A flag belonging to an anti-IS militia hangs over a sign that used to mark that this was IS territory near Tikrit. (photo: يونس البيياتي)
The abandoned village of Mutaibij is a mystery to Iraq’s security forces. The small town in Iraq’s southern Salahaddin province is thought to be a base for fighters from the extremist organization known as the Islamic State; as the extremists have been pushed out of other areas, they are regrouping in places like Mutaibij and launching attacks on local security forces and tribal groups opposed to them, from there.
Despite four operations to clean the town, no members of the Islamic State, or IS, group have been found in Mutaibij, a remote village about 35 kilometres east of the city of Duluiyah, near the banks of the river Udhaim.
The abandoned village is surrounded by farms but every time the security forces arrive here, it is empty. The residents were members of Iraq’s al-Bu Issa tribe, who came out as opposed to the Sunni Muslim extremist group, even though they are Sunni Muslims just like the group.
Most of the villagers left town around two years ago when the IS group arrived in the area and are living with relatives near a larger city, Samarra.
We are being bombed and attacked by the IS group every single day. We are just about ready to lay down our arms and leave this place.
And their hometown “has become a mysterious place,” says local policeman Ziyad Khalaf. “Every time we raid that village, we don’t find anybody there. Then a few hours later, we are attacked again and we lose men.”
According to other locals, this just confirms the IS group’s cunning ability to hide in the surrounding countryside. They have been present in this area for a while – the Hamrin mountain area is a well-known hiding place for the extremist group – but the number of incidents, and the number of fighters hiding out here, seems to be growing as the IS group is pushed out of other areas further north.
The difficult terrain and long stretches of unpopulated land that straddle several provinces make this territory excellent for hiding, or for the establishment of secret bases; the IS fighters who are locals know the caves and valleys well and they know it would be very difficult to hunt them down here, if not impossible.
Although there is heavy security in eastern Salahaddin province, with closed roads, patrols and many military checkpoints established over the past two months, IS fighters are still able to launch hit-and-run raids on the military and local tribal forces.
The IS group has managed to take control of several villages south and east of Samarra and their attacks are often launched from around these and further inside the Hamrin area.
The governor of Salahaddin, Ahmad Abdullah al-Jibouri, has already called upon the Iraqi government to intervene to protect the eastern parts of the province coming under attack. More than 600 families have fled the area for the province’s cities fearing they might become victims of the IS group, al-Jibouri said.
Tarad Misef al-Shammari, a former resident of Hassan village in the Dour area, says he was forced to leave his own home and move to a half-built house in Tikrit because of the IS group. He told NIQASH that the IS group were killing and confiscating farm animals and burning homes and cars. “Our lives were hell there,” he explains why he departed.
The IS group have managed to cut off the road between Salahaddin’s administrative centre, Tikrit, and the northern city of Kirkuk more than once. There have been many smaller raids but some of the most significant were the attack on a police station in Albu Khado, which resulted in deaths and the complete destruction of the station, as well as another attack on a police station in the village of Nayeb. There was also a suicide bomber attacking a military outpost and 12 electricity towers were targeted, which led to power cuts for more than a week in east Tikrit and in the Dour and Alam areas.
“The IS fighters are coming from areas that have no security, that are seen as strongholds for the organization,” Jassim al-Jibara, the head of the provincial security council, told NIQASH. “Places like the mountainous Makhoul area north of Baiji and Hamrin in the east. Getting the IS group out of these areas requires attacking from both the air and on the ground. The area between Salahaddin and Diyala is filled with IS cells and this is where they launch their attacks from.”
Meanwhile closer to the action, local tribal leader Ali al-Thayer al-Farhan, 38, is losing hope. His village, on the provincial border of Salahaddin and Diyala, is made up of around 300 households and he has been leading his men in defending the families there from IS attacks for two years.
He receives no government support, even though his town is located on what is thought to be the route that the IS fighters take to go back and forth toward Mutaibij.
“We are at a dangerous stage,” al-Farhan told NIQASH. “We are being bombed and attacked by the IS group every single day. Innocent people are dying. We are just about ready to lay down our arms and leave this place.”