On May 13, the Nineveh Governorate’s council elected a new governor after the previous one, Naufal al-‘Aqub, resigned following accusations of corruption and mismanagement. The election was hotly contested, with many inhabitants of Mosul, Nineveh’s capital, opposed to the election of a governor not from the city. They despised ‘Aqub not only because of his poor performance, but also because he hails from the small rural town of Hatra.

An academic from Mosul encapsulated the mood in the city by saying that Mosul is dominated today by its periphery. He was referring to ethnic, religious, and tribal militias forming the larger part of the paramilitary groups active in Nineveh Governorate. Some of Mosul’s inhabitants still think that most of the Islamic State fighters who took over their city in 2014 and caused its destruction came from peripheral areas and were driven by hatred of urbanized Mosulians.

They blame the inhabitants of Tal A‘far for the disaster that followed Mosul’s takeover by the Islamic State. Indeed, several Islamic State leaders came from Tal A‘far, including Abdul-Rahman Mustapha al-Qadouli, who was widely seen as the second man in the group, and Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, a prominent member of the Islamic State’s leadership, who was killed in 2015. That is why some Mosulians saw the Islamic State as empowering Nineveh’s rural or peripheral population, even though it had members from the city, many of whose inhabitants had joined another insurgent group, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, dominated by Ba‘athists. 

These local narratives are often overshadowed by the focus on ethnic, religious, and sectarian divisions in Nineveh, which the Islamic State’s rise further politicized and militarized. Unquestionably, the military conflict against the group solidified ethnoreligious boundaries, but it also led to the neglect of other divides, namely those separating the center and periphery. The collapse of Mosul’s hegemony over its periphery in recent years, whether as a result of the Islamic State’s takeover or the subsequent rise of victorious paramilitary groups, increased the fluidity in relations between Mosul and its environs.

Mosul is the most populated city in Nineveh and has been the heart of political, economic, and cultural power in the region. Over the centuries it developed a particular social and cultural identity, including a unique dialect and cuisine. Mosul’s historical ties with Syria, particularly Aleppo, and southern Turkey have shaped its collective self-perception. Sunni Islam and Arab nationalism have been essential in shaping Mosul’s identity, as opposed to the multiple non-Muslim and “heterodox” communities in adjacent areas.

As in other urban centers, tribal ties have often been weak in Mosul. Notable Sunni families from the Ottoman era played influential roles until the mid-20th century, when integration into the Iraqi state strengthened the role of Baghdad and its civil and military apparatuses. Osama al-Nujeifi, who became speaker of parliament between 2010 and 2014, and his brother Atheel, Mosul’s governor from 2009 until the city’s fall to the Islamic State, belong to a notable family and became Mosul’s leading politicians after 2003. Yet, the advent of the Islamic State and the subsequent conflict caused them both to lose much of their political capital, allowing new groups, often from outside Mosul, to fill the vacuum.

This was visible in the outcome of the vote for a new governor to succeed ‘Aqub. He was replaced by Mansour al-Mareed, who was born in Qayyara some 60 kilometers south of Mosul. His candidacy was supported by three groups not from the city—the ‘Ata Movement, led by Faleh al-Fayyad, the chairman of the Popular Mobilization Forces; a second group led by parliamentarian Ahmad al-Jubouri, a former governor of Salaheddin Governorate, and Khamis al-Khanjar, who is an influential politician and businessman from Anbar Governorate; and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). For many Mosulians, Mareed’s election was a case of outsiders intruding in their affairs, though some admitted it was made possible by the failure of the inhabitants to unite behind a cohesive political force.

Due to this perception of external interference, some politicians and professionals from Mosul have advocated, not for the first time, turning Nineveh into an autonomous region. Iraq’s constitution allows governorates to become federal regions. This demand was previously embraced by Atheel al-Nujeifi in 2012–2013, but was rejected by then-prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose dispute with Nujeifi was identified by an investigative parliamentary committee as a major cause of Mosul’s fall in 2014. The previous year, Maliki had countered Nujeifi’s demand by saying that his cabinet would divide Nineveh into four governorates—Mosul, Tal A‘far, Sinjar, and Sahal Nineveh. Yet, this never materialized.

Supporters of a new federal region in Nineveh think that if it gains more autonomy from Baghdad, this will reduce the influence of the Shi‘a-dominated government and Iran-backed groups. Therefore, it was not surprising that the Kurdish leadership in Erbil sympathized with the project and provided a platform for those advocating for an autonomous region. The KDP expects that if this were to come about, it would be easier for the Kurdistan Region to annex disputed areas in the governorate, such as Sinjar, Hamdaniyyya, Zamar, and Talkif.

Those who want Nineveh to become a federal region also believe that such a move would help Mosul consolidate its power as a regional center, strengthening its position vis-à-vis its periphery. Wanting to replicate the experience of the Kurdistan Region, they believe that Mosul will have at its disposal sufficient resources to revive its ties with Turkey and working relations with Kurdish areas, becoming the economic and cultural hub of northwestern Iraq.

However, current political realities do not make this likely. On the one hand, Nineveh receives most of its resources from Baghdad, which gives the central government leverage in defining the relationship between the two sides. On the other, as Faleh al-Fayyad has stated, the balance of power in Nineveh was drastically altered after the defeat of the Islamic State. Fayyad’s influence over Nineveh expanded following the appointment of a new governor from his ‘Ata Movement. Nor is Mosul’s desire to reassert its domination shared by the populations of surrounding areas. Non-Muslim minorities such as the Yazidis and Christians are longing for more autonomy and protection for their areas, not reintegration into Sunni-dominated Mosul, where they would have secondary status. Kurds are more inclined to be part of Kurdistan, while the Shi‘a prefer stronger ties with Baghdad. Rural and tribal Sunni Arabs in areas such as Rabi‘a, Hatra, and B‘aj are either indifferent or seeking to build influence in Mosul through alliances with the powerful Shi‘a militias or the KDP.

Nineveh is undergoing a long process of reconstitution that will continue to produce new winners and losers. Yet for now, those who adhere to a Mosul-centric perspective find themselves on the losing side. Even if the new governor and his administration do not subscribe to such a perspective, they will have to deal with the question of Mosul’s relations with its periphery. This will ultimately have implications for Nineveh’s relations with the rest of Iraq. 

This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.