Investigative Report by Nozt Shmedin – Omran Al-Dhahe
Thick forests of candidates’ photos campaigning for the forthcoming parliamentary election are displayed almost everywhere in Mosul’s streets. Banners can be seen covering pavements, bridges’ entryways, establishments’ facades, and even lighting posts in such a way that seems to have concealed the tragic damage caused during anti-ISIL war. Many of those pictures’ owners are in the meantime leaders of the tribal ‘Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi mobilizations’ which actually include over forty armed organizations affiliated to the ‘Popular Mobilization’, in Arabic ‘Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi’, solely empowered to allow or prohibit whatever things are done in the city of Mosul.
Pictures of the mobilizations’ leaders ( in Arabic Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi) nominated for 12 May election were displayed in almost all gateways to Mosul, the center of Ninewa Governorate, with more banners near the military sites hoisting different flags, slogans and other placards of various sizes, some of which are hoisted several meters high and efficiently fixed by professional bodies. Whereas others were either randomly placed along wrecked streets covered with rubbish and debris and flooded by drainage water, or on the facades of dilapidated buildings surrounded by the remains of houses that seem to have been leveled to the ground by battles.
“Checkpoints are erected almost everywhere, in squares, entryways to boroughs and main streets, but the fact of the matter is that they are militarily worthless”, said a lieutenant colonel serving with Ninewa operations, who seems to be grumbling about the mobilizations’ authority, overspreading in the various areas of Ninewa. “We actually know nothing about their actual numbers or the amount of weaponry under their possession”, he adds.
Statements made by more than one local official confirm that such military groups consist of roughly 15,000 fighters, the majority of whom are from the Sunni clans’ youth, and are distributed among checkpoints and military camps, or stationed on the entries to the boroughs of Ninewa Governorate. However, their number is in fact much less as indicated in this investigation.
Lieutenant Cornel continues saying, “They are not more than scattering remnants and every one knows that the Popular Mobilization has the upper hand here.”. He goes on saying, “There’s a lot of lying and exaggeration in the estimation of their numbers, and it’s clear that the rate of ‘spatial’ soldiers amongst them is very high.”
The election scene in Ninewa sounds complete with the pictures of the Shiite influential leaders displayed everywhere, while hoisting their Hashd’s flags high over many major public buildings and military barracks. Its impact extends to reach Mosul University which from time to time witnesses ‘Husseineya Solace’ (Shiite religious rituals) and whose major gate carries sectarian slogans heralding a new era for the governorate which is expected to witness an approaching security collapse, as per the several warnings given by some security experts and researchers whom we met through this investigation.
Popular Poet with a Fighter Rank
‘Monzer Abdullah Fatthy’, a tall plump youth in his mid twenties, has actually never carried arms throughout the period during which the so-called Islamic State ‘ISIL’ took the reins in Ninewa Governorate, says laughingly ‘ I have never even shot a bullet in the air’. However, he collects his salary from the Popular Mobilization Authority, considering him a fighting element in a military formation consisting of 500 personnel. As for his actual job, together with some other youth, all belonging to Alqayra city, 60 km south of Mosul, it is just accompanying the clan’s Sheikh nominated to the House of Representatives, who introduces himself as a military leader of this faction, besides reciting popular poems praising the nominee in the presence of his guests.
Since his appointment about a year before, Monzer has never joined a single training camp, neither had he been entrusted with any security mission. “Not bad. It’s a comfortable job. All I have to do is to be present with the Sheikh on various occasions, clannish meetings, tours and visits. Anytime the Sheikh travels to Baghdad or abroad I take holidays.” he elaborates.
According to the statements made during our interviews with Monzer and other elements appointed to protect the nominee, the number of Al-Hashd fighters who are residing in the city of Alqayara or in the neighboring villages, does not in any way exceed one hundred at most, about one third of whom are his personal companions, despite the fact that the Sheikh had repeatedly stated to the mass media that the official number of the mobilization faction he leads is 500 fighters. We also found the number he always mentions in his talks, documented within the lists of the clannish mobilizations we managed to obtain, the details of which will be elaborated later on in this investigation.
According to our sources, 400 monthly salaries are expended on the propaganda of his election campaign, which he started early while establishing his mobilization formation before a year or so. In the context of his propaganda, pictures were transmitted on electronic screens seen in Mosul streets and other pictures repeatedly presented on the screen of ‘Almosuleya’ Satellite Channel together with other paid video clips showing him on the screen of the same channel accompanied by his own group elements or during his propaganda campaign tours during which he was seen investigating people’s living conditions.
Such a ‘spatial mobilization’ (the name Iraqis like to use for that kind of illusive military forces) is only one of dozens operating in the same manner, through claiming a suppositional number of their elements and accordingly collect funds from the Iraqi government, with no evidence whatsoever proving the true volume of their combatant force.
