The defiant Iraqi tribe of Haditha
Haditha, Iraq - In August 2014, the “Lions of Haditha” locked horns with the Islamic State (ISIS), refusing to obey an order to hand over 200 tribesmen the militants accused of collaborating with the Iraqi government.
ISIS declared all of Haditha as “infidel” and demanded that its population of 100,000 repent or its leaders would be killed.
With that disregarded, too, ISIS slapped a biting siege on the farming city that spans the Euphrates river to force it to surrender.
However, Haditha, north of Anbar’s provincial capital, Ramadi, which fell to ISIS in May, remains defiantly resilient, despite severe shortages of basic supplies, medicine and fuel.
“We fear no one and won’t bow to anyone but God,” shouted Nasr al- Jughayfa, a volunteer fighter with the “Lions of Haditha”, in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“Neither ISIS nor others will intimidate us. We will fight them until the last drop of blood.”
Nasr al-Jughayfa’s tribe is Haditha’s largest with significant popular sway because it is an Arab Sunni Muslim clan whose members, mostly livestock traders and farmland owners, have been able to smuggle in basic supplies despite the ISIS blockade.
Al-Jughayfa’s tribe formed the “Lions of Haditha” last August, shortly after ISIS’s first warning. The group has grown since to include thousands of men. Another common name the group uses is “Al- Jughayfa free fighters”.
Haditha is one of the seven major cities in Anbar province, a vast desert region in western Iraq bordering Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Since June 2014, ISIS has captured most of the other six cities. Haditha, however, and a handful of small villages on Baghdad’s edge remain under government control.
Perhaps, the secret behind Haditha’s steadfastness is partly the experience under al-Qaeda in Iraq, which took Haditha’s suburb of Barwana as a hub a decade ago.
“Memories of human suffering inflicted under al-Qaeda are still fresh in people’s minds,” said Ali Basrawi, a retired Baghdad sociologist. He pointed to restrictions on public freedoms imposed by al-Qaeda and the killing of individuals it accused of collaborating with the government or the United States.
“It’s like a déjà vu: People know well that the militants, like other religious groups, care for political gains but have no tangible programmes to improve living conditions,” Basrawi said.
Significantly, units of the Iraqi Army, many Shia Muslims, are inside Haditha working with Al- Jughayfa and other smaller tribes, all of the rival Sunni Muslim sect and of Bedouin extraction. Many Iraqi Sunnis accuse their Shia-dominated government of leaning towards Iran. The Sunnis have been sidelined under successive governments following the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
With the sectarian division, it was difficult for the Iraqi government to order its largely Shia army into the other Anbar cities that ISIS controls.
However, Omar Al-Jughayfa, 32, a fighter with the “Lions of Haditha”, explained that his city “preferred the army to ISIS”.
“We are in the same ditch,” he said. Haditha is where 24 Iraqi men, women and children — all unarmed civilians — were killed by US Marines on November 19, 2005. The victims were shot multiple times at close range in an incident widely known as the Haditha massacre.
At the time, it had been alleged that the killings were retribution for an attack on a convoy of Marines with an improvised explosive device that killed one Marine.
Haditha is about 240 kilometres north-west of Baghdad. It commands a 25-kilometre stretch of the Euphrates near Buhayrat al Qadisiyyah, an artificial lake that was created by the Haditha Dam, Iraq’s largest hydroelectric facility.
In September 2014, ISIS tried to capture the dam but was stopped by US air strikes. Although the dam and the city remain under Iraqi army control, much of the river water has been depleted.
Residents accuse ISIS of diverting the stream from Syria, lowering the level of the Euphrates in Iraq. Recently, there was speculation that ISIS may reopen the flow and flood Haditha, Baghdad and other cities, especially in the Shia-dominated south.
Al-Jughayfa and other residents said pressing issues are shortages of essential commodities, such as food, medicine, children’s milk and fuel, which sparked barter deals among the people.
“We are swapping personal possessions for wheat, rice and sugar,” Abu Lajen Hadithy said. He said the most common dish has become mashlout, which is wheat fried in a pan.
“Under ISIS’s siege, people depleted their savings and can’t find jobs to provide for their families,” Hadithy said, adding there were neither vegetables nor fruit available. Baby milk is unavailable, as are medicine and fuel.
Hadithy said Iraqi government supplies airlifted to Haditha were barely enough to cover people’s needs.
Municipality worker Faeq Salem, 39, said he exchanged his Korean-made Hyundai sedan, which has a market value of $2,500, for five sacks of wheat, sugar and rice.
Prices also skyrocketed because many of the supplies are barred from entering besieged Haditha. A 50-kilogramme sack of wheat costs 800,000 Iraqi dinars ($650), compared with $15 in state-controlled provinces. For Salem, life in Haditha “means anxiety and fear of tomorrow but worse is the total starvation. “It’s worse than the famine witnessed in Africa.”