MOUNT BASHIQA, Iraq – Seven months into the takeover of Iraq’s second-largest city by Islamist extremists, electricity, rice, flour and medical supplies are dwindling. The water is mucky. Religious minorities are confined to prison camps, and the overwhelmingly Muslim population of Mosul is subject to strict and increasingly arbitrary religious rules.
Those who disobey Islamic State’s fundamentalist edicts – including banning smoking or doing business during daily prayer times, and requiring women to cover their heads and faces – are whipped. Or worse. Late last month, two doctors were executed, according to ousted officials who continue to communicate by phone with Mosul residents, for having failed to save the life of an Islamic State leader wounded in an airstrike.
“The people of Mosul, a lot of them were educated overseas and they’re facing this primitive mentality,” said Atheel Najafi, governor of surrounding Nineveh province and scion of an old Mosul family, who was forced to flee when the city fell to the Sunni militants in the summer.
“In many ways, this is a clash of civilizations,” he said, “Day by day it gets worse. People are becoming more and more backward.”
Such is life in Mosul, a city of more than a million occupied since June by Islamic State, according to escapees and residents interviewed in person and by phone in recent weeks. Although their reports cannot be independently verified – travel to Mosul is nearly impossible for outsiders – they are beginning to provide a picture of a city that has undergone a startling transformation.
The militants have blocked roads and blown up bridges into the northern Iraqi city, which they proclaim as one of the capitals of their self-styled Islamic empire, or caliphate, extending west into northern Syria.
Early this month, Islamic State released a video showing British hostage John Cantlie touring Mosul, visiting a market, hospital and police. City services appear to be functioning, the streets full of people and cars.
A Kurdish peshmerga commander in a bunker atop the mountain here overlooking Mosul said the news from the city was discouraging.
“They have police, they have law, they have a government; it’s a full-on regime. They’re even trying to introduce a currency,” said Maj. Haji Abu Hussein, 47, who keeps in touch by cellphone with a Sunni feed salesman in the city.
Other witnesses say the reality of life in Mosul is far more grim: basic services scarce and prices soaring even as the quality of fuel and water deteriorates.
The city’s hospitals, schools and other government offices remain open in part because the Iraqi government continues to pay salaries to tens of thousands of civil servants, a policy opposed by some Kurdish officials, who say it serves to prop up the extremist occupiers.
Reached in Mosul by phone this month, Abu Hussein, 35, a day laborer and father of four, said that contrary to the Cantlie video, government workers were serving Islamic State, not the public.
“Entire hospitals have been commandeered for the fighters,” he said. “I tried to take my son because he was sick to the hospital, but they said, ‘Get out of here! This is for fighters!’ and they gave me 20 lashes of the whip.”
Mosul’s hospitals face severe shortages of medical supplies, equipment and staff, particularly female nurses and specialists such as surgeons and anesthesiologists, who have fled, according to reports from staffers at the International Organization for Migration.
Militants have instructed pregnant women that it is haram, or unholy, to give birth at a hospital, so they have had to use midwives at home, Abu Hussein said.
Residents have had electricity only for up to two hours every three days, he said. Cellphone reception in the city center was nonexistent in early January, according to the migration group’s employees.
Gas fuel canisters went up from $8 to $90 under Islamic State, Abu Hussein said. He and others heat their ovens with firewood. Islamic State militants in search of fuel chopped down part of the landmark Al Ghabat forest on the banks of the Tigris River.
Abu Hussein doesn’t send his children to school because militants have been teaching religious extremism and recruiting young students as fighters. Civics and sports have been banned, and by law teachers are allowed to instruct only students of the same sex.
Those caught smoking, using a cellphone or doing business during five daily prayer times are punished in Islamic courts by untrained judges, usually with fines and whippings.