DIBAGA CAMP, Iraq (AP) — As the Islamic State group loses ground in Iraq, the militants are showing strains in their rule over areas they still control, growing more brutal, killing deserters and relying on younger and younger recruits, according to residents who fled battleground territories.
The accounts point to the difficulties the extremist group faces as Iraqi forces, backed by the United States, prepare for an assault on Mosul, the largest city still in the militants’ hands. For months, Iraqi troops, militias and Kurdish fighters have been clawing back territory town by town, making their way toward the northern city.
In the latest areas recaptured, Iraqi troops over the past month took a clump of villages near a key military base south of Mosul that they plan to use as a hub for the assault. Residents of the communities, which lie strung along bends in the Tigris River, say that in the preceding weeks, the militants ruling them had seemed to be scrambling to keep control.
In Qayara, which is the main town in the area and remains in IS hands, beheadings and extrajudicial killings that previously were occasional became commonplace in a hunt for spies and deserters, said Jarjis Muhammad Hajaj, who was among thousands of residents who fled fighting in the area and now live in the Dibaga Camp for displaced people in Kurdish-run territory.
“They started making raids on houses, arresting people and beheading them,” he said.
Hajaj said the group’s fighters appeared increasingly nervous as they watched news of IS loses elsewhere.
Their ranks also appeared to turn more to younger, less experienced men. At one point, almost all the militants guarding the streets were teenagers, he said. That, Hajaj said, was when he thought, “They’re collapsing. They’re finished.”
The reliance on younger fighters in smaller communities could be a sign of overstretched manpower as the group’s more veteran militants redeploy to Mosul or to neighboring Syria. Other factors could also be in play, like difficulties in finding new recruits and the effect of desertions, which Kurdish officials have said are on the rise.
Fighters as young as 13 or 14 were patrolling in the village of Awsaja on the other side of the river, said one resident, who asked to be identified by his nickname Abu Saleh for fear of reprisals against his family in areas still under IS rule. He said the militants killed seven people for trying to flee the village, displaying their bodies on a bridge as an example to others.
As Iraqi troops moved on Awsaja, the militants seemed confused on how to respond.
At one point, some IS fighters decided to retreat and ordered all the residents to come with them as human shields, Abu Saleh said. But that prompted an argument with others in the group who were remaining in the village to fight and wanted the residents to stay for their protection, said the 50-year-old psychologist, who fled with other residents and is now also in Dibaga Camp. Iraqi forces succeeded in retaking Awsaja in mid-July.
The area has been under IS rule for two years, ever since the Sunni militants overran much of western and northern Iraq, joining it to the territory they control in neighboring Syria in a self-declared “caliphate.”
Though the group has been notorious for atrocities and its brutality in enforcing its radical vision of Islamic Shariah law, many in these Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq initially welcomed their rule. The Sunnis had long bristled under the rule by majority Shiites who lead the government in Baghdad. At first, IS provided them services the central government had neglected.
“When they first came, they gave the people money and food. And you know, the people are poor, they took it,” said Sabha Khal Salih, a mother of two in the village of Hajj Ali, near Qayara. Young unemployed men joined the militants’ ranks, she said.
But as time went on, living conditions deteriorated, in part because IS-held territories were cut off economically from the rest of Iraq. Also, the U.S.-led coalition’s bombing campaign has strained IS’s resources and prompted it to lash out against anyone it suspects of spying.
Abu Abdullatif, who worked in a clinic in Awsaja, said over the past three months, the militants became even more intrusive in enforcing their rules, even peeking into homes to see if women were properly covered there and imposing fines “just to get the money.” Over time, he said, the food rations that IS distributed to the poor grew smaller, until finally they were giving only a few kilograms of flour — though members of the group continued to receive full rations.
Fearing residents were trying to escape, IS fighters strictly questioned — and sometimes demanded fees from — anyone trying to cross the river to markets in Qayara, he said, also speaking on condition he be identified by his nickname because he feared for the safety of relatives.
