Our town is practically under the control of the [extremist group known as] the Islamic State,” complains Ahmed al-Jawari, who lives in a small town about 25 kilometres east of the city of Tikrit. “Despite the security forces here. There are continuous attacks and it’s also difficult to move around at night because of the extremists.”
By Mazen Al Amin, in Salahaddin
If you’re driving between the small towns of Salahaddin province after dark, you are usually warned to stay on the main roads – or better still, wait until morning. Military checkpoints – set up to police travellers and discourage extremists – are few and far between here.
This is because of the vast deserts in this area, throughout Salahaddin, a province that borders other provinces, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninawa and the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Even though the so-called Islamic State was supposedly defeated in Iraq in late 2017, and despite the presence of an estimated 40,000 troops of all kinds here, the desert means that the extremists still have somewhere to hide. They can also easily attack anybody driving along the secondary roads through this area.
The locals here support the security forces, says Amer al-Sakr, a local tribal leader in Salahaddin. “And we report anything we think looks suspicious. The security forces do deal with everything quickly and efficiently but there are also some traitors inside the security forces, who support the terrorists,” al-Sakr notes.
Another possibly more pertinent reason for the ongoing attacks is the overlapping jurisdictions in this area. The leaders of different military and paramilitary groups don’t communicate and the lack of coordination creates a security vacuum that the extremist groups can exploit. Many of the extremist fighters arrive in Salahaddin from Syria, via the Hamrin mountain range.
“It is the orders that we get from our commanders,” one Salahaddin police commander, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject, told Al Menassa. “They impose limits on us and where we can manoeuvre or move to, and that provides the extremist groups a safe zone.”
The police commander believes that the political antipathies between various military groups in the area don’t help either. Iraqi Kurdish troops are supposed to defend their region but some angry Salahaddin locals suspect the Kurdish of using the situation to try and expand the borders of the lands they control. They have not been able to prove this though.
“Some of the military leaders here even support the extremists’ aims,” the police commander suggests provocatively. His forces often carry out pre-emptive missions and are usually able to arrest suspected extremists as a result. The general presumption is that the extremists want to establish their bases in the Hamrin mountains.