Street fixes, discounts and honeymoons under ISIS
AMMAN - On a dusty late-spring morning in Iraq’s embattled desert city of Ramadi, a handful of men climbed towers in a main square to fix a power failure while another group roamed streets and collected piles of trash.
The service is daily, courtesy of the Islamic State (ISIS), which seeks to assert itself as a government with a viable system in a self-proclaimed embryonic nation it calls a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq. ISIS says its state is ruled by god’s law through the Quran.
“The streets were never as clean under the Iraqi government,” declared a Ramadi resident in an interview with The Arab Weekly from the key Iraqi city west of Baghdad. Ramadi fell to ISIS on May 17th, drawing fears that the jihadists may advance towards the capital.
The resident insisted he be identified by the pseudonym Mohammed Dulaimi, citing fears of ISIS retribution for talking to the media.
“People here are content and say ISIS provided them with services that were missed under the Baghdad government,” added the unemployed 55-year-old civil engineer, who is confined to his home because he refused to work for the jihadists.
In the northern city of Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city after Baghdad and also under ISIS rule — electricity is gradually being hooked up to generators, said Adel, 39, a school teacher who declined to be identified further citing similar fears.
The restoration is meant to avoid long power cuts witnessed elsewhere across Iraq ahead of the scorching summer when air conditioning becomes a must as temperatures soar to 50 degrees Celsius.
In some areas of Mosul, roads are being paved, enlarged and potholes patched, Adel told The Arab Weekly.
In early May, Adel said he called a municipality hotline asking for help when his neighbourhood became infested with rats and cockroaches. Surprisingly, “they arrived hours later and fumigated the whole area,” he maintained.
In Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zorprovince, which is under ISIS control, schoolteachers were asked to renounce the previous curriculum, considered as “apostate”, according to residents who insisted on anonymity. “The only classes offered are in mathematics, Arabic literature and teaching the Quran,” said a Deir ez-ZorArabic language teacher, who said he had to fill out and sign a form attesting that “I refrain from dealing with the Damascus regime’s curriculum”.
In Syria’s northern city of Raqqa, a riverside provincial capital on the Euphrates overrun by ISIS 18 months ago and considered the group’s headquarters, a resident said electricity was connected to generators to light streets, homes and public places.
Water, telephone lines and health-care services are available, although there is a shortage of doctors because many fled ISIS rule, according to the resident, who declined to be identified further. He said internet access is erratic, as is the mobile phone service.
Courts, he added, adopted strict sharia law, while government offices taken over by ISIS were initially adorned by black, supposed to be the colour of the banner of Islam, then were switched to the more socially acceptable blue.
Thieves have their right hand cut off, said the Deir ez-Zor teacher. “If they repeat it, the left hand is then cut off and we have seen several sentences of such nature carried out in public,” the teacher said.
Prostitutes are stoned to death and homosexuals are thrown off the roof of tall buildings, said Adel, the Mosul teacher, who added, “In late March, four allegedly gay men, including a man in his late 50s, were pushed off a building as people watched.
“The older man didn’t die instantly, so he was stoned to death.”
However, it is not all violence for jihadists. ISIS is encouraging its adherents to wed by offering those who tie the knot special bonuses.
Perhaps, the step is designed to bolster its control of areas under its domain by settling and creating lives for the thousands of militant men and women who have thronged ISIS territory from the Arab world, Europe, Central Asia and the United States. In May, Syrian fighter Abu Bilal al-Homsi married a Tunisian woman, a medical doctor who speaks four languages, after months of chatting online. The marriage was made possible by a $1,500 bonus for the couple to get started on a new home, a family and a honeymoon.
Homsi, the groom, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “It has everything one would want for a wedding.” The couple, he said, passed the days dining on grilled meats in upscale restaurants, strolling along the Euphrates river and eating ice cream. The happy couple honeymooned in Raqqa.
Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian expert on Islamic militants, said ISIS “is trying to dilute its image as a terrorist group and act in a more responsible way as a shadow government”.
“Clearly, ISIS is trying to come closer to the people so that they’d feel that the group is a state capable of ruling them,” Kamhawi told The Arab Weekly in Amman.
Certainly, the jihadists are in many places winning support with their ability to deliver services.
In areas under its control, ISIS is subsidising foodstuffs and fuel prices through the wealth it accumulated from oil and gas smuggling, extortion and ransom demands. The militants are selling smuggled oil at a discounted price of $25 a barrel, analysts and Iraqi and Syrian government officials said. The market price of oil is about $64 a barrel.
Food prices in Ramadi are two-thirds to one-half less than in Baghdad. For example, a kilogram of goat or sheep meat sells for $4, compared to $12 in Baghdad. A kilogram of apples sells for 30 cents and tomatoes for 20 cents, compared with $1 and 50 cents, respectively, in Baghdad.
Even apartment prices in Ramadi are cheaper, arguably because many residents fled the militants’ rule but also because ISIS set the rent for a one-storey apartment at $75 a month, compared to at least double that rate before it conquered the city.
Still, several items are in short supply, caused by US-led coalition air strikes, which are making it difficult in certain ISIS-held areas to transport products, leading to shortages, price-gouging and the creation of black markets.
Items such as kerosene, used for heating and cooking, are in short supply in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour.
Other items such as alcohol and cigarettes, strictly banned by the group, are making a comeback at higher prices on the black market.
Smoking is a punishable offence in militant-held Mosul but at a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, cigarettes, as well as hard-to-come-by essentials like kerosene, can be found at hugely inflated prices on a black market run by the extremists.
There, a pack of cigarettes sells for 30,000 dinars — about $26 — more than double pre-ISIS price.