Cinders and desolation in Iraq's Hawija after IS

09.10.2017

One side of the billboard calls for jihad, while the other warns of death for smokers. Iraq's Hawija still bears clear signs of its three years under jihadist rule.

Islamic State group jihadists set fire to everything they could before they fled an Iraqi government offensive on the northern town in oil-rich Kirkuk province. Thick black smoke billows from burning oil wells around the town. Fields lie scorched in the surrounding region known for its cereal crops and watermelons.

Government troops and paramilitary units on Thursday retook Hawija, one of the jihadist group's last bastions in the country.

Beside roads leading into the town, villagers throw themselves at passing military convoys begging for food.

"We haven't seen a teabag or spoonful of sugar for four years," Um Imed says, tears in her eyes. "Our children are dying of hunger and go barefoot," she says, fiddling with the edge of her long black robe, covered in dust from the passing vehicles. "Only IS families got fat from the taxes they levied on our crops and the quarter of our produce" they took for themselves, she says.

The desolation is the same inside the town, where the 70,000 Sunni Arab residents who were believed to have stayed on under IS rule are nowhere to be seen.

In 2014, "when IS seized the town, they used the hospital," a spokesman for the Shia-dominated Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force tells journalists.

"But as the Iraqi forces approached, they wanted to burn everything so no one could use it – despite it being public infrastructure," Mohammed Khalil says.

But some of the medical centre has survived the flames. In consultation rooms, glass shards and blood samples litter the floor, while in the nurses' staffroom, prescriptions, pamphlets and other pieces of paper recount life under IS.

On one sheet of paper headed "Islamic State, Kirkuk province", jihadist leaders ask staff to urgently treat "brother Adel, a soldier in the special forces".

"They too only got things through connections," a Hashed member scoffs, before slipping away.

Opposite the hospital, no one has entered the town hall for fear it has been booby-trapped.

IS has lost vast swathes of its territory in Iraq since it overran around a third of the country, imposing its brutal interpretation of Islamic law on those it ruled.

Smoking was banned under the jihadists and punishable in their so-called Islamic courts.

Hawija, 230 kilometres north of Baghdad, was at the centre of a pocket of mainly Sunni Arab towns that were among the group's final holdouts.

The town had been an insurgent bastion since soon after the US-led invasion of 2003, earning it the nickname of "Kandahar in Iraq" for its ferocious resistance – an allusion to the Taliban's citadel in Afghanistan.

Jihad is nothing new in Hawija, as shown by pamphlets scattered in the hospital, or nearby in what was an IS court.

While a shiny pamphlet speaks of the "joy of martyrdom", another quotes late al-Qaida leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who fought the Americans and ordered grisly executions of Western hostages before being killed in a US air strike in 2006.

But Hawija is now in new hands. In the town's central market, reduced to rubble by a car bomb, Hashed members have planted their own flag on top of surviving stalls.

Instead of the jihadist standard, the new flag bears the face of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and a revered figure in Shia Islam.

"Let IS return," says Oday Salman, a 35-year-old who left his wife and baby girl in the Shia shrine city of Najaf to come and fight the jihadists. "We're here and we're waiting."    (AFP)

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