An Iraqi Kurdish soldier in the Hamrin mountains. (photo: اراس محمد)
On a recent afternoon in a rural area west of the central Iraqi city of Samarra, four cars arrived in Badawi Saad al-Shammari’s village, Malha. “The cars looked similar to those commonly used by the militias operating here,” he told NIQASH. “By the time the cars were in the village properly, it was too late. We realized it was a force belonging to the Islamic State group. But we had no time to react,” he recounts.
The men in the cars, members of the extremist group known as the Islamic State, managed to get control of the small village and then read out a list of names.
“They were the names of seven young men from the village,” al-Shammari says. “The extremists said they would take the men away for questioning, then bring them back. The next day, in the morning, the bodies of the men were found. They had been blindfolded and handcuffed and then shot in the head and chest.”
There’s been a clear escalation in the pace of attacks.
Stories like this are becoming more common in the central province of Salahaddin. Locals believe that the extremist group, which has supposedly been dispelled from the province, is trying new tactics. Fighters are harassing and intimidating the residents here who don’t agree with them, or who collaborate with the government, trying to persuade them to leave. The departure of civilians from their homes also gives the extremist group more options for hideouts, weapons stores or bases from which to plan guerrilla-style attacks.
“The security situation in the desert areas of Salahaddin, south-west of Mosul, and on the outskirts of Diyala and Kirkuk, continues to deteriorate,” Ali al-Nawaf al-Hassan, the head of the Shammar tribal council in the area, told NIQASH. “The Islamic State group has started to regroup and it has started to attack my tribe again: We believe they are responsible for about 200 recent deaths.”
Most of the members of the tribes living in these areas raise cattle and rely on agriculture to make a living and the Shammar tribe says it has lost at least 50 of its own people in the past two months, as they were kidnapped or murdered by the IS group.
Local authorities believe around 230 homes, four schools and two health centres have been attacked in some way by the extremists this year, including arson and bombing. Almost daily attacks on local farmers, shepherds and other civilians have caused hundreds of locals to leave the western and eastern areas outside Samarra and move into the safer city. The amount of traffic on the Baghdad to Kirkuk and Tikrit to Tuz Khurmatu roads has also decreased significantly.
Recent attacks have seen unarmed cattle herders kidnapped or killed, grain farms burned, cattle stolen and bombs exploded in the houses of locals that the IS group suspects of being members of local tribal militias, or collaborators with the Iraqi government.
Security forces are also being targeted here. The IS group has prepared traps for local military by luring to them from one deadly location to another even deadlier one. The extremists have also set up “phantom checkpoints”, whereby they pose as military and stop cars on major roads, before kidnapping, killing or robbing those in the vehicles they stop.
It is clear that, despite the fact that security forces say the situation is under control in this area, the situation on the ground, further away from urban centres, clearly isn’t.
Some of the remote areas the IS group is trying to forcibly displace locals from are already well known as areas used by the IS group’s predecessor, Al Qaeda. The latter worked from out of this area prior to 2014.
For example, the mountainous areas of Hamrin, terrain south-east of Samarra along to Diyala and Kirkuk provinces, and west of the Shirqat district, north of the city of Tikrit.
There’s been a “clear escalation in the pace of attacks in the east and west of Salahaddin,” confirms Ahmed Abdel-Jabbar al-Karim, the head of Salahaddin’s provincial council. “The security situation is not stable and it is a source of concern. We believes there are hundreds of IS fighters in this area and that they are carefully choosing the time and place of attacks. Often they attack security headquarters, strategic roads or tribes that are pro-government.”
“There are between 150 and 200 members of the IS group deployed in the areas between Salahaddin and Diyala,” says Ali Taher al-Farhan al-Obeidi, the leader of the tribal militia south-east of Samarra; his troops are clashing with IS fighters almost daily, he says, and there have been dozens of deaths. “They are threatening people and confiscating property and they are using these methods to empty areas of their population. If that doesn’t work, then they start kidnapping and killing. And their justification is this: They simply accuse the sons of the tribes of supporting the Iraqi government.”
There are a number of reasons for the deterioration in the security situation here, says the council head, al-Karim. He believes a lack of support for security forces here from the central government, the slow or non-existent progress of reconstruction, weakness of intelligence sources and the lack of air support in the form of reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters, are all part of the problem.
Tribal council leader, al-Hassan, believes that if something isn’t done soon to address the harassment campaign, there will be serious consequences. “Cities will fall again and important roads will be controlled by the IS group,” he warns. “And there are two ways to address this. Either the regular Iraqi army should be dispatched to patrol these border areas; or the tribal militias here need to be better equipped and trained so they can protect themselves.”