And in spite of the fact that the authority scale in the governorate liberated from ISIL, moves concerning its finance, supplies and active presence, towards the Shiite popular mobilization’s factions, whose majority of elements are from the southern governorates of Iraq and from Baghdad, besides other Turkmen from Talafar province and Shabak of Ninewa Valley. Yet there could be within Mosul a few number of checkpoints affiliated to the Sunni clannish mobilizations, particularly on the left side of the city, the most prominent of which is ‘Ninewa Mobilization Guards’ led by Atheel Alnegeffy, the deposed ex- governor of Ninewa, whose personality is controversial with several questions raised about his integrity and the true number of mobilization group.
And as per the last decision taken by the operations’ leadership itself, these clannish mobilizations will be responsible for forming a security girdle encircling Mosul city. It is one of three, the first of which girdles Mosul with local police elements, and the other encircles Ninewa governorate by elements from Iraqi army.
Where are Mobilization Units trained?
All attempts made in the course of our field investigation whether in the city of Mosul or in the provinces and districts affiliated to Ninewa governorate and all our contacts with dozens of their security and military leaders, failed to guide us to the whereabouts of the regular training camps which mobilization units claim they have.
The fact of the matter is that there is a widespread delusion in the regions of their clannish and at times ethnic leaders that such mobilization units have been originally formed. We have really seen nothing but flags flying high indicating the areas of their extensive authority and power. As for the factions whose elements have actual existence inside or outside Mosul, the numbers indicated on the lists of the ‘Popular Mobilization Authority’ (the reference of all mobilization entities) are not in fact consistent with the reality of their existence on the ground.
“There’s a lot of lying and exaggeration in the estimation of their numbers and it’s crystal clear that the percentage of the spatial soldiers amongst them is very large”, he adds.
Even the major training camps in Makhmour, east of Mosul, and Owaynat in the west, and the Qayara base in the south which were repeatedly mentioned by major general Kareem Al-Showely, deputy leader of Ninewa operations, and head of the popular mobilization unit in the governorate, in the course of his many appearances on many local television channels picturing him supervising the delivery of salaries to mobilization fighters. We have found nothing in the above locations with the exception of Qayara base camp which was occupied by regular Iraqi forces.
The most raised questions circled around the mobilization of ‘Ninewa Guards’, which was known, prior to its being included within the popular mobilization structure, as the ‘National Mobilization’. It was established by Atheel Al-Negeffy, the former governor of Ninewa, with Turkish support and supervision. That was the cause behind his deposition through a parliamentary resolution after being accused of espionage with a foreign country. A judicial order for his arrest was issued and two judgments were made in absentia early this year in two other cases where he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for each case.
First lieutenant Sofyan Khedr, serving with the local Ninewa police, was amongst the elements of that mobilization entity before being returned to service after his firing because of ISIL’s occupation of Mosul on the 10th of June 2014. He explained to us how Atheel Al-Negeffy had changed from being a mortal enemy to the Shiite factions, even banned to enter Mosul, to an active member inside the Popular Mobilization Brigade prior to the launch of Ninewa liberation operations in October 2016. His mobilization began to be known as ‘Ninewa Guards’. He then collected financial sums from Baghdad, the headquarters of the ‘Popular Mobilization Authority’ and was rewarded by being given an authority area inside Mosul.
Lieutenant Khedr accompanied us in our tour in the areas north west of the city of Mosul, specifically on the left side of the districts of Sukkar, Almagmohaa, Alarabi and Alfurqan, where the elements of the mobilization (in Arabic Al-Hashd) are claimed to be found. He referred with a smile drawn on his face that whatever we could do, we would not in any way find more than 1000 fighters. He said that in response to the repeated statements made by Atheel Alnegeefy who had repeatedly assured on many occasions the presence of 4000 combatants in his mobilization entity.
It is noteworthy to mention that we had previously paid a couple of visits to the ‘Zlekan Camp’ east of Mosul, the former was on the 4th of April 2015, on the occasion of the graduation party of the fourth batch of ‘Alnegeefy’ forces named ‘Ninewa Wall’, and the latter was on the 5th of June 2015 on the occasion of graduating the fifth batch named ‘ Hazm Ninewa’, before he moved to the inside of the city after the liberation of its left side. At that time we were among some media teams covering two military parades organized by the mobilization forces in the presence of elements from the Turkish army, and most of them were trained. But in the course of our two visits we could not count more than a few hundred fighters and we were not definitely sure whether all such elements had actually participated in the two training sessions.
In the course of our first visit, ‘Mahmoud Alsourouggy’ the spokesman for the mobilization, told us the number of their combatants amounts to 6000 men, justifying the presence of only 10% of this number by claiming that ‘their other comrades are all on holidays’. The then present media people saw it was rather strange to grant holidays for such a large number of fighters during the holding of such a significant parade.
