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Middle East

Mosul awaits help a year into 'Islamic State' control

One year ago, the "Islamic State" seized Mosul. Since then, IS's reign has spread across Iraq and Syria. DW's Birgit Svensson listened to recordings of the battle that show the Iraqi army's failure.

"Where are the planes, damn it?" The lieutenant screamed into the phone on June 10, 2014. "We've been waiting for over an hour!" Adnan was nervous and pressing his commander for an answer. But all Mahdi al-Gharawi could say was that the promised air support should arrive any minute.

But the planes weren't coming.

The next time Adnan called his commander, he was blown off. Supposedly, Gharawi was speaking with the prime minister and couldn't come to the phone - he'd call back. Meanwhile, the battle for Mosul continued. By the hour, the group known then as ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, had taken more and more territory in the city.

The situation was chaotic. The head commander for troops in the northwestern Nineveh Governorate, the province surrounding Mosul and the city's 2 million people, called all his officers, one after the other, and asked about their location and their troops. Now Gharawi was the one yelling: "I'll have everyone shot who's running away!"

Things were coming to a head. Via cellphone, the commander ordered all his remaining troops to Yarmuk Square. When he tried to call his officers a short while later for an update, he couldn't reach anyone anymore. Mosul had fallen.

The Iraqi army could only hold the country's second-largest city for four days. Before the events of Mosul, nobody really took the terror militia seriously, but, since then, the group , rechristened simply the "Islamic State" (IS) has spread terror and fear all over the region.

A boy on a bike cycles by rubble in Mosul. (Photo: AP Photo, File)

IS has destroyed important Mosul mosques

The 45 recordings from the commander's cellphone made available to DW allow for a reconstruction of the dramatic events that went down in Mosul one year ago. Gharawi's orders were uncoordinated, unprofessional and lacked structure. He only gave out vague locations to his subordinates. No real strategy could be discerned from the calls.

Complaints from soldiers about not having eaten in two days and not having sufficient ammunition were met with silence. Gharawi also didn't reply when Lieutenant Mohsin reported that the guns mounted on top of the tanks weren't really working and that surveillance systems were missing.

When the group took Mosul, hundreds of soldiers deserted and numerous Iraqi army weapons and vehicles fell into IS hands.

"We have lost many weapons," Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who took office three months after the attack, recently admitted on state TV. He added that 2,300 armored Humvees had also gone to IS.

General Gharawi was relieved of his duties and indicted - he believes wrongfully so. There are supposed to be phone recordings proving that Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister at the time, had ordered the army's retreat from Mosul. A commission was to present its report on the one-year anniversary of the events, but that meeting has been postponed.

IS fighter waving flag. (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer/Files)

An IS fighter in Mosul last July

Recovery operation postponed

Any efforts to take back the city have been put off. First Tikrit, then Mossul: That's what military officials in Bagdad have been saying since last August, as well as members of the International Alliance, which has been flying airstrikes under US leadership in Iraq.

The major offensive was supposed to start in April or May, with the Iraqi military cooperating with Kurdish troops. A member of the US Central Command had passed on juicy details to New York Times journalists. According to that information, US special forces were supposed to work on the ground, too, so that the airstrikes could be coordinated better.

The US Department of Defense was angry that unusually detailed information about a future military operation was published. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called it "mistaken disclosure of military secrets." The operation was canceled.

So the Iraqi government decided on a change of strategy: Instead of Mosul, the next place on the list to take back was the Anbar province, west of Baghdad. From Tikrit, government troops were supposed to free the important Baiji refinery first and then move west to Anbar.

IS was faster. Before the troops were moved, the group attacked Ramadi with full force. The provincial capital had seen fighting for months when IS fighters took control of it. A counteroffensive has been going on for two weeks now, led by a an army cobbled from Iraqi forces, Shiite militias and Sunni tribes. So far, they have not been successful.

Iraqi troops on a tank in the desert. (Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi troops start their counterattack to take back Ramadi in May

"We'll never get back all of Anbar," said Iraqi parliament member Mithal al-Alusi, who is from the province. Fallujah - with 310,000 residents, the province's largest city - has been under IS control since January 2014, well before Mosul fell. It was the first city in Iraq where IS flew its black flag.

Observers say that Iraq's government will fail with in its plans to take back Anbar first. Military leaders in Baghdad says that was a decision made by politicians and that commaders were consulted insufficiently.

Iraqi politicians had put a higher value on the protection of Baghdad than on the liberation of Mosul, said a member of the military council who wanted to remain anonymous. After all, Anbar abuts Baghdad.

Spring cleaning in Mosul

Meanwhile, high-ranking IS officers have returned to Mosul. They had fled to Syria earlier, when there was still talk of an attack by the International Alliance. Now, with the ongoing fighting in Anbar, they seem to feel safe in Mosul.

Right now, Mosul is apparently undergoing a belated spring cleaning, the news portal Niqash reports. Streets, squares and sidewalks are being swept and cleared of rubble. Potholes are fixed, and street signs and traffic lights have been put up again. Mosul is cleaner that it has been for years, Iraqi journalists from there report on social media. Even the power is back on after more than five months.

A man named Abu Obaidah is responsible for this "victory." The 30-year-old Iraqi is from the Dijala province and wants to show that the IS can rule the city better than the former people in charge, who are now in exile.

Whether IS can win over Mosul's residents and make them overlook the group's atrocities is another story. For now, though, IS is there to stay. Currently, the group is collecting an annual business fee of $1,500 (1,300 euros) from merchants in the local market.

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