BAGHDAD – As al-Qaeda-inspired militants have reduced Mosul’s ancient religious shrines to rubble in recent weeks, their support has also crumbled, with popular outrage producing the first signs of resistance in the Iraqi city.
A newly formed militant group calling itself the Mosul Battalions claims to have killed nine members of the extremist Islamic State in recent days in knife and sniper attacks as retaliation for the destruction of the religious sites.
Meanwhile, residents say they have protested attempts to destroy the city’s most iconic landmark – an 800-year-old minaret known locally as al-Hadba, or “the Hunchback,” because of its distinctive lean.
Many Mosul residents had initially welcomed the Sunni militants when they took over in early June, praising them for expelling the largely Shiite Iraqi army, which had been accused of mistreating the city’s majority Sunni population. But local dissatisfaction with the new overlords has been increasing.
The city has suffered from severe electricity, fuel and water shortages, and the smashing of shrines and statues. But the expulsion of tens of thousands of Christians from the city and the destruction a week ago of a highly prominent religious site — the tomb of the prophet Jonah, who, according to Islamic, Jewish and Christian scriptures, survived being swallowed by a whale — brought a new level of resentment.
‘People feel deceived’
“It was truly shocking for the people of Mosul,” said a 37-year-old resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “The people feel deceived by Islamic State. When they first came, they told us, ‘We will set you free,’ but they have turned against everyone.”
He said as residents gathered at the tomb of Jonah to see what had happened, some started shouting at the militants in anger.
Nonetheless, the following day, the mosques and shrines of the prophets Seth and George were also destroyed. Axel Plathe, the Iraq representative for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, described the actions as “deliberate and systematic destruction” on a scale never seen before in Iraq’s modern history.
In total, at least seven sacred shrines have been razed, said an official with the city’s Sunni endowment authority, which manages religious affairs.
“At first, we expected them to only blow up places for Shiite people,” said the official, who declined to be identified for security reasons. “Now they are blowing up everything.”
At least three Shiite mosques have been destroyed in Mosul, and more in nearby areas, he said.
Islamic State militants argue that it is idolatrous for Muslims to revere shrines and tombs.
Mosul has some of the most diverse cultural history in Iraq, said Plathe.
“There are mosques built on churches, built on synagogues,” he said. “It’s a city that has all these layers, where cultural diversity and religious diversity has been existing for so many hundreds of years.”
Armed defiance grows
The destruction of the religious sites has spurred an increasing backlash.
“Because of what has happened with the shrines, the population has completely turned against Islamic State,” said Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Nineveh province who fled the city when the militants took control.
The imam of a Sufi mosque in the city was arrested by Islamic State when he and other worshipers protested the destruction of a shrine there, Nujaifi said. He was released on Tuesday after being held for two days, he said, and the mosque and shrine are still intact. Sufis are followers of a mystical branch of Islam.
The militants took their extreme doctrine a step further when they rigged the ancient Hadba minaret with explosives Saturday, residents said. Just last month, UNESCO had begun urgent restoration work to stabilize the minaret on the city’s oldest mosque.
“When people heard, they quickly gathered around and prevented it from being destroyed,” the 37-year-old Mosul resident said. “They were very, very angry.”
That anger has fueled armed resistance to Islamic State, said Nujaifi, who said that at least five Islamic State members have been killed in recent days by the Mosul Battalions. Two were stabbed, while others were killed by sniper fire, he said.
“The people in the city of Mosul are busy forming armed groups and small brigades to work against Islamic State,” he said.
He said he was not directly involved with the Mosul Battalions, but is in contact with its leaders, who include former army officers from Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Local insurgent groups, including the Naqshbandi army and other Sunni militants who had formerly fought U.S. soldiers, have yet to lend support to the battalions, he said. The killings could not be independently verified and have not been acknowledged by Islamic State.
In a statement on its Facebook page, the Mosul Battalions group says it began forming soon after Islamic State seized the city, but that the destruction of Mosul’s sacred shrines had sped up its military activities. It lists nine killings of Islamic State members in the past week.
It stressed that it was not looking for the Iraqi army to return, saying the government forces are as bad as the militants.
“People are rising up, but the resistance is based on sniping at them from a long distance,” the Sunni endowment authority official said. “That’s all we can do.”
That the Iraqi army did not allow Mosul residents to keep arms makes it even more difficult to turn on the extremists, he said. “But we are now against them, 100 percent.”