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Mosul’s stark divide highlights Iraqi governance crisis

On one side of the Tigris river, east Mosul is staging a comeback. Some 20 months since northern Iraq’s biggest city was won back from Isis extremists, its funfair, sweetshops and university are back in business. But on the other side of the river smoulders the city’s devastated west bank, an eerie shadow of the recovering east.

In west Mosul’s almost deserted old city, bodies are still being found beneath the rubble. Signs warn of unexploded ordnance and bombs. Children scavenge scrap metal to survive as poverty bites.

The stark divide illustrates one of Iraq’s biggest problems — a crisis of governance. War has been replaced by administrative dysfunction and alleged public sector corruption, ills that are fuelling growing resentment of the government in a country whose stability remains tenuous.

If Baghdad cannot establish legitimate authority in Mosul, Iraq’s second city, the implications for the rest of the country are ominous: the weakness of the state enabled Isis militants to capture Mosul in 2014, bringing the world’s third-largest oil exporter close to collapse.

“We managed to destroy Isis,” said Hakim al-Zamili, former head of parliament’s security and defence committee and a politician from the Shia-dominated Sairoon party. “But we didn’t start a state.”

Mosul was once the jewel of Isis’ self-declared caliphate. The misfortune of the city’s west was that its narrow streets were where Isis fighters made their last stand in 2017. House-to-house combat and international air strikes pulverised buildings.

The east, by contrast, got off relatively lightly, sustaining less damage because it was retaken more quickly by Iraqi security forces.

“Without us knowing we divided the city,” says Mohammad al Musali, whose al Ghad radio station broadcast into Isis-held Mosul.“Before 2014 we never called it east and west. Now you know someone from the west is probably very poor.”

The city is now just one item on an $88bn invoice, which is what Baghdad says it will cost to fix damage across the country after the Isis fight.

The federal government funds and oversees reconstruction efforts, but in Mosul it is the Ninewa provincial government that is supposed to get it done. Its tasks include restoring basic infrastructure, like sewage systems, electricity provision, and mending streets. But there is scant sign of large-scale reconstruction in west Mosul, and local people complain basic services are unavailable.

With oil revenues of some $8bn a month, Iraq is not poor. But it has an intractable graft problem, ranked 168th of 180 countries by Transparency International.

Critics allege that opaque provincial government procurement processes have created opportunities for corrupt tendering, and that projects are being implemented haphazardly.

“The people of Mosul . . . have the right to criticise government and political leadership,” said Iraqi president Barham Salih this month.

The Shia-dominated Iraqi government must win round a predominately Sunni Muslim city that was a stronghold of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party and hotbed of al-Qaeda activity.

A Mosul estate agent said that although property prices tumbled across the city, rental rates in east Mosul remained far higher than in the west.

“On the [east] side there are schools and salaries,” complained Abu Omar, 58, a worker from west Mosul. By contrast in the west, “two years have passed and nothing”.

Damage to bridges has increased the isolation of west Mosul, where “for sale” is scrawled on wall after wall. Some blocks of houses appear rotten with bullet holes. Only freshly painted mosques interrupt the grey pallor.

During a recent Friday prayer gathering, a preacher said: “Don’t think that by building a mosque you can hide your stealing.” His audience understood his target: the city’s leadership.

Akram Abdulwahab Agha, a Mosul resident, photographs old pictures and postcards of the city’s now ruined sites, such as the al-Hurriya bridge, which was captured from Isis by Iraqi troops in 2017 © Akram Abdulwahab Agha

Despite the scale of west Mosul’s destruction, Iraq’s 2019 budget allocates just 143bn Iraqi dinars, roughly $120m, to Ninewa — yet Mosul is estimated to need $1bn for reconstruction.

International funding is outstripping government contributions. Stabilisation projects in Mosul led by the United Nations Development Programme have been allocated $350m, although an extra $225m is needed to complete critical work. The UAE alone has pledged $50m to rebuild the symbolic al-Nuri mosque. Some $30bn was pledged by countries at a donor conference in Kuwait.

Aid organisations have made headway in debris clearance and other early recovery projects in west Mosul. But two senior humanitarian officials said Ninewa’s provincial government had repeatedly held up their work and that it was almost impossible to track how federal funds were spent.

“Unfortunately, government resources are not directed in the right way to help the people rebuild the city,” said an international humanitarian official.

“Our efforts are all on the [east side] . . . life has kind of returned to normal,” said Abdulsattar al-Hibbu, Mosul’s head of municipality. “On the [west side], there was a seven-month delay.” For this, Mr al-Hibbu blamed meddling by Ninewa’s provincial governor.

Mosul’s finances are opaque, but a bust-up between Mr al-Hibbu and Ninewa’s provincial governor has highlighted the administrative dysfunction.

Mr al-Hibbu has accused governor Nawfal Hammadi al-Sultan of corruption and interfering in municipality projects, without providing documents to substantiate this claim. Mr Hammadi al-Sultan did not respond to requests for comment.

Before and after: the Church of the Virgin Mary in Mosul © Akram Abdulwahab Agha

Even in east Mosul, mistrust of the Baghdad government is evident. In one comfortable family home, Akram Abdulwahab Agha, a photographer who has documented west Mosul’s carnage, blamed the security forces for its dire state. “They had a plan to destroy this area because it’s an area with rich history,” he said.

The west’s lack of services and unemployment has led some to make unfavourable comparisons between life today and under the Islamist militants.

“We were expecting the liberation would bring us hope and job opportunities but the opposite happened,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, 40. “We lost our jobs.”

Mr Mahmoud said he used to make ID50-60,000 a day as a hand carrier in the old city’s once famous market, which was destroyed. He now earns around half that much a week working as a guard. The economic situation, he said, was better under Isis.

“The government is busy with stealing,” seethes Mr Mahmoud. “They can finish [rebuilding] in less than a year if they want.”

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