Once an Islamic State Stronghold, Jalawla Is Now a Ghost Town
Iraqis brave enough to come home risk explosive traps and Shia militias
Taha, the Kurdish security chief in Jalawla, walked through a hole in a demolished wall and climbed onto the rubble of his home. A sandstorm howled around him, covering the sky with an eerie yellow glow.
He looked at the ruins. Nothing stood apart from a few metal supports and some ruined rooms.
“ISIS had locals among them, they knew where my house was and when they took the town they blew it up,” he said, rubbing the sand from his eyes. “It’s hard to come back here.”
Islamic State captured Jalawla—a town in Iraq’s disputed territory—as the terror group tore through northern Iraq last summer. In November, Kurdish Peshmerga and a Shia militia liberated Jalawla after a long and bitter battle.
But Jalawla remains a dangerous ghost town. Collapsed buildings punctuate the streets. Many shops in the town’s bazaar bear scars from mortar rounds that exploded nearby. Graffiti left over from Islamic State’s occupation adorn some buildings. Bombs and booby traps remain a real threat.
An uneasy alliance of Kurdish troops and Shia militiamen patrols the city. The ostensible allies pursue very different agendas—and frequently clash.
‘ISIS wants to attack again’
Jalawla and the nearby town of Sadia are now part of a militarized zone. Home owners must get permission from the Asayish, the Kurdish security agency, before they can return.
Even then, the locals only have permission to stay long enough to collect their belongings. The Asayish is reluctant to allow people to move back permanently. The Kurds claim to have intel that Islamic State is planning to attack Jalawla again.
The town sits on the corridor linking Baghdad to Kurdistan in the north. Its location—and its proximity to the Iranian border—gives Jalawla strategic importance.
“We have received intelligence saying that ISIS wants to attack again,” said Taha, explaining the continued risk to residents. “ISIS is still coming in at night and planting bombs.”
In early February, a jihadi bomb killed eight Peshmerga on a nearby road. The closest village is home to Islamic State supporters, some members of the local Karawe tribe.
The Karawe is the main Sunni Arab tribe that inhabits the surrounding area. But the clan has divided loyalties. Some support Islamic State, while others turned their back on the insurgents.
Those who refused to help Islamic State live in camps for displaced Iraqis, near the Kurdish towns of Kalar and Khanaqin to the north.
Sheikh Hwandi, the leader of the Karawe tribe, refused to support the insurgents. He lost both of his legs when Islamic State tried to assassinate him.
Islamic State retreated and left behind explosives, hidden in fridges and stairwells for unsuspecting liberators.
“We find new bombs all the time,” Taha revealed. But the Asayish don’t have specialized equipment that would make it easier to detect the traps. So far, the death toll from IED explosions stands at around 40.
Taha entered a house on the outskirts of Jalawla. This part of the town was part of Islamic State’s front line against the Peshmerga.
It’s still remarkably intact. There’s a few signs of a military occupation—discarded jihadi uniforms and empty bullet casings littered gaps between the houses.
The house is almost entirely empty except for a few pieces of furniture. A fine layer of sand covered everything. Two copies of the Quran sat on a bedroom table, perhaps left by the former owners to show Islamic State fighters that they were good Sunni Muslims.
The display of devotion is not enough. “He was a religious man, and they still placed a bomb in his house,” Taha observed.
A large improvised explosive device sat on a landing between two sets of stairs. Whoever designed the bomb used a plastic motor oil container. The only visible signs that it’s an explosive device are two wires—almost out of sight—between the device and the wall.
Taha pointed to part of a single, thin wire, which disappeared beneath a folded rug on the floor. The bomb was large enough to kill anyone unlucky enough to trigger the device.
Besides potential attacks from Islamic State, there’s another obstacle preventing residents from coming home.
In June, the Iraqi government called for volunteers in the fight against the Islamic State. The result was the Popular Mobilization Forces, a grouping of Shia militia fighters that not only included new volunteers, but more battle-seasoned and well-established groups, all loyal to then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki.
At times, these militias have clashed with Kurdish forces within the disputed territories.
The Shia militia entered Jalawla in November, their fighters part of a group called Saraya Tali’a Al Khurasani, or STK. There’s little public information about STK, but the group first emerged in 2013 in Syria, and released footage of their fighters operating near Damascus.
Members of the Shia militia—who took part in the town’s recapture—stayed in the city. Then they burned businesses and homes.
“The Shia were burning the houses because they saw Jalawla as a 99 percent Sunni town,” an Asayish officer in Jalawla said. “They came for revenge. They did not care who the house belonged to.”
Ali Sarhad, a civil servant from Jalawla, loaded his car with his family’s possessions on a deserted and dusty street in the town’s bazaar. “When the Peshmerga came, everything was OK,” he said. “When the Shia came, this happened. The Shia took everything worth anything.”
Ali’s brother Hassan picked through a looted computer shop in the bazaar. The wreckage was all that remained of his livelihood. A gaping hole in a cupboard marked where a large, expensive server rack used to be.
“This is the first time we have been back in Jalawla since the liberation,” Hassan said. “The Shia took everything. All they left was one keyboard and one mouse.”
He looked around inside the smashed store as his brothers sifted through rubbish left behind on the floor. The Shia militia even filmed themselves looting Hassan’s shop and uploaded the video to Facebook.
“I will only come back to this city if it is under Peshmerga control—not Shia,” Hassan said.
Jalawla residents living in a displaced-persons camp in the nearby town of Khanaqin share Hassan’s feelings.
“When we left our homes, some stayed behind,” said a man from the town of Sadia, close to Jalawla and also currently under the Shia militia’s control.
“The old and unwell had to be left behind in Sadia, including my mentally-ill relative named Walid,” he continued. “The Shia had no mercy for them. We saw their killings on TV and social media.”
Relatives last saw images of Walid online. He had been decapitated, and his feet placed on top of his head.
Those in the camp agree with Ali and Hassan. They do not want to return to their homes while the Shia militia remain in the area. They don’t talk about hidden explosive devices. Instead, many fled to the camp because the Iraqi army randomly bombed their homes.
They also don’t have faith in the Iraqi central government. Rather, they would prefer to live under Kurdish administration.
“When the coalition got rid of Saddam, they handed us to a mad man,” another male resident said, referring to Maliki. “Can they not come again?”
Signs of accord
The Kurdish troops are uneasy with the Shia militias, too. A recent agreement in January limited the number of Shia militiamen in Jalawla to 80 fighters, and restricts them to two locations.
Monthly meetings now take place between the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Asayish, Iraqi army and Shia militia to coordinate and try to avoid further conflicts in Jalawla. Theft is still common, but the Kurdish security forces are doing their best to stamp it out.
At a checkpoint on the outskirts of town, Taha looked over a pile of household goods, a refrigerator and air conditioners.
“At first the Shia militia said they belonged to ISIS,” Taha said. “The Peshmerga confiscated them and we found out where they were taken from. We arranged to return them to their owners.”
If the coalition can defeat Islamic State, local officials plan to work with Kurdish and Sunni Arab communities in the area.
Jalawla will have its own security force, with a shared command of Kurds and Sunni Arabs. But this feels like a long way off when the town is still a militarized zone.
It won’t be until there’s peace that homeowners can return, and start the long process of healing the war’s open wounds.