The red door is opening. The banter ends. The men have been observing the house for hours and finally there appears to be movement. Haider Muslim Abbas inhales deeply and stares into the scope of his rifle, aiming across the field. No more than 300 metres away, across an expanse of grass yellowed by the Anbar province winter, the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, are hiding, likely keeping their own wary eyes on the front.
“Do it!” hisses his commander, a 39-year-old seminary student named Hamid Yasseri.
Abbas, a 35-year-old policeman from southern Iraq, grips the sniper rifle and releases his breath as he takes aim, exuding a steely calm. From a certain angle, he even looks a bit like Bradley Cooper — though this sniper is not American but an Iraqi, on the front lines of a war against a ferocious jihadi menace. He is described as the sharpest shooter among the fighters, his skills honed by hunting pheasant with his cousins and elders while growing up in the impoverished rural province of Samawa.
Isis fighters in Mosul, June 2014©Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud
Isis fighters in Mosul, June 2014
“I am here because I am afraid for my children,” he had said minutes before motion was detected on the other side of the no-man’s land. “I don’t want them to grow up in a world with Daesh [Isis]”. He has three kids back home, 280km to the south — daughters Fatma, aged four, and Raja, six months, and son Ali, two. He checks up on them when he can find mobile phone reception.
“I tell them that they’re terrorists, and they’re fighting us,” he says. “My daughter, when she sees a martyr coming from the front, she says to me, ‘Kill Daesh, because they are taking our uncles away.’”
Abbas shoots. The gunfire echoes across the valley, which is adjacent to the hamlet of Amiriyat Fallujah, about 60km due west of central Baghdad, and about 40km from the city’s western outskirts. Squinting, he fires again, and again. Then the mortar explosions begin to pick up.
“I am afraid for my children. I don’t want them to grow up in a world with Isis”
– Haider Muslim Abbas, volunteer fighter
Tweet this quote
“Get down!” the commander Yasseri orders, hustling a group of visitors out of the nest atop the one-storey house, to a safer position behind an earthen berm. But the mortar thuds increase, and grow louder, closer. The seminary student turned warrior, dressed in clerical clothes and holding an assault rifle, indicates that it’s time to beat a hasty retreat back to the base a few kilometres away.
In the west, the debate continues about whether Isis is an anomaly or a natural outgrowth of Koranic and other teachings — an integral part of Islamic ideas. Respected writers argue that the same impulse that gave rise to Muslim anger over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed gave rise to Isis.
Volunteer fighters praying, Amiriyat Fallujah©Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud
Volunteer fighters praying, Amiriyat Fallujah
But on the deadly front lines against Isis in Iraq and Syria, it is almost exclusively pious Muslim men — many with young families back home — who are standing up against the global jihadi group. Their harsh, dangerous lives present a poignant counterpoint to those who try to paint all of Islam with Isis’s bleak vision. Tens of thousands of Muslims like Abbas, some positioned within 100 metres of a terrifying group that burns alive or beheads its captives, risk their lives every day in the war against Isis.
“This is our war, too,” says Yasseri, the commander and cleric-in-training, an envoy of Iraq’s most esteemed Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. “The same terrorists who are killing Iraqis are the ones killing the Europeans.”
To get to Amiriyat Fallujah from the capital, you drive due west on the international highway towards Jordan and then take a left into a network of rural and dirt roads. More than 2,500 men of the Ansar Marjaiyeh, or Soldiers of the Religious Leadership, belong to the volunteer unit. Half of them serve along this front in 20-day shifts, riding back home on the buses that bring up the other half. So far, two dozen have been killed and five dozen wounded, mostly by ingeniously placed booby-trap bombs. Men such as sniper Abbas work 12-hour daily shifts manning positions arrayed along the front line, mostly delineated by the network of canals that wend their way through the farmlands.
Despite promises, the government has only paid the volunteers’ salaries once in the past eight months. It even makes them come up with the $10,000 or so it takes to transport the men back and forth to their homes. This is despite the fact that they provide a crucial service by securing a position that protects flight paths to Baghdad’s international airport, which lies on the western fringe of the capital. Mosques and charities in the capital and the south take donations of aubergines, tomatoes, onions, beans and other foods to the volunteers, who cook them into vast pots of stew.
