| Vivian Salama |
ABU GHRAIB, Iraq (AP) – The city of Abu Ghraib will never fall to the Islamic State group, Sheikh Khalil Ibrahim Haidan said, launching into discussion at his family farm.
As the Sunni militants creep dangerously close to the city known for its iconic prison, the capital has been on alert amid fears that Abu Ghraib will be easy prey as the group vows to continue its march toward Baghdad.
Some fear Abu Ghraib has all the makings for a takeover – it’s majority-Sunni population long at odds with the Shiite-led central government over issues like discrimination, political exclusion and claims of widespread arrests and prosecution – some of the very issues that prompted many Iraqis in the country’s north and west to embrace this radical alternative.
But Haidan, an elder in al-Zoba tribe, believes the city’s dark past has taught its citizens about the dangers of flirting with the country’s radical elements.
“Al-Qaeda could not break the tribes of Abu Ghraib,” he said, sitting under a palm tree alongside his farm, as chickens pecked for food and three white camels galloped playfully behind him. “The tribes believe there is no place here for Daesh or anyone else.”
In 2004, the revelation that American soldiers had tortured detainees at the prison, formally known as Baghdad Central Prison, thrust Abu Ghraib into the limelight and would later become the scene of brutal insurgent attacks.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq began targeting tribal leaders in 2007 in an effort to weaken communities around Anbar and along the Baghdad belt for the conquering. That year, al-Qaeda conducted a suicide attack at the home of Sheikh Thahir al-Dhari, the leader of the al-Zoba tribe, killing al-Dhari’s son and two of his aides.
The incident drove two Anbar tribes – Al-Zoba, which also has a presence in Fallujah, and al-Zaidan – to rise up against the militant group. Several other tribes followed suit.
The tribes “saw terrible days when al-Qaeda was around – especially in 2006,” said Saad Maan Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Iraqi military. “They really have no other choice but to work in cooperation with the military on security matters because the cost is losing their homes and their livelihood.”
Earlier this month, news reports emerged that the city had fallen to Islamic State, sparking fears that Baghdad International Airport – the tower of which is visible from Abu Ghraib – was within shelling distance of the militant group.
But a visit to this community paints a very different picture. The main market in the centre of town is abuzz with shoppers bargaining with vendors for fresh fruits and vegetables, bread and live chickens.
Young women in brightly coloured headscarves and clothing walk freely through the streets, while young men are enlisted to work with their fathers on farms or in shops.
The serenity belies mounting tensions across this region as the Islamic State group continues to make gains against an embattled Iraqi military – despite the air campaign launched by the US and several allies.
Iraqi troops and militants regularly exchange mortar fire just west of Abu Ghraib, as the militant group works its way around Iraq’s western Anbar province, looking to seize what is left of it, hardening its grip on the Iraqi-Syrian border.
“We are very scared,” said Oum Mohammed, a local farmer who didn’t provide her full name in keeping with tradition. “We keep receiving information that (IS) are close, that they entered the city, but then I go out into the street and see that everything is still ok for now. May Allah protect us.”
The US said Sunday that it expanded airstrikes in Sunni-dominated Anbar, targeting a berm near the Fallujah Dam which, in May, had been used by Islamic State militants to flood neighbourhoods east of Fallujah – including Abu Ghraib – and in turn, slow any military offensive.
At least 12,000 families in the Abu Ghraib area lost crops and livestock and were displaced from their homes by those floods, and at least 11,000 were left in desperate need of food, clean water and other assistance, according to the UN.
The destruction lent to the tribes’ case to keep the militants out at any cost. “All of the tribes are so closely knit and would not tolerate the fall of their city to any outside force,” said Sheikh Hamza Mohammed Ali, another elder in al-Zoba tribe. “We look after ourselves and our own affairs and we don’t need others to rule the place for us.”
But Abu Ghraib has grown heavily militarised in recent weeks, with tanks and checkpoints abundant across the city.
At some checkpoints, The Associated Press saw heavily-armed volunteers in black ski masks standing alongside the military, quizzing locals and checking vehicles.
A report released last week by Amnesty International said Iraq’s Shiite militias have abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians with the tacit support of the government in retaliation for Islamic State group attacks. The report said tens of thousands of militiamen wear military uniforms but operate outside any legal framework and without any official oversight.
Abu Ghraib residents were frightened to discuss the issue in detail. Oum Mohammed said her 22-year old son Omar has been detained, allegedly by the Iraqi military, and she insisted he had no connection to the Sunni militant group.
“The military harasses us all, but there is nothing we can do so we are forced to keep quiet,” she said reluctantly. Ibrahim denied reports of sweeping abductions, saying the military is in Abu Ghraib at the invitation of the tribes and that they collaborate on all security matters.
Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response advisor at Amnesty International, said “often it may not be clear until a bit later if the person was taken by militias or by security forces – or who is holding them,” saying that there have been reports of such cases in Abu Ghraib. Such practices can risk fanning resentment toward the central government.
“Families are often too scared to make noise about such cases and there are hardly any lawyers willing to work on such cases, so detainees can be temporarily disappeared for quite a long time,” she added.
At the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict, Sunni tribal members formed the first Awakening groups, ad hoc armed forces that allied with the US military to rid their communities of al-Qaida in Iraq – the precursor of the Islamic State group.
A similar community-driven national guard is now envisioned by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, with the support of the US-led coalition.
On a recent visit to Baghdad, John Allen, the US special envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State group, said that the effort will not succeed without the participation of Iraq’s Sunni tribes.
“There will be a full blown conversation about this to engage the tribes where possible to operate in conjunction with Iraqi security forces,” he said on Oct 3. “As this concept of the national guard continues to flesh out… the national guard will benefit from recruitment out of the tribes.”
But many Sunni tribes have not been won over. In Anbar, some 5,000 tribesmen are currently on board with government efforts to take part in the fight against the Islamic State group, which includes arrangements for arms and financial compensation.
But with tribes often numbering 30,000 to 40,000 people, the effort has a long way to go.
Abu Ghraib’s tribes, the al-Zoba sheikhs say, know it’s up to them to keep their homes safe. Our tribes “don’t accept their country to be harmed or violated,” said Ali. “They will never allow anybody to harm our country’s independence or sovereignty.”