Maandag 05/12/2022

New York Times

Under Islamic State Fire, Love Conquers in Iraq

null Beeld REUTERS

When Ekhlas Mohammed became engaged to a soft-spoken Iraqi soldier from the other side of town in Dhuluiya, she dreamed of the day she would wear a white dress and celebrate with friends, family, music and food. But it would not be so simple.

Ben Hubbert

Extremist fighters from the Islamic State seized the area. Her fiancé and his tribe took up arms to push them out, while her neighbors joined the jihadists, facing off across a deadly front line that cut through the town and separated the young pair.

Despite death threats and suicide attacks, the couple married anyway, thanks to a daring plot by the groom and Mohammed's mother to smuggle the bride out of town by boat along the Tigris.

"Our story was like a romantic tragedy movie," Mohammed, 21, said. "Being threatened by bad guys and escaping with the man who is fighting them to this moment."


Clashes erupt daily along the trenches and barricades that slice through Dhuluiya, a riverside town 50 miles north of Baghdad, and one of many Iraqi communities torn apart this year by the invasion of the Islamic State.

Many of the town's lush groves of date palms and orange trees have become dangerous thanks to the militants' sniper and mortar fire. And although part of the town successfully chased out the jihadists, its residents remain nearly surrounded, with no access to the commercial center, government buildings or even a graveyard to bury their dead.
Their only link to the outside world is a fleet of shaky boats that ply the muddy waters of the Tigris between their Sunni community and a nearby Shiite town, Balad. The boats bring in food, fuel, ammunition and fighters wishing to join the battle against the Islamic State. They also serve as ambulances, ferrying the wounded because the jihadists control the hospital.

null Beeld New York Times
Beeld New York Times

Islamic State

Dhuluiya was still whole when Ali Amer, a 23-year-old soldier in the Iraqi army, decided to marry. A relative who knew Mohammed suggested that he meet her. And in May, Amer visited Mohammed's home, where the two spoke for the first time.

He thought she was pretty and had "good morals." She considered him a gentleman and appreciated that he agreed to let her finish her studies. They announced their engagement a few days later, and then Amer returned to his army base. They spoke frequently by phone and began discussing when the wedding would be.

But in June, the Islamic State and other armed Sunni groups took over Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Much of the Iraqi army melted away, and the extremists pushed south into Dhuluiya.

As in many Sunni areas, the people of the town were hostile to Nouri al-Maliki, then the prime minister, and accused his Shiite-led government of discriminating against their sect. So when the gunmen arrived, presenting themselves as revolutionaries fighting for the Sunnis, the town let them in, said Shalan al-Jubouri, a local journalist.
But the fighters raised the black flag of the Islamic State over the police station. And residents noticed men in the rebels' ranks who had been imprisoned for joining al-Qaida in Iraq.

Then, as they have done elsewhere, the jihadists hunted down men who had served in the army or with the police, as well as those who had joined the U.S.-supported Sunni Awakening movement against al-Qaida.

That angered the Jubour tribe, which lives on the town's southern edge, on a strip of agricultural land inside a horseshoe curve in the river. While many in the town had joined al-Qaida after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the tribe had changed sides to ally with the Americans.

"We have fought them before, so we know who they are," said Maher al-Jubouri, a preacher at a mosque who is helping to lead the fight. "This is a continuation of the same battle."

null Beeld AFP
Beeld AFP


In mid-June, a local police commander led a counterattack on the police station, pushing the Islamic State out of the Jubour tribe's part of town. Since then, the tribe's fighters say they have been struggling to keep the jihadists out, with little help from the government in Baghdad.

At a small house in an orange grove near the front line on a recent afternoon, a dozen tribal fighters rested and cleaned their rifles. The force was a hodgepodge of police officers, soldiers and volunteers, some in camouflage, others in robes and plastic sandals. A mortar tube sat on the lawn, and one fighter worked to convert old munitions into makeshift grenades that could be thrown at Islamic State positions.
While some of their enemies were foreigners, most were from nearby, said Capt. Ziad Saleh, a traffic police officer who had joined the effort against the Islamic State. Some of the fighters have received cellphone calls from people they knew from before, insulting them and telling them to surrender.

"We can't advance because they have planted explosives everywhere, along the road and in the homes," Saleh said. Sappers sent to defuse bombs have been targeted by snipers.

The battle complicated matters for the couple. Amer got the army's permission to fight in his hometown, putting him a few miles from his fiancée but with no way to see her. As news of their engagement spread, the jihadists threatened Mohammed, telling her to break it off or be killed.

Her phone calls grew more anxious. "She would say, 'Hurry up and get me out of here!'??" Amer said.

The jihadists eventually threatened to kill her family, too, so her mother and Amer made a plan to get Mohammed out. But before they did, the jihadists sent a suicide bomber in a Humvee to strike a commercial street, killing 20 people, including Amer's cousin and best friend, Salah Mijbil.

null Beeld AFP
Beeld AFP

The sneak-out

He was still grieving two days later when Mohammed's mother sneaked her daughter out. After a long detour to circumvent the front lines, they boarded a boat to cross the river to the southern side of Dhuluiya, where Amer was waiting on the bank.

"When I saw Ali from a distance," Mohammed said, "I realized that my dream was coming true."

Amer had ordered bedroom furniture for their room in his family's home, but the carpenter's shop was behind the Islamic State's lines. So he had to borrow furniture from relatives. And Mohammed had left her clothing at home so as not to draw attention as she fled.
They crossed the river many times in the next days to go to Balad to buy clothing and jewelry and to use the courthouse there; the Islamic State had captured Dhuluiya's courthouse, too, making it too dangerous to use for the wedding.

On Sept. 22, Mohammed put on a white dress and crossed the river, meeting Amer at a hair salon in Balad. They had pictures taken in a studio, and then took a boat home for a meal with his family. Most of her family did not attend because of the difficulty of crossing the battle lines, and there was no music because Amer was still grieving for his cousin, who had been buried near the house.

Mohammed was still pleased.

"It was the most beautiful day of my life," she said, "and I'm very happy to have Ali beside me."

But Amer, who returned to the fight just four days after their wedding, was almost morose.

"There was no honeymoon," he said. "It was a month of sadness, a month of bullets."

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