This is our war, too. The same terrorists who are killing Iraqis are the ones killing the Europeans©Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud
Hamid Yasseri: ‘This is our war, too. The same terrorists who are killing Iraqis are the ones killing the Europeans’
Arkan Hussein, a 30-year-old father of three from the southern city of Rumaitha, works the night shift at the same front-line position as Abbas. He goes to sleep about 7am after washing, praying and eating breakfast. Four or five hours later, he wakes up and struggles to find a signal to call his wife and kids, and his parents, who tried to discourage him from volunteering before conceding they could not stop him.
“I lie to my family,” he says. “I don’t tell them the dangerous things I do.”
The men take up residence in the homes abandoned by villagers here. They spend the off-hours watching news or sports on television, washing their clothes or helping prepare the collective meals before heading back to the front. Hussein, who worked odd jobs in Rumaitha before the war, heads to battle with a large Russian PK 7.62m machine gun he purchased himself, wrapping the belt of bullets around his neck, Rambo-style.
“I do this for my nation and the ahl al-beit [the holy family of the Prophet Mohammed]”
– Arkan Hussein, a 30-year-old volunteer fighter
Tweet this quote
“I do this for my nation and the ahl al-beit,” he says, referring to the holy family of the Prophet Mohammed, which is particularly revered by Shia Muslims.
Despite occasional news of battlefield losses, outside of Anbar province Iraq appears to be making incremental gains against Isis. Even in the areas where Isis retains a strong foothold, it has largely been contained. Politicians and diplomats have begun to speak about Iraq’s future after the group is neutralised, focusing attention again on perennial Iraqi problems such as the economy, and especially the growing power of the Shia militias fighting alongside the armed forces and under the cover of volunteer forces like Yasseri’s men. Shia militias have been accused not only of multiple atrocities, including summary executions of captives, but of preventing Sunni civilians who may have had nothing to do with Isis from returning to their homes, especially in religiously mixed areas around Baghdad. In one of Iraq’s latest victories, security forces rid much of Diyala province of Isis at the end of January, amid accusations of multiple rights abuses.
. . .
Brig Gen Ali Hussein Shammari©Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud
Brig Gen Ali Hussein Shammari: ‘Diyala province is now secure. There is no Isis. We kicked them out of all the areas of Diyala’
Brigadier General Ali Hussein Shammari points across to the other edge of the Muqdadiya military base in northern Diyala province, along the main highway towards the Iranian border crossing about 100km northeast of Baghdad. Just beyond the sandbags, 600 metres away, is how close Isis fighters had come to the base, he says, practically taking up positions inside the drab facility once operated by US troops. They lobbed mortar shells and staged ambushes daily.
That was in the disastrous aftermath of June 10, when militants flooded across the Syrian border. They seized parts of the country’s north and northwest, including Mosul, as well as 30 per cent of this religiously and ethnically diverse province that abuts Iraq’s Kurdish enclave, Baghdad and a commercially important segment of the Iranian border.
According to independent accounts, the Baghdad government ordered Shammari to retreat. But he refused. Instead, over a gruelling seven months, the commander and the men of his 20th Battalion regrouped following the chaotic collapse of huge segments of the armed forces after Isis sacked Mosul. They went on the offensive, aided by powerful Shia militias and newly formed volunteer forces. Each morning, at dawn, the soldiers — some Sunni, some Shia — prayed to God to keep them safe, before heading to the various fronts in obscure towns such as Saadiyah and Jelola.
Northern Diyala, where Iraqi troops, militiamen and volunteers won a victory over Isis in January©Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud
Northern Diyala, where Iraqi troops, militiamen and volunteers won a victory over Isis in January
In the decisive and bloody 72-hour battle in Mansuriya in late January — marred by allegations of human rights abuses by Shia militias — Isis was pushed out of the last stretches of territory it controlled in the province, save for a sliver in the Hamreen mountains in the northwest.
“Diyala is now secure,” Shammari boasts. “There is no Isis. We kicked them out of all of Diyala.”