The group’s fear of informants has fueled a crackdown in Mosul itself. This month, IS released a video titled “deterring the traitors,” where six young men are shown being killed on a city street. In the video, the narration accused the men of being “the eyes of America,” suggesting they were spies.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say the final assault on Mosul is still weeks away as forces fight to retake territory around the city. From the Qayara military base, Iraqi troops are still some 70 kilometers (40 miles) from the city.
The towns and villages around Qayara recaptured from IS are still too close to the front lines and too rife with booby-traps and explosives for residents to return. When Iraqi forces retook the area, many of the IS fighters changed into civilian clothes and disappeared into the surrounding desert.
Hajaj, the Qayara resident, said people in the area will never allow them to regain a foothold.
“Now we know who they are, we will never let them return,” he said.
Associated Press Writers Salar Salim in Dibaga Camp, Iraq, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Qayara and the villages in the area are near the Tigris River, not the Euphrates.
Kirkuk (Iraq) (AFP) – Iraqi special forces led an operation on Tuesday aimed at retaking the jihadist-held town of Qayyarah, a key staging base for operations to attack Mosul, military sources said.
Qayyarah lies on the western bank of the Tigris river, about 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of Mosul, the Islamic State group’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
With the clock ticking down on what Iraq expects to be its biggest anti-IS operation yet, the UN warned of population displacement on a scale not seen in years.
“The operation started at dawn with the participation of Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) and army forces,” Brigadier General Firas Bashar told AFP.
US-led coalition aircraft provided support, said Bashar, the spokesman for the operations command in Nineveh, the province in which Qayyarah and Mosul are located.
“The operation is ongoing and currently achieving its goals,” CTS spokesman Sabah al-Noman said.
“Qayyarah will be cleared and the operation wrapped up quickly, bolstering our plans… for the final battle to liberate Mosul,” he told AFP.
He said Iraqi forces had been working with armed residents inside the town for this offensive, a rare occurrence.
“There has been coordination with groups of armed residents inside,” Noman said, declining to provide further details.
Iraqi forces have spent weeks positioning themselves around the town, which is expected to be used as a launchpad for a broader operation against Mosul in the coming weeks or months.
– ‘Insufficient camps’ –
The United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) said that 200,000 Iraqis had already been forced to flee their homes this year and warned that Mosul could trigger an unprecedented crisis.
“Worse is yet to come,” the UNHCR representative in Iraq, Bruno Geddo, said. “We predict that it could result in massive displacement on a scale not seen globally in many years.”
Nearly 3.4 million people have already been displaced in Iraq since the start of 2014.
Mosul is Iraq’s second city and had an estimated population of around two million before IS took it over in June 2014 in an offensive that sparked large-scale displacement.
Accurate numbers for the population remaining in the city are hard to come by but the UN and other officials have said that up to one million civilians may still be living under IS rule in the Mosul area.
“We are building new camps and pre-positioning emergency relief kits to ensure people fleeing get rapid assistance,” Geddo said.
“But even with the best-laid plans, there will be insufficient camps for all families needing shelter and we need to prepare other options,” he added.
Saleh al-Juburi, the mayor of Qayyarah district, said around 15,000 civilians were believed to be trapped under IS rule in the Qayyarah area.
“There are plans to bring food and medical supplies to those who are still in their homes and did not manage to escape Qayyarah,” he told AFP.
“We will distribute this aid immediately after the liberation of the town.”
Juburi said CTS forces were making quick progress in Qayyarah and had already retaken key landmarks in the town hours after the launch of the operation.
“Most of the Daesh (IS) fighters have been killed or have fled,” he said.
After retaking Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in June, the main focus of Iraqi security forces is Mosul, which is IS’s de facto capital in Iraq.
The Iraqi authorities and the aid community, including the UN, came under criticism for failing to cope with the much smaller influx of people displaced from Fallujah.