When Mosul's Cops Return, Will They Seek Reconciliation Or Revenge?

Oct 21, 2016
Originally published on October 21, 2016 11:50 am

To find Mosul's cops, you drive to a gray dot of a village in an endless desert. The village, Mahana, was retaken from the Islamic State a few months ago and for now it's the police base for cops who left Mosul when ISIS took over more than two years ago.

Iraq's army and its allies are now battling their way through rural areas toward the larger prize of retaking Mosul. Helicopters buzz back and forth from the front lines. Every breath is bitter with smoke from oil wells set alight by ISIS.

Inside the police base, the mood is upbeat. The police are helping the army with logistics. Presiding over a bank of radios and several battlefield maps is police Gen. Abdulkareem al-Jubouri.

"Yesterday, they liberated my village," he says of the tiny hamlet where his mother and sisters lived for more than two years under ISIS rule.

"I feel great happiness today," he says. "First, because we liberate our areas and our people from ISIS, everyone is happy, not just me. The officers, the recruits, everyone is happy. Today I went to my parents — such a great happiness."

He went with the army and several of his men on a mission to figure out how to hold the village. But he did have time to hug his mother.

"She was crying," he says.

Gen. Jubouri is optimistic. He believes the police, with their knowledge of the area, should be the holding force when and if ISIS is expelled from Mosul.

But the Mosul police have a reputation to overcome. Before ISIS took Mosul in June 2014, people in the city complained that the police were corrupt and infiltrated by al-Qaida.

The police chief, Gen. Wathiq al-Hamdani, is pretty blunt.

"Some of them, they have a relationship with the terrorists, and some of the police who stayed in Mosul now, they work with ISIS," he says.

He says this refers to about 20 percent of the force. But now, he says, the police have had training from the U.S.-led coalition outside Mosul, and they're ready to go back and help rebuild the place.

But even if the police at the training base aren't allied with the extremists, there could still be problems like discipline and a desire for revenge. For many police, the battle against ISIS is personal. They lost friends and family, and their desire to settle scores could override their training.

A young police corporal, Muhannad Ahmed, is also from the village now retaken from ISIS, and says his relatives there are like people who died and were given life again. He talks about what he'll do if he encounters anyone linked to ISIS.

"I'm going to go and slaughter them all," he says. "I won't leave anyone in their family. I will erase them from the face of the earth. The brother or father of anyone who is with ISIS."

In training, he was taught to hand over suspected ISIS fighters to be dealt with by the courts. But as the setting sun shines golden on his youthful face, he says, "We feel we have to kill them."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And we turn now to Iraq, where government forces are battling their way through rural areas to try to reach the city of Mosul, which is held by the Islamic State. An array of Iraq's security forces are involved. The fight is perhaps most personal for members of the Mosul police force who are anxious to get back to their city. NPR's Alice Fordham went to meet them.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Mosul's police have been exiled from the city and villages around it since ISIS took over in 2014. To find them now, you drive to a gray dot of a village in an endless desert. It was retaken from ISIS a few months ago, and hundreds of cops are now using it as a base.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

FORDHAM: Helicopters buzz back and forth from the frontlines, and every breath is bitter with smoke from oil wells set alight by ISIS.

As-salaam alaikum.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wa-laikum as-salaam.

FORDHAM: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How are you?

FORDHAM: Inside, the mood is upbeat. The police are helping the army with logistics. Presiding over a bank of radios and several battlefield maps is General Abdulkareem al-Jubouri

ABDULKAREEM AL-JUBOURI: (Through interpreter) Yesterday, they liberated my village.

FORDHAM: These police were serving in Mosul city, and he's from a tiny hamlet nearby where his mother and sister still live. ISIS held it for more than two years.

JUBOURI: (Through interpreter) I feel great happiness today, first because we liberated our areas and our people from ISIS. Everyone is happy, not just me - the officers, the recruits. Everyone is happy. Today I went to my parents - such great happiness.

FORDHAM: He went with the army and several of his men on a mission to figure out how to hold the village. But he did have time to hug his mother.

JUBOURI: (Through interpreter) She was crying.

FORDHAM: General Jubouri talks a big game. He says, as locals, the police should be forced to secure Mosul once ISIS is forced out. But they've got a bad reputation. Before ISIS took Mosul, people in the city complained the police were infiltrated by al-Qaida. I asked the police chief, General Wathiq al-Hamdani, about this, and he's pretty blunt.

WATHIQ AL-HAMDANI: (Through interpreter) Yeah, I will talk very clear. Yeah, some of them, they have a relation with the terrorist. And some of the police who stay in Mosul now, they work with ISIS.

FORDHAM: Besides that, people from Mosul said the police were just incompetent and corrupt. But General Hamdani says the ones that fled Mosul have now had training from Western advisers on things like how to raid a house and deal with suicide bombers. He says they're ready. But there's another problem. For this police force, the battle against ISIS is personal. They lost friends and family. And their desire for revenge could override their training.

Outside, I meet a young corporal, Muhannad Ahmed.

MUHANNAD AHMED: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He, too, is from the village now retaken from ISIS. And he says his relatives there are like people who died and were given life again. And then, he talks about what he'll do to ISIS.

AHMED: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "I'm going to go and slaughter them all," he says. "I won't leave anyone in their family. I will erase from the face of the earth the brother or father of anyone who is with ISIS."

In training, he was taught to hand over suspected ISIS fighters to be dealt with by the courts. But, as the setting sun shines golden on his youthful face, he just says, we feel we have to kill him.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Mahana village, Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.