'Scorched Earth' Fate of Sunnis in Iraq

Isil\'s violence has destroyed the hope of Iraq\'s Sunnis

Published: 07th June 2015 11:21 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th June 2015 11:21 AM   |  A+A-


There were only three -people in the village, and they were all dead. They lay amid the blasted roofs and blackened Humvees.

One was a skeleton, lying amid the remains of an incinerated vehicle, while another wore the brown, shortened robe that is the uniform of many devout jihadists. A third was headless - and lest there be any doubt that this decapitation was a deliberate act of posthumous vengeance, his trousers had been pulled down exposing his buttocks to the air, a traditional insult on Iraqi battlefields.

Here were signs of another defeat for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), a retreat before the might of Western coalition air power: another small, hard-fought defeat among many that seem to have absolutely no impact on the group's abilities to win major victories and send fear throughout the Arab and Western world.

From the west, out into the desert, bullets whistled over our heads. A sandstorm was moving in, under the cover of which the jihadists were advancing again, seeking to reclaim the lost wasteland. We did not linger.

There was, in any case, nothing really to see. There was hardly anything left apart from broken concrete, an item not in short supply in bomb-ravaged Iraq.

On the evidence of the battle for Baiji - a drab oil refinery town in northern Iraq - there will not be anything for a long time to come.

Whole stretches of Iraqi territory are more or less like this: cleared of jihadists, but cleared for no obvious -purpose as far as the local residents are concerned.

They are not allowed to return, for fear that they will once again provide cover for Islamic State militants to -infiltrate once more.

If ever there were a modern equivalent of the Romans' determination to "create a desert and call it peace", this is it. A year on from the surge that saw Isil surge through Sunni areas of Iraq, creating wastelands seems to be the only way to deal with it.

Almost exactly 12 months ago, on June 9, Isil swept through northern Iraq, seizing the second city of Mosul, -followed shortly after by Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam -Hussein. In so doing, it shattered President Barack Obama's claim to have ended the war in Iraq by withdrawing American troops.

Promises were made that the surge would be reversed; but if anything, Isil have pressed ahead further, encroaching deeper into Syria, and tranfixing the West with the horror of its nihilism, -culminating in the videoed beheadings of a string of Western hostages.

The stretch of territory north of Baghdad to Baiji represents the coalition's only success on Isil's home turf - the Sunni Arab areas from which it springs. And that success is due less to the bombing than to a policy, carried out by what is left of the Iraqi army and a larger force of Iran-backed Shia militias, of clearing a buffer zone of population.

This scorched-earth method is a terrible symbol of the fate of Iraq's Sunnis, the people Isil claim to be defending, who have already felt disenfranchised since their kinsman Saddam Hussein was deposed. A Sunni Arab himself, he had favoured his own with money, jobs and power, and now that the majority Shia are in power, the tables have been turned.

Entire towns and cities occupied by Sunnis where Isil have been driven out are left empty, including Tikrit itself, previously home to 260,000. "There are some areas where they can't be allowed back," Hadi al-Ameri, the all-powerful military leader of the Shia militia umbrella group known as Hashed al-Sha'abi or the Popular Mobilisation Units says, bluntly.

"If all the citizens go back into these areas Isil will go back in with them."

It is a harsh judgement, though Mr Ameri takes care not to blame the Sunnis en masse. "The citizens are forced to deal with Isil, otherwise Isil will kill them," he said.

What it means, though, is that Sunnis are being -punished collectively for the sins of Isil, with the ensuing risk of deepening sectarianism still further. The effect is visibly devastating.

To the south of Tikrit, which was "liberated" in March, The Sunday Telegraph watched as a bus full of local residents was told they could not return by Shia militiamen guarding a checkpoint. On the road there is the silence not just of death but of absence. There are none of the scruffy sheep that normally roam the Iraqi scrub, no vehicles except those of the militias, no roadside shops or old men outside their houses.

Electricity pylons, their backs broken, bow down to a bare sand in prayer. There is no attempt to re-erect them.

On the outskirts of Baghdad, Sunni refugees gather to ask for help. At the Bzaibiz Bridge, which divides the capital from the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar, they described their choices: either stay in Isil-controlled cities like Fallujah and -Ramadi, or leave and then risk the chance of never being allowed back should the Shia militias recapture them. Many of those who have fled are not even allowed across the -Bzaibiz Bridge to resettle in Baghdad, because of fears that they will act as a fifth column for the jihadists.

So instead, they move, like their Bedouin ancestors, from one place to another, for as long as they have money or relatives who will put them up. Sometimes they bunker down in Baghdad's outlying towns, at other times it is in settlements in the desert, sheltering from sandstorms from dawn till night.

Hamid Janabi, a 65-year-old farmer from the town of Jawf al-Sakkar, south west of Baghdad, said the only encounter he had had with Isil was to see their masked fighters lurking in the scrub as he herded his sheep. But when the government retook the town from Isil's control last October, he had been forced out anyway along with the rest of its inhabitants. The Shia militias who now control it have kept it empty ever since.

"We are between the hammer and the anvil," said Mr Janabi, using a phrase often heard among Sunnis these days. His sole consolation, he said, was that in the desert, he could keep his unmarried daughters safe.

Gunmen from both Isil and the Shia militias have been accused of abducting and -killing Sunni civilians, as if there was complicity between them, said Mr Janabi.

The Americans have watched the takeover by the Iran-backed Shia militias of the battlefront with dismay but can do nothing about it.

After the fall of the Sunni city of Ramadi last month, Washington's favoured policy of leaving the fight to the army and the Sunni tribes is over and done with. In Baiji, the American jets now provide cover to a fighting force that includes some of the most sectarian of the Shia militias.

It is the paradox - or the purpose - of Isil's violence that it has destroyed the fighting power, the morale and the hopes of Iraq's Sunni population, the very people it claims to represent.

"The community is either displaced, or under the rule of terrorism," said Hamid al?Mutlaq, a Sunni MP. "It's a kind of project to keep them hungry, by displacing and -killing them."

He has watched, he says, as Britain and America entered Iraq, dismantled its institutions, and left again. Now the Sunnis have a choice between Isil and Iran.

He sees some sort of outside intervention - beyond the clearly limited reach of the US bombing campaign - as the only means of protection.

It seems odd that Iranian troops are allowed to "run around" Iraq but American and British troops cannot, he says. But he also admits that the Sunni leadership is partly responsible, split between support for the government and support for Isil, with no one leader who can unite it.

It is hard to see what the allies have achieved, for the most part, Isil has consolidated the Sunni Arab heartlands in both Iraq and Syria.

This is not a straightforward war of bombing, but nor is it one of hearts and minds. Isil does not care about the disintegration of Sunni morale, but profits from it. This is a new paradigm of war, and Iraq awaits a new strategy.


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