However, in the course of the following visit ‘Alsourouggy’ told us that there are only 4000 fighters in their unit. But while communicating with a number of elements from the same mobilization unit, whom we met outside the camp, they informed us that the actual number of combatants is absolutely not declared and there is most often talk about new volunteers but the suggested number does not in any way exceed 1000 fighters.
On the other hand, Nahla Alhebaby, the representative for Ninewa Governorate, (from the state of law coalition headed by Nouri Al-maliki) answered our questions by giving numbers she attributed to sources from both the Mobilization Authority and Iraqi government. And according to what she said, Al-Negeefy receives approximately two milliard Iraqi dinars ($ 1,750,000) as salaries for spatial fighters whose names are registered on the lists he himself submits. She added that such an amount is for (3740) ‘spatial’ volunteers with an average of (525,000 Iraqi dinars) as a monthly salary for each fighter, but the original pay amounts to (650,000 Iraqi Dinars), from which (125,000 dinars) is deducted monthly for nutrition. She then said that ‘Atheel Alnegaffy’ had previously informed the Ministry of the Interior about the presence of 4000 volunteers in his mobilization entity. She then said, “Take my word, he doesn’t have more than (260) volunteers.
And between the pulling of Alnegeefy and the pushing of his opponents, the actual number of ‘Ninewa Guards Mobilization’ remains rather mysterious. However, all the facts on the ground refer that a large portion of it is ‘spatial’ as described by Iraqis. Representative ‘Alhebaby’ was not in fact the first one to mention that description in the course of her talk about ‘Ninewa Guards’. But Ahmad Al Assady, the spokesman for the ‘Popular Mobilization’ (in Arabic ‘Al- Hashd Al- Shaabi) himself had previously said, “There is no sign of Alnegeefy forces in the liberation operations. They are not more than spatial forces.”
“Yes, 1000 fighters”
We have to bring such figures and statements to Atheel Alnegeefy himself to give his response but to our regret he refused to comment on any, or reply to our repeated emails or answer our mobile calls or respond to the enquiries posted on his private Facebook account, where he has always been active since his ousting by a resolution adopted by the Council of Representatives. The deposed former governor came back with a tweet on the Facebook website on the 12th of last March in which he said, “Whatever foes say or claim, the creation of ‘Ninewa Guards’ is the best achievement ever made for Ninewa Governorate since 2003.”
As for Zuhair Al-Gabourry, the spokesman for Ninewa Guards (successor to Mahmoud Althourgy, who was ousted before the beginning of Ninewa liberation battle) and who was meanwhile a candidate for the current parliamentary election within the list of the ‘Iraqi Decision’, headed by Osama Alnegeefy, the governor’s brother – as for him, he said in answer to our questions, ” Yes we have 1000 fighters receiving salaries from Iraq’s government, and this is a big evidence that they are not only 260 combatants.” Then he went on saying, “A supreme committee from the ‘Popular Mobilization Authority’ headed by Abdul Hamid Alshattry, the deputy chairman of the mobilization, paid a visit to the camp and delivered the salaries to one thousand fighters.”
Prior to our follow up of the Sunni mobilizations in Ninewa, we’d rather start by obtaining the lists containing details about their numbers, something that had never been published by any authority before; neither did the mobilization entities give any information about it.
The distance between Mosul and the capital Baghdad is 400 km with dozens of security checkpoints equipped with explosive devices and booby trap detectors, thus hindering regular movement and at times the journey between the two cities takes more than 10 hours. And once we had been forbidden from entering Baghdad due to some procedures and precautions described to us as being security measures.
Subsequent to our talk with a series of personalities, we eventually reached someone responsible in the central premises of the’ Islamic Dawa Party’, who managed with his authority to provide us with the names of the regiments together with their leaders and manpower numbers. He gave us access to their lists and allowed us to take photos of them by mobile phone cameras while assuring to us the secrecy of such documents due to the already declared state of war against ISIL (in Arabic Daesh) and the preparations that were then underway to begin Mosil liberation battle. Meanwhile, he referred that there are continuous demands to add names of new factions to the lists. Reference should be given here that such lists are not more than photocopies of handwritten registers of regiments’ names, including the mobile numbers of each and everyone of the mobilization units’ leaders and number of regiments. There also exist some omissions and amendments of the included data and names of new factions might have been added to the lists later on.
The abovementioned names’ lists included 42 mobilization units in Ninewa with a manpower numbering 11,370 fighters. Hence, we started our task of matching the listed numbers with the factual numbers on the ground, taking into considerable account that reaching an accurate number is a semi impossible task; due to the fact that there are many beneficiary bodies who are attempting with every possible means to cover that file or at least keep silent on it.
