Beaten and battered in urban areas of Iraq and Syria, Daesh has re-emerged in small towns around Iraq's Euphrates River Valley with local tribesmen and police incurring their wrath.
HADITHA – The town of Haditha, previously known mainly for its dam and a 2005 massacre of 24 civilians by US Marines, has in recent years taken on ‘hero’ status after withstanding a lengthy siege by Daesh.
Now that fame has put this town in Iraq’s Euphrates River Valley at risk, as Daesh targets local fighters and police across western Iraq after losing its urban strongholds.
In late January, screen grabs from video footage showing the killing of two fighters from Haditha’s dominant Jughayfa tribe were posted triumphantly on Daesh media and supporters’ Facebook accounts.
One of the men was a member of the emergency police brigade in his twenties, preparing to get married in the days in which he was killed. Another was a member of the local Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU). A third man with them disappeared, prompting suspicions in their hometown that he could have could have been secretly collaborating with Daesh. All three were from the Jughayfa tribe.
The mainly Sunni town of Haditha lies along the Euphrates River near the country’s second largest dam.
Barwana, the part of the city across the Euphrates River, was taken for a short period by Daesh but was later won back. The current mayor’s son was killed in this area during the fighting to regain it.
In the month of February 2019, an uptick of kidnappings and killings in western Iraq has been attributed to both the white truffle season – in which many people go looking for the tubers in the rocky desert plains – and to the reportedly large numbers of Daesh fighters fleeing across the border from Syria, where the group’s last tiny stronghold of territory is steadily being emptied and is expected to either surrender or be cleared militarily in the coming days.
Announcements heralding the liberation of various kidnapped groups and of Daesh fighters being killed in Anbar province by tribal fighters and the army, as well as news of dead bodies found, continue at a dizzying pace.
Many of those kidnapped and killed were in the security forces. A group of 12 people kidnapped in the southern part of the province near al Nukhaib this month reportedly included at least one policeman and a member of the 28th Brigade of the Iraq Army’s 7th Division. The brigade has been active in searching for other kidnapped individuals and is based in Rawa, not far from Haditha.
On February 22, five men - including three from Haditha - who had been taken hostage while hunting for truffles near the town some days before were liberated. The following day the bodies of five fishermen were reportedly taken to the Fallujah morgue after being found near Lake Tharthar, located between the Anbar and Salah al Din provinces and the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
Haditha tribal fighters involved in the search for abductees in Wadi Houran in mid-February posted photos and loving memories of one of the men, Mohammed - who had been killed on January 27 and was featured in the Daesh propaganda mentioned earlier - alongside those of the operation in the notoriously insidious wadi, implying that they would get revenge for his death. Wadi Houran has long been known as an insurgent hideout.
A few days earlier the same pages had been filled with posts of mourning for the young man.
TRT World visited his family in Haditha about a week after his murder.
His younger brother Emad spoke about how they had been together during the fighting throughout the roughly 18-month siege that ended in mid-2016.
“Sometimes we didn’t return to our homes for 40 days [when we were fighting],” Emad said. “I was always with him. Those were hard days. No money, no food. A lot of fighting.
“Sometimes we went for four days without food, two without water,” the young man, barely in his 20s, added.
“Mostly we survived on dates,” he said, explaining that they were easy to carry, high in calories and grown in the area.
Emad later joined the federal police and was sent to Rutba further south in the province and then Mosul, where he fought from the beginning of the operations on the eastern side of the city until after the complete liberation of the city in the summer of 2017, he said.
Mohammed’s older brother Hussein told TRT World that, during the siege: “First there was no federal police or government here fighting. It was just us, members of the tribe, who got together and fought Daesh. Later Emad joined the federal police battalion formed here, which after the siege ended got sent to Rutba and then Mosul.”
He said: “For us, it doesn’t matter where: if Daesh is somewhere, we will fight them.”
Hamed, a cousin who had often stayed in their home and “was like another brother”, was killed in West Mosul “a metre away from me”, Emad added.
Photos of the grinning, fair-haired Iraqi boy both in uniform and in casual attire flank those of Emad’s father – who died “venturing out to get food for children starving in the town during the siege four years ago” – and other cousins killed fighting Daesh and Al Qaeda in the years before.
Now Mohamed’s photo has been placed alongside theirs on a crowded table at the end of the simple room in which the family sits on thin mattresses on the floor, the women dressed in black.
“He had taken on the responsibilities of his father. His older brother was here but he was the one to act like the eldest. He had a pure heart, that boy. He loved his friends and sisters. Everyone loved him,” his grieving mother said, seemingly partially still in shock.
Mohamed had had five or six operations on his hand after being shot several times, his cousin added. He had left Haditha only to go to Baghdad to get medical treatment.
His mother said: “[He] wanted to find a way for me to get an operation. I have problems with my heart. And I said no, first you need to get married. He wanted me to go on hajj but I said no, you must get married,” she said, breaking down in tears momentarily before putting on a proud but pained face again.
‘’That day he left, he was in the room that he was preparing for his wedding. He would go every day to the farm not far away but that day a friend was with him. It wasn’t morning but they went anyway. It was about 4 PM, ‘’ she said.
“Where did the other go? Where is the third one?” she said with quiet, restrained anger in her voice, referring to the third of the group who disappeared, the only one whose body has not been found. “He has joined Daesh. I am sure of this.”
Two other relatives of the victim working in the security forces told TRT World that they had information that the man who disappeared had been involved in Al Qaeda in 2011 but had “returned to the straight and narrow”.
He may, however, have decided to go back to working with a terrorist organisation.
“Mohamed was like my brother. He spent all the time with us,” his cousin Ibrahim said. “He was a brave man. A strong man. But shortly before his death, Mohamed told a friend that ‘I don’t see anything good in the future’.”
“So I think he expected his death. Maybe,” he said, hesitantly. “That happens a lot. People sense when they are about to die.”
Ibrahim spent years in the notorious US-run Camp Bucca prison without being charged in the post-2003 period and was then released, he said, for no justifiable reason.
He claims he was beaten by Al Qaeda members in the jail in that period and that they tried to kill him. He still bears scars on his body from his time in the prison, as well as scars from multiple injuries sustained while fighting Daesh.
“[Mohammed] was born in 1991. He, his brother Emad and cousin Hamad are young men. They did not see fighting before Daesh came to Iraq,” Ibrahim said, noting that they were too young to understand what had happened over a decade before, when so many of the region’s young men were detained for little to no reason.
“America helped us here,” Ibrahim stressed. “We all consider them friends. Now.”
Ibrahim, who fought against Daesh during the siege, added that an attack in April 2018 - months after Iraq had declared final victory over the international terrorist group in December 2017 - had injured several of his relatives and killed two of them, emphasising that danger remains.
“Three Daesh fighters entered Haditha by night. The police killed two of them but the third got away and we went out to look for them in a military vehicle. The one who had fled was waiting in an old house and started shooting at us,” he noted.
“We all act as investigators and fighters, not just policemen or soldiers. Everyone in the town does,” Ibrahim said. “We all try to find out who is working with Al Qaeda and Daesh.”