But victory or even containing Isis has come at a steep price. At least nine were killed from Battalion 20 alone and dozens more militiamen, interior ministry forces and volunteer fighters were killed in ambushes and improvised bomb explosions, along with at least 130 Isis militants. Shammari shows pictures on his smartphone of Diyala’s defenders lynched by Isis and its supporters, hung by their feet and burnt or beaten to death.
. . .
Sgt Mohaned Maared, who has survived a rocket-propelled grenade strike©Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud
Sgt Mohaned Maared, who has survived a rocket-propelled grenade strike
Far from the battlefield, the war against Isis has entered the fabric of Iraq’s daily life. Sitting in his living room in Baghdad, Sergeant Mohaned Maared describes the moment he came close to death. He ran out of ammunition near the end of a 12-hour Isis assault on his position in Muqdadiya. He ran towards his Humvee to reload when the rocket-propelled grenade struck. He fell, briefly unconscious, to the ground. When he came to, he realised he’d been wounded in the head and thigh. An ambulance rushed him to Baghdad’s Medical City hospital. Luckily, the wounds were not life threatening but he looked a mess, with bandages round his skull. He called his brother-in-law, urging him not to let his wife and four children know yet that he had been injured.
When he finally arrived home, the youngest of his three daughters, Shams, aged three, began to cry. “She was terrified when she saw me,” Maared says, during a visit to the family’s home, a rented three-room edifice of breeze block in a shantytown on Baghdad’s northeastern edge.
“When daddy leaves for the front, [my sister] Shams gets sick. She doesn’t sleep. She always cries”
– Shehed, the 12-year-old daughter of Sgt Mohaned Maared
Tweet this quote
The sergeant’s four children and his mother, Haifa Hassan, come into the well-kept sitting room. Soldiers serve 10 days at the base in Diyala and head home for 10 days, taking shared taxis and paying the $8 one-way fare out of their own pockets.
“When daddy leaves for the front, Shams gets sick,” says Shehed, his oldest daughter, aged 12. “She doesn’t sleep. She always cries.”
In addition to her eldest, Mohaned, Hassan’s three other sons are serving in the army. “At night sometimes I cannot sleep,” she says over tea and cake. “I am afraid of the telephone ringing.”
The walls of the living room are adorned with Koranic sayings and portraits of the Shia saints, including Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, and Hussein, Ali’s son. “Is it enough to just hold up a banner that says ‘There is no god but God’ to make you a Muslim?” she says. “Does Islam behead, burn people, destroy homes, children, refugees?”
A memorial to a volunteer who died fighting Isis©Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud
A memorial to a volunteer who died fighting Isis
Anbar province remains the biggest puzzle for Iraqi security forces, and the site of the most bloody battles and decisive Isis victories. At a Baghdad hotel, Aamer Ibrahim Hazimawy, a 44-year-old who commands a unit of Sunni Awakening fighters — the paramilitary units set up by the US to defeat Isis in 2005 — tells me that last month he began deleting the names and numbers of his dead friends from his mobile phone. He counted 71 before he was overcome by despair and stopped scrolling.
He spends much of his life prowling the streets and protecting administrative buildings in the district of Khaldiyeh in Anbar’s capital Ramadi, just 100 metres from Isis. “Only the Euphrates separates us,” he says.
Hazimawy has made a rare trip to Baghdad after a perilous 125km journey through eastern Anbar province. Before battle, his men recite a Koranic verse: “And we have set a barrier before them and a barrier behind them, and have covered them over so that they cannot see”.
Armed with an AK-47, during the past several months he has led his men in ferocious street battles to aid the beleaguered army in keeping Isis fighters out of the provincial capital’s administrative centre. The vast desert province of Anbar is the one part of Iraq where Isis has been making some headway. Its distinctive black flag already flies in the city of Fallujah. In recent weeks it has gained a foothold in almost all the towns that run along the Euphrates, including Hit, Haditha, Rawa and Qaim. It has all but surrounded Ramadi, the provincial prize, pushing in from multiple directions.
“I don’t sleep that much,” says Hazimawy. “All night we walk and work. I sleep from 7am to 11.30am. For one year, that has been my daily schedule.”
