To the villagers who fled, Zowiya is now a graveyard for all they’ve ever known. Their houses have been razed, their neighbors are dead, and their tribal codes have been violated in ways they never dreamed possible.
For the extremist fighters who overran Zowiya this week in a fury of mortars and bullets, the ruins of the Sunni Muslim village carry a different symbolism: an example for any “turncoats” who dare resist the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
“What we saw is nothing like anything in all of history, not even under Hulagu,” said a 55-year-old survivor of the attack, Abu Omar al Jubouri, alluding to the 13th century Mongol ruler who laid waste to Baghdad.
The Islamic State heralded the “cleansing” of the village, which is near Tikrit in northern Iraq, in an Internet posting, bragging that it had blown up villagers’ homes, which it called “hideouts,” killed 28, wounded many more and driven the remainder from the village. It warned that “all those who may even think about fighting the Islamic State and conspiring against the caliphate can know what their fate will be.”
The threat was clearly aimed at any suggestion that Sunni Muslim tribes would organize to fight the Islamic State _ a strategy that the U.S. military used to defeat al Qaida in Iraq during the American occupation. The extremist rebels now have seized roughly half the country with little resistance from Iraq’s hobbled army, and it’s unclear how they could be routed short of a tribal uprising or foreign airstrikes.
“The fall of Zowiya indicates the challenges the tribes in rural villages will face in countering ISIS, which may be focusing on rural areas in order to gain control of lines of communication and, eventually, other urban areas,” said a post about the Zowiya episode that appeared Tuesday on the website of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank with a team of Iraq researchers. ISIS refers to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the caliphate’s precursor.
Witness accounts vary in the details about what triggered the destruction of Zowiya, but the common narrative is that the Islamic State became suspicious of the village, home to many military officers and provincial government employees, immediately after it captured much of northern Iraq in early June. A metal bridge over the Tigris River separates Zowiya, whose population was estimated at about 10,000 before the crisis, from another village, Zab, an Islamic State stronghold.
The insurgents were on alert after rumors spread that some Zowiya villagers were plotting to form a rival force to counter the extremists. About 10 days into the northern campaign, the Islamic State dispatched emissaries to talk to local tribal leaders about sending in forces to gather information. An agreement was reached, witnesses said, and the Islamic State fighters rolled into town in an intimidating convoy of dozens of pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.
“They gathered us all and told us, ‘We want you to turn in all police weapons and vehicles,’ and they gave us a few days to do it,” said Jubouri, who, like other witnesses, refused to divulge his full name for fear of retaliation. “Our negotiators told them, ‘We’ll give you the weapons, but we don’t know where the vehicles are. If you see one in the street, confiscate it.’”
Within a week, witnesses said, the villagers turned over at least 40 guns of different models, cleared roadblocks from the metal bridge, and allowed free passage for the Islamic State. The fighters quickly wore out their welcome, blasting religious songs from loudspeakers on their trucks and shouting victory chants at passersby.
“They started coming every day, each time with a new issue,” Jubouri said. “It was a provocation, and it made people in the village angry.”
The fateful showdown happened early Monday morning, when the Islamists turned up at the house of a man some witnesses said was a military officer and others described as a bodyguard for the governor. Either way, he belonged to the Iraqi government and was accused of trying to form a “sahwa,” or anti-insurgent force, making him a legitimate target for death in the eyes of the extremists. A gunfight broke out between the man’s brothers and the Islamic State members. Witnesses said a band of locals chased the extremists away, shooting at them and following them with cars.
That impromptu rebellion appears to have doomed Zowiya.
By noon that day, the Islamic State began to punish the villagers with mortar fire, first in 15-minute intervals and then “like a rain shower,” as two separate witnesses described the barrage. Zowiya’s men rushed to fortify their village from the ground offensive they knew would soon follow. Young men grabbed guns and set up a defensive perimeter; some tried in vain to blow up the metal bridge with rocket-propelled grenades.
“They didn’t care about the women or the children or the innocent,” said a Red Crescent worker from Zowiya who witnessed the attack and asked not to be named for security reasons. “I would say more than 500 shells fell in that first hour. Dead bodies are still in the village as we speak, under the rubble of the houses.”
When it became clear they couldn’t defend their lands, the residents fled en masse under the scorching sun and the mortar shower, ditching their cars and continuing on foot when they ran out of gas because of a regional fuel shortage. Witnesses saw dazed and bloodied people emerging from houses that had been struck in the shelling. They said one man who’d lost a leg in an earlier, unrelated bombing couldn’t run and was left behind, his wife by his side.
“Our men were ready to fight, but it was the mortar barrage that won the battle,” Jubouri said. “Negotiators were calling everyone they knew on the other side, but the other side refused.”
After the village emptied, fighters swept in and began blowing up houses, one by one. There’s no firm figure for the number of casualties or destroyed homes. Witnesses put the figure at 18, 10 fewer than the Islamic State’s claim.
Jubouri and his family made it to the Kurdish city of Irbil, where they were interviewed by phone from their hotel room. The women of the family could be heard weeping in the background, with fresh sobs every time Jubouri mentioned their house. Jubouri had paid $140,000 for it, his life savings. They’re now homeless, running out of money and unable to return to their lands except at the mercy of the militants.
Jubouri said a few people he knows have trickled back and were cursed at and forced to watch the demolition of houses before being permitted entry into what remains of their village.
“They want to terrify people. They want to tell the tribes that you cannot repeat what you did in 2006 and 2007,” Jubouri said, then he broke down again in tears.