Yesterday, the Iraqi army launched its biggest offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) since the fall of Mosul last June. Prime Minister Abadi announced that the towns of “Samarra, Dhuluiya, Balad, Dujail, al-Alam, al-Door, and Tikrit” would be liberated from ISIS.
It is odd that the town of Dhuluiya was mentioned in Abadi’s declaration, since the Iraqi army already liberated it in December 2014.
Dhuluiya was always an interesting city. Notorious for providing a high number of army and intelligence officers to the Saddam regime, it became the most important Sunni town to stand up to ISIS in late June 2014. A bloody siege ensued, where the Northern part of the city was occupied by ISIS, and its Southern part was sealed off by the Shiite Badr brigades.
During those fateful months, people were hungry, shelled from every part, and the wounded could only leave their city by crossing the Tigris River bordering it. During the siege, 126 corpses were buried in people’s gardens, as they could not reach the cemetery, which was on the frontline, and could not be extracted from the city’s main entrance controlled by the Shiite militias. To sustain the siege, weapons and ammunition were sent across the Tigris River by Shiite civilians from the neighboring town of Balad, who knew they were next in line to suffer from ISIS if Dhuluiya fell.
During that time, the city was the only “peace” town in Iraq, a Sunni city supported by its Shiite neighbor in the midst of a grave sectarian crisis induced by the brutal Baghdad government. Yet its siege was reminder of the fate that awaits the communities that choose to stand above terrorism, whether it is sectarian or extremist-based. At the time when the international community was debating what to do against ISIS, it crossed nobody’s mind to actively help Sunni communities fighting ISIS.
Up until December 2014, which is when Dhuluiya’s Jibouri tribe asked Baghdad for help against ISIS, it was also under siege for standing in defiance to the government’s perceived dictatorship against Sunni Muslims. What seems to escape the mind of every self-appointed Islamic State specialist is that ISIS was not born in a vacuum. The population support it fed on as it took one Sunni town after another was based on years of brutal sectarian reprisals by the then Maliki government, a government supported by the United Nations and the US government until the siege of Mosul.
So what exactly happened after the “liberation” of the city? In January, five neighbouring villages were burned by Shiite militias: Tal-Ampson, Ishaki, Aziz Balad, Tal al-Dahab and Yathib. Those villages were not targeted because they had sided by ISIS, they had just been reluctantly occupied by ISIS.
In Dhuluiya itself, the population has been increasingly weary of the Shiite militia presence controlling access to the city. Two weeks ago, they abducted two residents before being arrested and pushed back out by the town’s police chief. Another militia exclusively from Iran, the Brigades al-Khorassani, are routinely victimizing residents coming in and out of the city, by shooting randomly at cars, stopping motorists, humiliating them, occasionally torturing the most unfortunate of them, etc.
Given this context, one wonders how the population of Dhuluiya would have been treated if it had sided with ISIS. Would it have been left to be burned by militia that do not have to comply with International Humanitarian Law, since they are not a regular army?
The story of Iraq is not only that of ISIS, but that of a sectarian war that is still raging between Sunni and Shiite. What has been happening since the “liberation” of Dhuluiya is a cautionary tale for the inhabitants of cities that have not stood up to ISIS, and that the Iraqi government is proposing to “liberate” now.
When one is caught between a rock and a hard place, the French have an interesting saying. They joke that one is given the choice between contracting the plague or cholera. So what exactly are the people of Samarra, Balad, Dujail, al-Alam, al-Door, and Tikrit supposed to choose, ISIS or the al-Khorassani Brigades?
Victoria Fontan is Interim Chair of the Politics and Public Policy Department at the American University Duhok Kurdistan.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.