The lists included the present Ninewa governor, Nofal Al-Akoub, whose name is attached to one of the mobilization units, which is popularly known as ‘ Al-Akoub Mobilization Faction’ while officially named ‘Regiment 17’ as per the lists. Its formal number is (79) fighters, whereas their actual number is only (13) personnel led by ‘Mezahem Ghazi’. Most of its members are related to the governor and descended from Al-Hadhr Province (80 Km. south of Mosul), where he enjoys his tribal influence, something that has been confirmed by all clannish sources and two fighters belonging to his same mobilization faction in the course of the interviews held with them in Al-Hadhr Province.
One of our sources is Sheikh ‘Youssef Al-Ramah’ who also leads another mobilization entity (Regiment 24) including (500) fighters. He resided in Erbil Governorate when ISIL (Daesh) was taking power in Ninewa and his faction was allied with Al-Akoub Mobilization faction. Al-Ramah seemed resentful when being asked about his former ally. He pulled the sleeve of his Arab outfit nervously saying, “I swear by God Al-Akoub doesn’t have more than a handful of combatants, numbering 13”. Then he explained that that was the cause behind ending his coalition with him.
The Council of Ninewa Governorate had accused Governor Al-Akoub of a long list of corruption charges, including listing spatial fighters among his mobilization unit. And after the periodical session No (66) held in the alternative site of the council in the Christian city of Koush on the 1st of November, 2017 when votes were taken for his ousting, the council members gathered in front of satellite channels’ cameras and ‘Bashar Al-Keeky’, the Council’s chairman, announced his firing and stated that their decision was based on financial and administrative corruption with no direct reference to the ‘spatial mobilization’.
Some of the council’s members later on claimed that making reference to such an issue is outside the competence of the council due to the fact that the funds spent on the mobilization factions are not from the budget allocated by Ninewa Governorate for the development of its districts. Meanwhile, ‘Khadida Khalaf’ another council member of Ninewa Governorate, representing Yazidis and one of those voted for his dismissal resolution, hinted that the hegemony of the Popular Mobilization Unit which is empowered with absolute security authority in Ninewa constituted a hindrance preventing any reference of the spatial ‘Al-Akoub Mobilization’ within the council’s resolution.
Khadida is the only council’s member who stayed in makeshift camps with the other deported citizens during ISIL’s rule of Mosul. He said, “Governor Noffal Al-Akoub is involved in several cases including his creation of delusive volunteers in his clannish mobilization group, besides his association through his brother Faysal Al-Acoub with ISIL’s organization.” Faysal, who is in fact the Sheikh of Al-Bohamad clan, south of Mosul, appeared on a video clip in 2016 speaking for himself and on behalf of his clan to declare publicly his allegiance to the so-called Islamic State Organization known in Arabic as ‘Daesh’.
The talk about the Governor of Ninewa’s delusive mobilization group got hotter and hotter by ‘Hossam El-Deen Al-Abaar’, representative for the Islamic Party in Ninewa’s Council, when we came across him, while inspecting one of the municipal works on the right side of Mosul. Soon after he heard our question about ‘Al-Akoub Mobilization Group’, he said, “There are (85) judicial claims referred to the ‘Integrity Authority’ concerning the governor’s corruption, including among other claims his spatial mobilization elements. He won’t go unpunished or get away with all his corruption.”
The issue is not actually confined to the ex-governor’s mobilization elements or whether it includes 5000 or 4000 or 1000 fighters or the size of the current governor’s mobilization faction, simply because the mobilization groups which include hundreds of spatial fighters existing on paper only are in fact so many. They are, after all, supposed to protect the city and prevent any security violations in collaboration with the army and police forces.
A retired officer in Mosul who preferred to be unknown says, “The worrying question is not only confined to their actual number, but to the number on the ground doing assigned security tasks as it should actually be done. This is a serious matter”. He brought to our notice that Mosul was occupied by a few hundred militants from ‘Daesh’ in just a few hours in the presence of tens of thousands fighters supported by local and national police forces. “The fact of the matter is that a large number of them proved to be spatial, a regretful reality the government itself has recently admitted to”.
In Al-Quwaysat region at the main northern gateway to Mosul, where the flags of the popular mobilization regiments are seen flattering, and across a few hundred meters of space, candidates’ pictures are thickly competing, including some of the popular mobilization leaders, one of which was erected on the edge of a rubbish dump, where a peddler selling vegetables was getting shelter under its shadow and said jokingly, “That’s the best thing you can get from them”, referring to the shade made by the candidate’s picture.
This investigation was accomplished with the support of The Network of Iraq’s Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ) and under the supervision of Kammy Almelhem.