KIRKUK, Iraq — Shortly after Al Qaeda-inspired militants swept across northern Iraq, civilians in Mosul and its surrounds said they were ready to try their luck under these new, albeit militant, rulers.
Residents in the north said conditions had actually improved in the short-term. There were reports in Mosul and elsewhere of restored water and power supplies, and cheap gas for sale. The checkpoints were no longer.
But analysts warned of a backlash, saying the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other Sunni militias were likely to enstate strict Shariah law and squander their warm welcome before too long.
Now, those who fled northern Iraq say they are getting mixed messages from back home.
Sitting in a tent that felt like a sauna in Kalak, Iraqi Kurdistan's largest internally displaced persons camp situated between Mosul and Erbil, a young man repeated the horror stories he was hearing from friends and relatives still in Mosul. He spoke of executions, amputations and floggings under the new Shariah code introduced by ISIL for Nineveh province on June 12.
“My relative said that anyone caught smoking has his finger cut off, and they whip people with cables for watching the World Cup,” said Zain Abdeen, 24.
A new Human Rights Watch report released over the weekend documents shocking violence in northern Iraq at the hands of the militants — including the kidnapping of Shia Turkmen, the ransacking of Shia areas and the execution of at least 190 members of the government army and police.
But the others in the tent with Abdeen were quick to say they had personally heard no such stories.
“I didn’t hear anything about this. I don’t know anyone who has seen these punishments used in Mosul. From what I have seen, they attack only the government buildings and members of the army. The civilians they have left alone,” said Theaa Fadal, who fled government airstrikes in Mosul more than a week ago.
“It is a media war. Each side tries to tells more extreme stories about the other,” added Ziad Fazil, also sitting in the tent. “It’s all fueled by inequality in government and finances between Sunni and Shia. It’s a cycle — when the Shia are repressed they rise up and oppress the Sunni. Now the Sunnis want to take back the control.”
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A Kurdish family still living in Mosul said the new authorities aren't as bad as they had expected. Nefel, a young mother of two, fled with her family to stay with relatives in Kirkuk as the militants entered the city. She had heard horror stories of what ISIL might do to them if they remained. In Syria, the group is known for arresting Kurdish civilians arbitrarily and executing dozens connected with Kurdish militia groups that oppose ISIL.
But everyone she talked to back home said Mosul was safe. She decided to return.
“We spoke to our relatives who stayed in Mosul and they said the city was more secure now,” Nefel, who asked to be referred to by first name only, said by phone from Mosul. “No one was stealing and all the checkpoints were gone. The armed men weren’t making problems for the people so we came back to our home.”
Under the new Shariah laws in Mosul, alcohol, drugs and cigarettes are banned. Women must “dress decently, wear wide clothes and only go out if necessary,” according to rules ISIL posted online this month. But while such laws may sound intolerable to Western ears, in Mosul they are nothing new.
On a visit to the city several years ago, alcohol was not openly sold. Christian women complained that they must wear Islamic dress when they went out or risk being targeted by extremists. For Muslim women, like Nefel, such dress and behavior are a normal part of life. These new laws have had little impact.
Chronic shortages in the city, however, are taking a toll. “Now there is no power or water at our house and no fuel in the city, so it’s really hard to live here,” she said.
Despite initial reports that the militants had restored services in Mosul, the Iraqi government since ordered the blockage of power, internet and water supplies to militant-held areas. One letter to internet providers — ordering the blockage of internet to all ISIL-held territory and areas with large Sunni populations including Kirkuk — warned that any company not following these orders “will be considered a threat to national security.”
The conditions, not to mention government attacks, make life at home impossible. But for displaced families at Kalak, enduring sweltering temperatures of 113 degrees Farenheit without enough food or water is likewise unbearable — especially now that Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, has begun.
“We’re blocked on every side. Trapped in the middle. Only people with money have options. The rest of us end up here in this camp,” said 69-year-old Gazala Al Sultan, who arrived in the camp with her five daughters last week.
Repeating an old Iraqi saying, she added, “In Iraq, people without luck get eaten by the dogs.”