business during daily prayer times, and requiring women to cover their heads and faces — are whipped. Or worse. Late last month, two doctors were executed, according to ousted officials who continue to communicate by phone with Mosul residents, for having failed to save the life of an Islamic State leader wounded in an airstrike.
“The people of Mosul, a lot of them were educated overseas and they’re facing this primitive mentality,” said Atheel Najafi, governor of surrounding Nineveh province and scion of an old Mosul family, who was forced to flee when the city fell to the Sunni militants in the summer.
“In many ways, this is a clash of civilizations,” he said, “Day by day it gets worse. People are becoming more and more backward.”
Such is life in Mosul, a city of more than a million occupied since June by Islamic State, according to escapees and residents interviewed in person and by phone in recent weeks. Although their reports cannot be independently verified — travel to Mosul is nearly impossible for outsiders — they are beginning to provide a picture of a city that has undergone a startling transformation.
The militants have blocked roads and blown up bridges into the northern Iraqi city, which they proclaim as one of the capitals of their self-styled Islamic empire, or caliphate, extending west into northern Syria.
Early this month, Islamic State released a video showing British hostage John Cantlie touring Mosul, visiting a market, hospital and police. City services appear to be functioning, the streets full of people and cars.
A Kurdish peshmerga commander in a bunker atop the mountain here overlooking Mosul said the news from the city was discouraging.
“They have police, they have law, they have a government; it’s a full-on regime. They’re even trying to introduce a currency,” said Maj. Haji Abu Hussein, 47, who keeps in touch by cellphone with a Sunni feed salesman in the city.
Other witnesses say the reality of life in Mosul is far more grim: basic services scarce and prices soaring even as the quality of fuel and water deteriorates.
The city’s hospitals, schools and other government offices remain open in part because the Iraqi government continues to pay salaries to tens of thousands of civil servants, a policy opposed by some Kurdish officials, who say it serves to prop up the extremist occupiers.
Reached in Mosul by phone this month, Abu Hussein, 35, a day laborer and father of four, said that contrary to the Cantlie video, government workers were serving Islamic State, not the public.
“Entire hospitals have been commandeered for the fighters,” he said. “I tried to take my son because he was sick to the hospital, but they said, ‘Get out of here! This is for fighters!’ and they gave me 20 lashes of the whip.”
Mosul’s hospitals face severe shortages of medical supplies, equipment and staff, particularly female nurses and specialists such as surgeons and anesthesiologists, who have fled, according to reports from staffers at the International Organization for Migration.
Militants have instructed pregnant women that it is haram, or unholy, to give birth at a hospital, so they have had to use midwives at home, Abu Hussein said.
Residents have had electricity only for up to two hours every three days, he said. Cellphone reception in the city center was nonexistent in early January, according to the migration group’s employees.
Gas fuel canisters went up from $8 to $90 under Islamic State, Abu Hussein said. He and others heat their ovens with firewood. Islamic State militants in search of fuel chopped down part of the landmark Al Ghabat forest on the banks of the Tigris River.
Water flows from the tap once a week, but only for a few hours, he said. Other residents told officials outside the city that chlorine shortages contributed to the poor water quality. Some have started to dig wells, according to the migration group.
“We use the river water for washing, but it’s very dirty. Children in the southern part of Mosul are getting very sick from it,” Abu Hussein said.
Abu Hussein doesn’t send his children to school because militants have been teaching religious extremism and recruiting young students as fighters. Civics and sports have been banned, and by law teachers are allowed to instruct only students of the same sex.
Those caught smoking, using a cellphone or doing business during five daily prayer times are punished in Islamic courts by untrained judges, usually with fines and whippings.
Islamic State court documents show a man with a cellphone was sentenced in November by a former construction worker-turned-judge to a whipping and fined $10,000. Those caught doing business during prayers are lashed 50 times and forced to close for a month; the second time, they are lashed 80 times, their business burned. The punishment for smoking: 40 whips the first time, 100 whips the second time.
Abu Hussein said militants forced a woman from her home and whipped her 40 times because she wasn’t wearing the required veil.
But there are signs the militants’ grip on the city is slipping. Recent militant convoys from Mosul have been smaller and less frequent, their weaponry less sophisticated.
Najafi, the governor who fled, remains in contact with workers by phone and the Internet from a guarded compound in nearby Dahuk. He said that residents complain about the lack of fuel and basic services, but that their biggest problem is what he calls the “psychological burden” of living under Islamic State, whose local fighters are primarily less educated young men from the countryside.
There are fewer foreign militants in town, and local ones are beset by infighting, he said, forced to draft boys to fill their ranks, some as young as 12. The streets are patrolled mostly by local Islamic police.
Najafi said he pays 60,000 to 70,000 civil servants a total of about $10 million a month. “We encourage them to work for the necessary services: health, water supply, education,” he said, and to report back on conditions in the city.
He said the money is paid directly to the workers through a hawala system of informal money brokers as well as mobile banking. The salaries are an important hearts-and-minds tactic, he said. “If we stop the salaries, we will lose all of our employees. They will follow ISIS,” Najafi said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Cutting off salaries would also deprive residents the few basic services they still have, he said, contending that women and children in particular would suffer if hospitals and schools were forced to close.
“We would face a total crisis inside the city,” the governor said. “We are keeping people alive.”
If workers are found to have collaborated with Islamic State — for instance, if an instructor agrees to teach religious extremism — officials withhold a portion of their salary, he said.
Thus far, salaries have been terminated for only a few Islamic State collaborators, his staff said, including eight municipal workers, one of whom became Mosul’s new minister of public works.
Some Kurdish officials believe all salary payments should be halted, noting that civil servants in nearby Kurdistan have not been paid by the central government for a year because of a dispute over oil revenue sharing.
“It’s a puzzling policy that they are paying terrorists, but not the ones fighting them,” said an official in the Kurdish security chancellor’s office who asked not to be named.
He said Kurdish officials have sought to have Baghdad stop the Mosul payments, questioning how Najafi and others can be sure that those who are being paid are not Islamic State supporters.
“We are not for cutting people’s livelihoods, but the person paying out the salaries must know if they are supporting ISIS,” he said.
The official said cutting Mosul salaries probably would have the opposite effect of what Najafi fears.
“It will make the people feel very disenfranchised. They will turn to ISIS for that money and they won’t have it and the people will have no choice but to rise up,” he said.
Najafi said Mosul residents post updates almost daily on a Facebook page called “The Mosul Brigades,” including details about how they have shot and killed Islamic State fighters in stealth attacks.
An additional 11,000 resistance fighters have begun training outside the city with U.S. and Canadian advisors at two sites under the command of a retired Iraqi general, Najafi said. Many of the volunteers are former Mosul police who fought Islamic State in the summer and know the terrain and the people.
“If we want them to rise up,” Najafi said of Mosul residents, “we need to communicate with them, give them some weapons and support.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.