MOSUL, IRAQ-When a city official told me Tuesday, "The center of the Islamic state is in Mosul. It is worse than Baghdad or Diyala," I didn't want to believe her. So much has improved, I thought, the soldiers at the checkpoints outside the city aren't even armed anymore. But now that I've been to Mosul and back, I'm a believer.
Mosul, Iraq's third largest city and located in the north, feels like the neglected stepchild of the U.S. surge that has done so much to improve security elsewhere. The parks and restaurants that line the shady banks of the Tigris here are all shut down, vacant. Streets leading into the city are lined with concrete barriers or dirt barricades topped with razor wire-just about anything to stop a car bomb. The open-air market in the center of the city is full of shoppers but storefronts are nearly all empty, closed indefinitely. A heavy cloud of black smoke rises from a neighborhood on the west bank of the Tigris-either a bomb, or the work of police exploding something suspicious.
On Monday insurgents bombed the house of an Iraqi Sunni lawmaker from Mosul, left a bomb to explode near a soccer ground where children were playing, and set off a roadside explosion. The lawmaker was in Baghdad at the time his house exploded, but several bystanders were wounded. Five children were killed in the second explosion. And one civilian was injured by the roadside bomb. On Sunday a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle near a police building, killing two and wounding about 40, including 15 policemen.
A year ago the level of violence was worse, residents say, and Mosul was deserted. Few could walk the city, and streets were empty of cars. Today the Nineveh Bridge was jammed with traffic into the city center and vegetable markets were humming with people. But everyone also is in a hurry to do business and move on, and whether the street activity is from a modestly improved security situation, or long-suppressed desperation to live normal lives again, is hard to say.
How does an American civilian travel to Mosul? With armed bodyguards and a headscarf. On the way out of town I traveled with a member of the city council, and we also had two military escorts, one up front and one behind, each with a machine gunner and four Iraqi soldiers in bulletproof vests and masks.
"Because of the success of the surge in Anbar, Diyala, and Baghdad, the insurgents come up to Mosul," said Khasro Goran, Mosul's deputy governor. Tuesday Goran, along with other residents in the restive areas between Mosul and Kirkuk, closely monitored deliberations in the Iraqi parliament, where lawmakers for weeks have been trying to finalize a provincial election law that should clear the way for the next set of national voting. Goran also met this week with members of a U.N. team, who he hopes will monitor such elections.
Goran is one of the optimists who believe an election law can be passed and polling can take place before the end of this year. Under the constitution, voting was supposed to take place by the end of 2007. But government wrangling-particularly over the status of the highly volatile provinces of Nineveh (where Mosul is the seat) and Kirkuk-has delayed elections repeatedly. The provinces could vote to align themselves with the northern Kurdish regional government or with Baghdad. And some would like to see a largely Christian autonomous region formed in the historic setting of Nineveh Plain.
Another complicating factor for holding elections is how to count internally displaced persons, or IDPs. Over 200,000 of Mosul's nearly 2 million people, for example, have fled the city. They are living out in the Nineveh Plain or further north, and officials are devising a plan for them to vote where they are. Using their food ration cards as record of residence, their vote may count in their hometown.
If the problems look complex, they are, much more so than the debate in the United States presidential race over how to bring the troops home and when. But each step further down the political road is a step toward reducing the current U.S. troop levels-and allowing Iraqis to get back cities like Mosul.