First Published: 2017-10-07

Cinders and desolation in Iraq's Hawija after IS
Islamic State group jihadists set fire to everything they could before they fled an Iraqi government offensive on Hawija in oil-rich Kirkuk province.
Middle East Online

Oil field located south of Hawija after it was set ablaze by IS group jihadists, Oct. 6, 2017.

HAWIJA - One side of the billboard calls for jihad, while the other warns of death for smokers. Iraq's Hawija still bears clear signs of its three years under jihadist rule.

Islamic State group jihadists set fire to everything they could before they fled an Iraqi government offensive on the northern town in oil-rich Kirkuk province.

Thick black smoke billows from burning oil wells around the town. Fields lie scorched in the surrounding region known for its cereal crops and watermelons.

Government troops and paramilitary units on Thursday retook Hawija, one of the jihadist group's last bastions in the country.

Beside roads leading into the town, villagers throw themselves at passing military convoys begging for food.

"We haven't seen a teabag or spoonful of sugar for four years," Um Imed says, tears in her eyes.

"Our children are dying of hunger and go barefoot," she says, fiddling with the edge of her long black robe, covered in dust from the passing vehicles.

"Only IS families got fat from the taxes they levied on our crops and the quarter of our produce" they took for themselves, she says.

- Life under IS -

The desolation is the same inside the town, where the 70,000 Sunni Arab residents who were believed to have stayed on under IS rule are nowhere to be seen.

In 2014, "when IS seized the town, they used the hospital," a spokesman for the Shiite-dominated Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force says.

"But as the Iraqi forces approached, they wanted to burn everything so no one could use it -- despite it being public infrastructure," Mohammed Khalil says.

But some of the medical centre has survived the flames.

In consultation rooms, glass shards and blood samples litter the floor, while in the nurses' staffroom, prescriptions, pamphlets and other pieces of paper recount life under IS.

On one sheet of paper headed "Islamic State, Kirkuk province", jihadist leaders ask staff to urgently treat "brother Adel, a soldier in the special forces".

"They too only got things through connections," a Hashed member scoffs, before slipping away.

Opposite the hospital, no one has entered the town hall for fear it has been booby-trapped.

IS has lost vast swathes of its territory in Iraq since it overran around a third of the country, imposing its brutal interpretation of Islamic law on those it ruled.

Smoking was banned under the jihadists and punishable in their so-called Islamic courts.

- 'We're waiting' -

Hawija, 230 kilometres (140 miles) north of Baghdad, was at the centre of a pocket of mainly Sunni Arab towns that were among the group's final holdouts.

The town had been an insurgent bastion since soon after the US-led invasion of 2003, earning it the nickname of "Kandahar in Iraq" for its ferocious resistance -- an allusion to the Taliban's citadel in Afghanistan.

Jihad is nothing new in Hawija, as shown by pamphlets scattered in the hospital, or nearby in what was an IS court.

While a shiny pamphlet speaks of the "joy of martyrdom", another quotes late Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who fought the Americans and ordered grisly executions of Western hostages before being killed in a US air strike in 2006.

But Hawija is now in new hands.

In the town's central market, reduced to rubble by a car bomb, Hashed members have planted their own flag on top of surviving stalls.

Instead of the jihadist standard, the new flag bears the face of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and a revered figure in Shiite Islam.

"Let IS return," says Oday Salman, a 35-year-old who left his wife and baby girl in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf to come and fight the jihadists.

"We're here, and we're waiting."


Rebels evacuate Syria's Eastern Ghouta

Sarkozy says life ‘living hell’ since corruption allegations

Turkey’s largest media group to be sold to Erdogan ally

Hezbollah leader says debt threatens Lebanon disaster

Exiled Syrian doctors treat refugees in Turkey

In world first, flight to Israel crosses Saudi airspace

Saudi, US must pursue 'urgent efforts' for Yemen peace: Mattis

US, Jordan launch new counterterrorism training centre

Two Hamas security force members killed in raid on bomb suspect

Turkey gives watchdog power to block internet broadcasts

EU leaders to condemn Turkey’s ‘illegal’ actions in Mediterranean

Ahed Tamimi reaches plea deal for eight months in jail

UN launching final push to salvage Libya political agreement

Conditions for displaced from Syria's Ghouta 'tragic': UN

Sisi urges Egyptians to vote, denies excluding rivals

Rights Watch says Libya not ready for elections

Saudis revamp school curriculum to combat Muslim Brotherhood

American mother trapped in Syria’s Ghouta calls out Trump

Syria workers say French firm abandoned them to jihadists

Grim Nowruz for Kurds fleeing Afrin

Sarkozy back in custody for second day of questioning

'Saudization' taking its toll on salesmen

Syrian rebels reach evacuation deal in Eastern Ghouta town

Israel confirms it hit suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007

UN says Turkey security measures 'curtail human rights'

Netanyahu says African migrants threaten Jewish majority

US Senate votes on involvement in Yemen war as Saudi prince visits

What a ‘limited strike’ against Syria’s Assad might mean

Erdogan tells US to stop ‘deceiving’, start helping on Syria

IS controls Damascus district in surprise attack

French ex-president held over Libya financing allegations

NGO says Israeli army violating Palestinian minors’ rights

Human rights chief slams Security Council for inaction on Syria

US warns Turkey over civilians caught in Syria assault

Saudi crown prince keen to cement ties with US

Abbas calls US ambassador to Israel 'son of a dog'

Erdogan vows to expand Syria op to other Kurdish-held areas

Kurdish envoy accuses foreign powers of ignoring Turkish war crimes

Morocco authorities vow to close Jerada's abandoned mines

Israeli soldier sees manslaughter sentence slashed

Turkey insists no plans to remain in Afrin

Cairo voters show unwavering support for native son Sisi

Forum in Jordan explores new teaching techniques

Gaza Strip woes receive renewed attention but no fix is expected

Kurds, Syrian opposition condemn Afrin looting