Villagers Return to a Town Freed From Islamic State — And Arm Themselves
Sunnis in a northern Iraqi town flock to largely Shia militia
by BENEDETTA ARGENTIERI
When the so-called Islamic State arrived in Haj Ali, Iraq on June 11, 2014, nobody had heard of them before. The militants didn’t encounter any resistance from the nearly 10,000 families living in the area. In a couple of hours, they took control of the town and gathered as many people as possible.
“They said they wanted to help us, they will give us jobs and money” Abdel Alsibar Mohammed said. “We had no idea who they were, though we thought they could be better than the central government.”
He was wrong.
Just a day earlier, ISIS took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and continued to advance. Haj Ali is 35 miles south of Mosul. In a few days most of the Nineveh Province was under the extremists’ control.
They quickly began inflicting severe punishments on anyone who didn’t follow their strict interpretation of Sharia law.
“I realized they were bad in the first month,” Mohammed continued. “They called for killing of the atheists and other minorities. They started executing people for no good reasons and disciplining others for just smoking a cigarette.”
During that time, some residents fled to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government and a safe haven away from ISIS. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the inhabitants stayed.
Mohammed, a former lawyer, and his wife and five children live in a huge two-story house with a colonnade on the entrance and mosaics on the walls. They tried to adapt to life under ISIS rule.
ISIS tried to recruit people into its army, and established compulsory schooling for all children — requiring girls to attend classes until they were 10 years old.
“They wanted us to join them,” he said. “They offered a lot of money and several benefits. But I decided not to get involved.”
Now that ISIS is gone, he decided to become a member of Hashd Al Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Front, a largely Shia militia which took control of the area. Hashd Al Shaabi has become part of the official state, and soldiers respond directly to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi.
“We liberated this town about a month ago,” explained Maj. Col. Mathian, a 35-year-old commander from Baghdad. “We fought for five days, Daesh [a derogatory term for ISIS] killed 82 people, most of them women and children. They used them as human shields.”
Mathian is worried about the situation, he said, while sitting in an empty room in a house that had been transformed into a military base. On the rooftop, a black flag timidly waved next to yellow one — both of them Hashd Al Shaabi banners.
“There is no water, electricity, or food. We asked for supplies so many times, but they never get here.”
Although Haj Ali is a predominately Sunni town, the Shia-majority militia is popular with residents, most whom decided to join. The militia gave them uniforms and a $400 monthly stipend. Their primary responsibilities are to defend the village and prevent the Islamic State from coming back.
“When we liberate a town from ISIS we help civilians, we give them food and anything else they need. We build a relationship,” Hashd Al Shaabi spokesman Ali Hashm Husseini told War Is Boring. “They ask for security and we arm them. They take control of their village and we can advance faster.”
The militia includes at least 150,000 fighters, all from different backgrounds, according to Husseini. “At least 50,000 of them are Sunni, then we have a Christian battalion, Kurdish and Yazidi,” he said, asserting there is no religious tension.
Husseini rejected accusations of sectarian violence in cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah, characterizing them as lies propagated by Turkey.
The force has gained Baghdad’s favor in the past year. The militia proved to be effective early in the conflict when the Iraqi Army wasn’t. On September 2015, Al Abadi explained at the U.N. General Assembly that the Hashd Al Shaabi had become part of the Iraqi Security Forces.
As the Mosul operation began, Hashd Al Shaabi advanced from the south, hooking around Mosul from the in a northwesterly direction. In late October, the militia began pushing toward Tal Afar, which if seized, will cut ISIS’ supply route from Syria to Mosul.
“Everywhere we go, we try to convey a sense of nationality and responsibility,” Husseini said. “This is our country and everybody has to their part. We are not professional soldiers, we are doctors, farmers, architects. So when we liberate the area we help however we can.”
When the militia started the operation, it urged civilians not to flee. Leaflets were air dropped. The idea was to prevent people from moving and getting hit by crossfire. Now that Haj Ali is free, families are trying to return. But the conditions are very difficult.
The British non-government organization, Oxfam, is working in the area providing clean water and essential items such as blankets to families. The aid group is repairing the water plant in Haiji Ali, which will — when fixed — supply drinking water to 17,500 people.
“Every day more families are returning home to pick up the pieces and start again. When they arrive, they often find their houses looted and damaged from the fighting,” said Andres Gonzales, Oxfam’s county director. “Some have escaped from areas close to Mosul and are in desperate need of assistance.”
To further complicate the situation, oil wells set alight by the Islamic State affected hundreds of people who are now in need of medical help.
A few miles north sits the village of Osaja along the Tigris river. There as many as 150 people joined Hashd Al Shaabi.
“It is not a question of money, but security. We are in charge now,” said village leader Odey Fahd Mohammed, who is also known as Mukhtar. “When ISIS arrived, they said they wanted to help us and explained they wanted to take back Baghdad, but most of the people didn’t support them.”
However, some did, and those supporters have since fled to ISIS-occupied Mosul and Raqqa, knowing that if they stayed they would have faced prison — at the least.
It was a busy day for the Mukhtar. As many as 100 people returned to the town, and the job of organizing everything — including a security screening to prevent ISIS infiltrators — fell to him.
His headquarters rests on the hill overlooking the village. At the end of the slope sit two mud houses, with a couple of chickens and a cow. The Attaya family lives there. They include at least 12 people, including women and children. Life under Islamic State rule was difficult for all of them.
Mohammed, in a yellow shirt, showed the scar ISIS inflicted on him during a beating in a public square after he was caught smoking.
His sister Tarfa, a 28-year-old woman, pulled up her skirt to show where her leg had been burnt.
“When the Iraqi forces arrived, they [ISIS] took me and some other women and children in a house,” she recalled. “They trapped us inside, while they were fighting outside.”
“It was terrifying.”
The militants asked her to cook rice for them. Later, the militants stormed in, pushing her onto the cooking pot and burning her. She was lucky, she said. Many people she knows died.
Tarfa explained she never believed in the Islamic State’s lies, and had the feeling everything was going to terrible from the moment the militants made her wear the Niqab — even in her own courtyard.
This is why now, she smiled behind the camera, without her veil.