The Blood Brothers of Anbar
Meet Omar: A 43-year-old, well-educated hospital director in Fallujah. Does Iraq have any hope for reconciliation if men like this support the Islamic State?
SHAQLAWA, Iraq — In the past year alone, 43-year-old Omar says he’s watched hundreds die. Or as he describes it, "boom, gone, the end."
Omar is an administrator of one of the busiest hospitals in Fallujah, in Iraq’s restive Anbar province. First, his brother nearly lost a leg in a mortar attack. Then, his neighbor’s home was destroyed in shelling. Soon after, his mother narrowly missed a bombing in their once-placid neighborhood. But it wasn’t until he watched a 5-year-old girl in a bright pink shirt take her last gasp of air outside his office, her body torn apart from shelling, that he knew he had to leave his hometown. Life in Iraq, as he puts it, has become an endless flow of "dark, dark red."
"Every day, I saw children watching parents die and parents watching children die," he says, recalling grim scenes from the hospital he’s worked at for years. "I couldn’t raise my children there any longer … we all have targets on our head."
Back in January, six months before the Islamic State, then still ISIS, seized the world’s attention by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, the group and its allies took the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi. It was one of the first signs that Iraq’s Sunni regions were falling into a state of open rebellion against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
The ragtag fighters saw an opening after then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered security forces to dismantle a yearlong sit-in camp near Ramadi, claiming it had become a base for al Qaeda-linked militants. Sunnis like Omar had been protesting for the release of Sunni prisoners who they said were detained arbitrarily and without trial; they deeply resented their political exclusion from the Shiite-led central government. This wasn’t the first time Anbar province had become a center of revolt: After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, the region became ground zero for a Sunni-led insurgency against the Iraqi government and U.S. troops.
Omar is one of the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who have fled Iraq’s largest province since fighting swept the region in January. He and his family have resettled in Shaqlawa, a mountain-ringed city near the regional capital of Erbil. There are so many displaced people from Fallujah that residents jokingly call the town "Shaqlujah." Many live cramped lives in converted hotels, but middle-class families like Omar have rented homes, blending into a town they once traveled to for summer holidays. Christians and Yazidis have also sought refuge from other Islamic State-controlled territories, bringing with them horror stories of mass executions and kidnappings. But as a Sunni Arab, who complains of systemic oppression by Shiites in Baghdad, Omar wasn’t fleeing the Islamic State — in fact, he believes it is necessary in what he calls a renewed fight for the survival of Iraqi Sunnis.
"The government should be the father of the people," he says. "And Iraq’s government is a terrorist organization. See, my vocabulary is different. You have to ask yourself: Who are the real terrorists here? When will the world wake up?"
Omar’s deep-seated distrust of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad has been the fuel that allows the Islamic State to thrive, as the jihadist organization has exploited Iraq’s deeply frayed social fabric in places like Anbar. It’s a major hurdle for President Barack Obama’s strategy for fighting IS, which hinges upon Sunni buy-in for the new unity government in Baghdad. Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has vowed to "work with all communities" — but it’s a mammoth task that has tripped up his predecessors and much of the international community.
"National reconciliation for many is a mirage … it’s a utopia," says Ahmed Ali, senior research analyst on Iraq at the Institute for the Study of War. "The problem is, Baghdad hasn’t been able to articulate a reconciliatory approach to the residents of Anbar."
The longer the Islamic State is allowed to entrench itself in Anbar, Ali fears, the more difficult it will be to convince Iraqi Sunnis like Omar to give the government another chance. "ISIS wants that distrust to be present," he says. "They live on hatred."
The Baghdad government’s actions have been far less than reconciliatory — in fact, they’ve often been brutal. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned Iraqi security forces and government-affiliated militias for use of barrel bombs and indiscriminate attacks in Anbar that have resulted in a heavy civilian toll.
"The Iraqi government may be fighting a vicious insurgency, but that’s no license to kill civilians anywhere they think ISIS might be lurking," HRW deputy Middle East director
Joe Stork said in a statement in July. "The government’s airstrikes are wreaking an awful toll on ordinary residents."
That toll has further entrenched the Islamic State’s hold in Fallujah, Omar says. "The Iraqi military is using ISIS as an excuse to commit genocide against Sunnis. For every shelling in Fallujah, I see a new black flag when I return. They’re the only way to rule."
About once a week, Omar shuttles between Shaqlawa and Fallujah. It was a five-hour journey before the conflict, but now, with the route riddled with Kurdish, Iraqi government, and IS checkpoints, the drive takes 12 hours. Kurdish authorities are wary that Omar is colluding with the Islamic State: While Iraqi Kurdistan has welcomed a steady flow of internally displaced people, many harbor distrust toward Arabs and worry that violence will spill over and mar their own fight for independence from Iraq. Meanwhile, Omar says, the jihadists are wary he’s colluding "with the other side" — meaning a Kurdish-U.S.-Shiite coalition allied to destroy the Islamic State.
The reality? "Maybe a little of both in these times," Omar laughs nervously.
Omar speaks positively about the Islamic State’s success in running day-to-day affairs in his home city. The group now oversees the operations of the hospital where he works: While he and colleagues once waited months for government paychecks, he says, they now receive them in a timely fashion.
"They aren’t bad guys," he says. "They’re us, they’re a part of us. We all know them."
Not all Iraqi Sunnis are so sanguine about the Islamic State. Omar’s friend Ehab, also displaced from Fallujah, shakes his head at this answer. The jihadist group, he believes, is simply another side of the evil he fled. "ISIS doesn’t represent us," he says. The two men share a light debate over orange juice and agree to disagree.
Omar, however, can’t muster outrage at the Islamic State’s increasingly brutal methods. When asked about the jihadist group’s endless parade of gory executions, crucifixions, and beheadings, he shrugs. Then he asks to move to a quieter, more discreet location.
"On the battlefield, ISIS fighting is different than ISIS ruling. So far, they’re running things smoothly," he says, when we’re out of range of potential eavesdroppers. "They might be moving a bit fast … but they’re what’s needed now. Are there other options?"
"Look, I know it’s brutal," he admits. "But this is war."