Friend or foe? It’s some­times hard to tell in war for Mo­sul

Malta Independent - - FEATURE -

He claimed to be a na­tive of Mo­sul and said he had just es­caped his em­bat­tled neigh­bour­hood. When his cell phone chirped cheer­fully, he said it was his mother calling and picked up.

But the clean-shaven man seemed to have a Syr­ian ac­cent, not Iraqi. His conversation with who­ever was on the other end of the line was strange at times as he gave de­tails on the sit­u­a­tion in the nearby dis­tricts. “We’re wear­ing enough and we have ev­ery­thing we need,” he as­sured the caller.

Iraqi troops nearby eyed him sus­pi­ciously as he spoke to The As­so­ci­ated Press on 12 Novem­ber just af­ter he showed up with his wife and small daugh­ter among dozens of peo­ple flee­ing the fight­ing in Mo­sul. The troops then took him aside and de­tained him, be­liev­ing he was an Is­lamic State group mem­ber.

The man gave his name as Omar Da­noun, though it’s not known if that is his real name. His case il­lus­trates the dif­fi­culty of know­ing friend from foe in a chaotic war. Iraqi forces as­sault­ing the city are on the look­out for IS fight­ers or mem­bers try­ing to slip out of the city with other res­i­dents, whether to es­cape or to sneak be­hind the lines to carry out at­tacks. A strange ac­cent or odd be­hav­iour can draw sus­pi­cion.

Gov­ern­ment forces are al­ready strug­gling to deal with thou­sands of civil­ians try­ing to es­cape the fight­ing and thou­sands more still in the mid­dle of it, hun­kered down in their homes. One Iraqi of­fi­cial told the AP that 25 mil­i­tants had pre­vi­ously been caught hid­ing among refugees.

That same day, a con­tact in­side IS-held parts of the city called the AP and said the group was hav­ing its fight­ers shave their sig­na­ture beards — re­quired of all men in Mo­sul un­der their own rules — and send­ing them out among civil­ians.

Be­fore the thou­sands may leave the city, troops sep­a­rate men from women and chil­dren. They then ques­tion the men, even young ado­les­cents, try­ing to de­ter­mine if any are fight­ers.

The Iraqi pres­i­dent, Fuad Mas­soum, said of­ten other lo­cals rec­og­nize IS mem­bers. “They in­form us about them . ... Those who are ex­posed (by civil­ians) are im­pris­oned,” Mas­soum said, speak­ing to the AP in Morocco, where he was at­tend­ing a cli­mate con­fer­ence.

Da­noun, who ap­peared to be in his 30s or early 40s, ap­proached an AP team in Gog­jali, one of sev­eral dis­tricts on Mo­sul’s eastern edge that Iraqi forces have re­taken from IS.

The neigh­bour­hood had the­o­ret­i­cally been seized by Iraqi forces two weeks ear­lier, but was still in chaos. The Is­lamic State group sin­gled out Gog­jali for “an ex­haust­ing war on the streets” against Iraqi troops as re­cently as last week.

In one com­pound that sol­diers said had been cleared of IS fight­ers, the small yard was lit­tered with melted ex­plo­sives — a sev­ered hu­man spine in clear view. In the drive­way sat a charred ar­mour-plated car of the kind IS sends out by the dozens as suicide bombs.

Da­noun pulled up in a truck along with about 60 oth­ers he said were his rel­a­tives. His 2year-old daugh­ter, wear­ing a full-length black dress, am­bled along­side him. His wife, also in black, pulled down a full-face veil when the in­ter­view started.

Freshly shaven ex­cept for a small patch of fa­cial hair on his chin, the man said he was a na­tive of Mo­sul. He had no prob­lem ap­pear­ing on cam­era, but in­sisted on wear­ing sun­glasses and a base­ball cap. His wife re­luc­tantly agreed to sit along­side him.

The group of men, women and chil­dren he ar­rived with ini­tially sat in the shade by a wall but then all rose at once and walked away, rolling suit­cases be­hind them as they dis­ap­peared into the streets of Gog­jali — with­out go­ing through the pro­cess­ing Iraqi troops carry out be­fore al­low­ing peo­ple into the camps.

Lis­ten­ing later to an au­dio record­ing of the in­ter­view, two Iraqi AP jour­nal­ists and a Syr­ian said his ac­cent in Ara­bic was Syr­ian, not Iraqi. His wife’s ac­cent seemed to be Iraqi, but not from Mo­sul, which has its dis­tinct lin­guis­tic par­tic­u­lar­i­ties.

The fam­ily told the AP they had fled that morn­ing from their home in eastern Mo­sul’s Sad­dam neigh­bour­hood, the old name for Zahra, a dis­trict cap­tured sev­eral days ear­lier by Iraqi forces.

Da­noun said he had vowed that if he ever got out of Mo­sul he would tell the world what life there had been like un­der IS rule. He com­plained about not be­ing able to move freely and said he and his fam­ily were de­tained by IS at one point for try­ing to es­cape to Tur­key.

But while many who have fled Mo­sul are thin and make a point of talk­ing about the city’s lack of food and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, he said he man­aged to run busi­nesses in Bagh­dad and Irbil and never wanted for food.

Then his phone rang and he asked to pause the cam­era while he took a call he said was from his mother.

Per­haps at­tracted by his ac­cent, Iraqi sol­diers silently en­cir­cled the fam­ily from a few me­ters away. Smok­ing and speak­ing on the phone, he seemed not to no­tice, although he and his wife both anx­iously asked again if the cam­era had been turned off. One of the sol­diers qui­etly told the AP team that he was a mem­ber of the Is­lamic State group.

Da­noun, mean­while, told his caller he was speak­ing to jour­nal­ists but de­nied he was be­ing filmed. He then ad­vised them to stay away from the neigh­bour­hood he had fled, say­ing the Iraqi army was at his house.

“If any of you come near the Iraqi army they’ll kill him,” he told the caller, then paused to lis­ten to the re­sponse. “Eh­san will come to give them a mo­bile credit. Do not speak with each other by phone. And now, when you hang up, re­move the SIM card from the phone.”

He put the phone down and strug­gled to an­swer one last ques­tion: How is it he and those he spoke with freely used their mo­bile phones, some­thing that un­der IS rule in Mo­sul meant death if they were caught?

His cell rang again. Gun­shots crack­led in a nearby street.

The in­ter­view was over. The sol­diers moved in. Da­noun pulled out an Iraqi pass­port and told them he was from Mo­sul. What ap­peared to be a se­cond pass­port peeked from his pocket. He calmly ex­plained his sit­u­a­tion, his face be­tray­ing nei­ther fear nor dis­tress.

He was taken into cus­tody.

An Iraqi Sol­dier takes a selfie with the daugh­ter of a man who iden­ti­fied him­self as Omar Da­noun at a col­lec­tion point for peo­ple dis­placed by fight­ing in Mo­sul, in Gog­jali, Iraq. Da­noun, was later taken into cus­tody by this and other sol­diers dur­ing his in­ter­view with As­so­ci­ated Press. The sol­diers be­lieved he was with the Is­lamic State group and that he seemed to speak with a Syr­ian ac­cent in­stead of an Iraqi ac­cent.

A man who iden­ti­fied him­self as Omar Da­noun, who claimed to be from Mo­sul, has his pa­pers checked and is taken into cus­tody by Iraqi sol­diers at a col­lec­tion point for dis­placed Iraqis in Gog­jali, Iraq

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