Sunday 25 February 2018

After military defeats, Isil now faces revolt in its strongholds

Masked Sunni protesters wave Islamist flags while others chant slogans at an anti-government rally in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2013
Masked Sunni protesters wave Islamist flags while others chant slogans at an anti-government rally in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2013

Richard Spencer in London

Fallujah was once seen as the most pro-jihadist city in Iraq. But Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) was recently forced to put down a mini-rebellion there that began in an argument in a bread queue, spread to three districts and ended with a series of executions.

In the town of Heet further west, a local tribal leader said a relative was on the run after he took revenge for a personal insult by assassinating six local Isil officials.

The stories are hard to corroborate, as Isil is blocking people from leaving the towns. But they conform with tales told by refugees from Isil control in neighbouring Syria, who say Isil's interference in the everyday lives of its subjects, combined with its growing need to recruit fighters locally, is causing increasing discontent.

"They are violating families and harassing women," said Hikmet al-Gaoud, a tribal sheikh from Heet whose men have been fighting alongside American and government forces near the city.

"Every woman they like they want to take and marry."

He said a member of the tribe still living in Heet finally "flipped". "He killed six local Isil leaders - all foreign, non-Iraqi Arabs," he said. "He managed to get away and contact us. He's still on the run."

Fallujah is a different case. It has been notorious for its support of jihad ever since it rose up against the American and British occupation in 2004, and it was the first city to welcome Isil back in early 2014.

But even Fallujah is now turning on Isil, according to its mayor, Issa al-Essawi, now in "exile" in Baghdad.

"Now Isil men go around the city with guns," he said. "Before, they were comfortable enough to go without."

The city is surrounded on all sides, following the fightback by the Iraqi army at the end of last year that led finally to the recapture of Ramadi to the west.

That is a military reversal which has gratified western military chiefs, who say their efforts to retrain the Iraqi army are starting to bear fruit.

Food supplies are scarce in the town, Mr Essawi, said, with some deaths as a result of starvation beginning to be reported. Isil is not allowing any of the remaining 60-70,000 residents out of the city.

According to another local tribal leader, Sheikh Imad al-Juraisi, a man queuing for bread in the al-Jolan neighbourhood of the city got into an argument with two Isil fighters controlling the bakery, and ended up stabbing them with a knife. They then shot him dead in public.

The Juraisi tribe run many of the local shops and, according to another source, were already disgruntled at being charged tax by the jihadists.

Shortly after the incident, other men took to the streets with guns that had been kept hidden and began attacking Isil fighters.

Estimates differ for the number of casualties - Mr Juraisi said 25 Isil fighters were killed and several local men, while others said the casualties were limited to injuries. But several accounts say that the fighting spread to two neighbouring districts before Isil swamped them with men and brought the situation under control.

Mr Essawi said around 100 men were subsequently arrested, and eight executed, including two known to him.

Exact details of these stories are hard to verify and they may be exaggerated by local figures with historic grudges against Isil. However, the declining reach of Isil, especially in northern Syria, where it has been pushed back from Kurdish areas, and in western Iraq, is clear to see.

The group has not had a major advance since May last year, when it took Ramadi and Palmyra in Syria. Since then, it has suffered losses to territory, its financing and its manpower, due largely to air strikes.

Brett McGurk, the United States envoy to the anti-Isil coalition, estimated last week that the total number of Isil fighters had declined for the first time, to between 19-25,000 in both Syria and Iraq.

That matches accounts from refugees from its territories in both countries that Isil has been trying to press-gang local men into service.

Anbar's pro-government leaders met the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, on Saturday to urge him to launch an early attack on Fallujah. Previously, it was seen as a "tough nut" that would be left till later - perhaps even after an attack on Mosul, the biggest city under Isil control in either Iraq or Syria.

Western military officials say a more likely strategy is longer term - to clear Isil areas like Heet and to continue to try to cut off Mosul from both Anbar and Syria to the west. Despite talk of an imminent assault on Mosul, few expect a serious attempt to retake the city until the end of the year at the earliest.

Ahmed al-Asadi, an MP and spokesman for the Hashed al-Shaabi, the so-called Popular Mobilisation Commission that represents largely Iranian-backed Shia militias, said Fallujah could be taken easily and quickly - if there were a political decision to do so.

His forces have swept west from the Baghdad to Mosul road in recent weeks, taking large areas of desert in just three days last week.

But he confirmed that they had been held back from Fallujah because the Americans put pressure on the government to use only regular army and local Sunni tribes to attack, which they were not yet strong enough to do. "We are ready to liberate Fallujah now," he said.

The Western coalition is still determined that Sunni Anbar - and hopefully Mosul - will be liberated by official government forces and local fighters, not the Shia militias, accused of abusing local civilians.

That may mean more suicide bombings, and more clashes between locals and Isil.

It also leaves the citizens of Fallujah hungry. "The city is under siege and we have no food, no electricity and no water," said one resident still there, by telephone. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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