“Not all of Islam is Daesh [Isis]”
– Aamer Ibrahim Hazimawy, a Sunni Awakening fighter
Tweet this quote
Isis reserves a special scorn for the Awakening movement, even referring contemptuously to its Syrian Sunni enemies (who fight against the group as well as the regime of Bashar al-Assad) as sahwa, or awakening. In the months before it launched its June offensive, Isis made a point of targeting the leadership of the Awakening movement for assassination, perhaps recognising the threat it posed to its plans to establish roots throughout Sunni regions of Iraq.
Hazimawy has turned his home into a resistance safe house for the Khaldiyeh Awakening, where men can sleep, eat and plan out attacks and defences. Before he joined the movement in 2006, after the 2005 death of his tribal leader at the hands of Isis’s predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq, Hazimawy sold cigarettes and exchanged money in central Ramadi.
Fighters at Amiriyat Fallujah©Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud
Fighters at Amiriyat Fallujah
The past decade has been a continuous war, frustrated by a Shia-dominated central government that has undermined their efforts by withholding pay and support, while allowing the rise of vicious sectarian militias that alienate Sunni and drive recruits to extremist groups such as Isis. Hazimawy is not married and has no children and, at some point, he stopped praying but most of his several hundred men are intensely pious.
“I am Muslim in identity, and everyone loves their religion,” he says. “Not all of Islam is Daesh.”
. . .
A small Sunni Awakening unit and men from the army’s 1st Division make up the hodgepodge of military units along the front in Amiriyat Fallujah. The volunteers under the command of Yasseri, the seminary student, wear badges depicting the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani on their makeshift uniforms, which they or their families bought at army surplus shops.
“We are students, engineers, tradesman, doctors,” Yasseri explains. “After this is over, we will all go back.”
“We are fighting on behalf of the world, and we have the real Islam behind us”
– Hamid Yasseri, seminary student and volunteer forces commander
Tweet this quote
They arrived here on June 16, days after Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa calling for the creation of a volunteer force to defend the nation against the Isis menace. Many took the call as a religious obligation to engage in jihad, which can mean an armed or unarmed religiously infused struggle. God’s help only goes so far. Though they have successfully held the line, even earning the commendation of top officials, they have not taken any new territory in months.
“We would need a large number of troops and air strikes to move forward,” Yasseri admits.
The enemy number in the hundreds, perhaps a couple of thousand, culled from the ranks of experienced Iraqi insurgent groups that fought the Americans for a decade and have now melded with Isis. Despite long stretches of calm, bouts of intense combat erupt. A week earlier, an Isis sniper killed the leader of Abbas’s unit. Two weeks ago, fighters from the nearby city of Isis-controlled Fallujah snuck across the buffer in a daring early morning raid that was ultimately repelled. Yasseri says the men’s faith keeps them strong. “It’s a global war,” he says. “We feel we are fighting Isis on behalf of the world, and we feel we have the real Islam behind us.”
Volunteer fighter Arkan Hussein©Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud
Arkan Hussein: ‘I lie to my family. I don’t tell them the dangerous things I do’
Most of the time, Isis attacks with sniper fire or mortars but occasionally they launch early-morning raids across the buffer zone. “They came very close to us a few times,” says Arkan Hussein, the man with the PK machine gun. He’s a plump man with short hair and appears even younger than his 30 years. “When they fire on you and you’re in the fight, you don’t think about anything. You just fight.”
During one Isis ambush, a member of his team was killed. Hussein and others conducted their own raid, killing three of theirs in response, he says.
Occasionally, the Isis fighters turn on the megaphone and begin taunting the volunteers. “You are Safavids,” they scream, referring to the 16th-century Persian Safavid empire which broke off from the Sunni caliphate and embraced the Shia sect. “They try to insult us,” he says. “For sure they are infidels. Look at what they have done to the people of Iraq.”
Hussein pauses for a moment before continuing. “They have their own jihad,” he says. “We have our jihad.”
Borzou Daragahi is the FT’s Middle East and North Africa correspondent.
Photographs: Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud
Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don’t cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.