Iraq
9:12 am
Sat July 19, 2014

Extremists Leave A Violent Message In A Small Iraqi Town

Originally published on Mon July 21, 2014 7:49 am

A small Sunni Arab town north of Baghdad put up a fight when Sunni Muslim extremists from the so-called Islamic State tried to impose their rule on the town.

The residents lost, and now the town, Zowiya, just outside of Tikrit, is destroyed. More than 200 of its homes have been blown up, and the residents have fled.

The Islamic State leveled the town as a warning to anybody else that dares to fight them.

"My town is gone," says Abu Saad, a businessman in his sixties. "They bombed all our houses. Everything we have is gone."

'We Fight Them, They Destroy Us'

Abu Saad and many of Zowiya's wealthy came to the northern Kurdish city of Erbil for safety. Many have rented homes in a small compound for about $1,000 a month, each home with five or more families.

Abu Saad rented a little home in Erbil he shares with his four married sons and their families.

"We have good houses, very luxury houses," he says. "I'm businessman. I have two houses for my sons. They bomb it." Everything is gone: passports, furniture, memories.

"Because we fight them, they destroy us," Abu Saad says.

It is a cautionary tale for Sunnis who won't accept the brutal rule of the Islamic State. The fighters came on July 6 to the small town, which is flanked by the Tigris River and mountains. They stole cars and told the people — mostly businessmen and soldiers — to repent and disavow the government.

Abu Saad says everyone refused.

"We don't hurt anyone," he says. "How [can] we announce our repentance? They say, 'If you don't announce your repentance, we should bomb your houses.' "

They begged the fighters to leave them alone. But the next day, the extremists attacked with hundreds of vehicles equipped with heavy weaponry and intense mortar fire.

The young men of the village fought for four hours, and when the ammunition ran out, everyone fled. At least 15 people were killed in the battle, two of them women.

Abu Saad pulls out his phone to show a photo of the house where he and his sons lived; a villa, with a Mediterranean-style red roof. Then he shows a picture of waist-high rubble where the house once was.

Desperate Enough To Welcome A Dictator

Online, the Islamic State posted picture of what it called the "purification" of Zowiya. Pictures of homes burning, of rubble and of bodies of people they called "collaborators."

During the fight, no one came to help from the state, the residents say.

Abu Saad blames America for the tragedy. Since the U.S.-led invasion, they've lived under 10 years of chaos, with a corrupt government that divided the nation between Sunnis and Shias.

"Everything is wrong in Iraq because of America," he says. "Because America, they bring us a fake government."

Now they're so desperate they'd welcome American troops — or even a dictator — to keep them safe.

On the same street in Erbil are displaced people from another town who were forced to repent with scores of others.

The police chief from that town opens his wallet to show a document saying he disavowed his rank in the police. It has the signature black markings of the Islamic State on top. Even so, he fled, because he doesn't trust that he'll be safe.

He asked us not to use his name for his protection. The rest of his family fled only this week, after government air strikes rained down, killing nearly two dozen people.

The men say they would go back and fight, if they could fight with an army they trust.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We go now to Iraq to bring you the story of one town. It's a story of resistance, but also a kind of cautionary tale. The Sunni Arab town of Zawiya - north of Baghdad - put up a fight when Sunni Muslim extremists from the so-called Islamic State tried to impose their rule there. They lost, and the Islamic State leveled the town as a warning to anybody else that dared to fight them. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The town of Zawiya just outside Tikrit is destroyed. More than 200 of its homes blown up, and the residents have fled. The wealthy came here to the northern Kurdish city of Erbil for safety. We walk into one hotel lobby and it is filled with men only from Zawiya.

(SOUNBITE OF KIDS PLAYING SOCCER)

FADEL: And then we drive to a little compound where families have rented homes for about a thousand dollars a month. Each home has five or more families.

ABU SAAD: My town is gone, they bombed all our houses. Everything we have is gone. There is nothing there.

FADEL: That's Abu Saad, a businessman in his sixties who asked us to use his nickname for his safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

FADEL: He welcomes us into the little home he and his four married sons and their families rented in Erbil. We sit on mats on the floor surrounded by others displaced from Zawiya.

SAAD: We have good houses, very luxury houses. I'm businessman, I have two house for my sons. They bomb it.

FADEL: Everything is gone, passports, furniture, memories. Everything.

SAAD: Because we fight them, they destroy us.

FADEL: It is a cautionary tale for Sunnis who won't accept the brutal rule of the Islamic State. The fighters came on July 6 to this small town flanked by the Tigris River and mountains. They stole cars and told people - mostly businessmen and soldiers - to repent and to disavow the government. Abu Saad says everyone refused.

SAAD: We don't hurt anyone. How do we announce our repentance? They say if you don't repentance - announce you repentance - we should bomb your houses.

FADEL: They begged the fighters to leave them alone. But the next day, the militants attacked with hundreds of vehicles equipped with heavy weaponry and intense mortar fire. The young men of the village fought for four hours, and when the ammunition ran out, everyone fled. At least 15 people were killed in the battle - two of them women.

Abu Saad pulls out his phone to show me the house where he and his sons lived.

SAAD: This is my house.

FADEL: Oh, it's beautiful.

It's a villa with a Mediterranean-style red roof. And then he shows me a picture of waist-high rubble where the house once was.

Online, the Islamic State posted pictures of what it called the purification of Zawiya. Pictures of homes burning, of rubble and of bodies of people they called collaborators. During the fight, no one came to help from the state, the residents say. Abu Saad blames America for the tragedy. Since the U.S.-led invasion, they've lived ten years of chaos with a corrupt government that divided the nation between Sunnis and Shias.

SAAD: Everything is wrong in Iraq because of America. Because of America, they bring us a fake government.

FADEL: Now they're so desperate, they'd welcome American troops or even a dictator to keep them safe.

On the same street in Erbil, are displaced from another town. They were forced to repent with scores of others. The police chief in that town opens his wallet and shows me the document saying he disavowed his rank in the police. It has the signature black markings of the Islamic State on top. Even so, he left because he doesn't trust that he'll be safe, and he asked us not to use his name for his protection. The rest family fled only this week after government airstrikes rained down killing nearly two dozen people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

FADEL: The men here say they would go back and they would fight, if they could fight with an army they trust. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Erbil.

SIMON: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.