Erbil, Iraq – Samih Radhwan, 26, is playing a game on his phone as he awaits his turn at a barbershop in Erbil’s Havalan neighbourhood.
Seven years ago, he and his family moved to Erbil in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region from Baghdad and settled in this neighbourhood, which has a large population that fled sectarian conflict in other parts of the country.
Although a Sunni Arab, he says he does not approve of the actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) despite its claims to be an advocate for Sunni rights in Iraq and the broader region.
“What they do is something that one can only expect in an extremely horrifying movie,” says Radhwan as he rubs his neatly trimmed and fashionable beard. “Our tragedy is that this is all actually real and happening.”
Since last June, ISIL has overrun large parts of northern and western Iraq and established itself as the de facto authority in most parts of the country’s Sunni-dominated governorates. The group’s dramatic rise in Iraq was in large part aided by the strong resentment that many average Sunnis felt toward the policies of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which was perceived to privilege members of Iraq’s Shia communities.
“ISIL is only one side of this game,” Radhwan said. “What about those other groups and militias and people in the government who pushed many Sunnis to support ‘Daesh’,” he adds, using the term Iraqis often use to describe ISIL.
|Radhwan’s family has first-hand experience with sectarian brutality and his words amplify the grievances and misgivings of many Sunni Arabs about siding with the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIL.A few months before his family left their home in a Baghdad suburb, one of his uncles, a local store-owner, was abducted by a militia group for sectarian reasons. He was released three months later after a hefty ransom was paid by Radhwan’s family. They managed to collect the amount by borrowing money from relatives and friends.Sunnis have accused Maliki of deliberately attempting to marginalise and undermine them by viewing Sunnis in strictly sectarian terms.
Some Sunni Arab tribes and members of the Awakening Council are fighting alongside the Iraqi coalition against ISIL. But the majority of Sunni tribes have so far refused to turn against the group. Many of them want assurances that if they help expel ISIL from Iraq, the Iraqi government will honour its word and grant Sunnis more power and control over the regions in which they are populous.
In Tairawa neighbourhood, less than a kilometre from Erbil’s millennia-old citadel, Saman Salim, a 31-year-old teacher, is sharing a moment of relaxation with a friend as they eat ice cream.
“If you ask me, I’d say everyone should fight ‘Daesh’,” he says. “We have seen what they do and how they rule… Everyone needs to do more, the [Kurdish forces] Peshmerga, Iraqi army and the Americans.”
For many Kurds, ISIL was the last thing they needed. While the local economy had considerably slowed down since February when Maliki cut off the Kurdish government’s budget, ISIL’s emergence and swift attacks on Kurdish-held territory represented an existential threat.
But Salim does not believe that ISIL will be defeated easily.
“They are strong and many of them will fight to the end,” he said. “But even if they [ISIL] are defeated, there is little trust between the Sunnis and the government and even the Kurds and Baghdad… Problems will continue anyway in some shape or form.”
Observers say that had it not been for the US air strikes and military support from western nations and Iran, Kurds would have faced an extremely challenging task to fight ISIL on their own as the group is far better equipped than its Kurdish rivals.
Iraqi Kurds, speaking to Al Jazeera, have been unsettled by the unfolding events on the other side of the border in Syria as ISIL has laid siege and attacked the Kurdish-dominated area of Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab in northern Syria. Some estimates point out that as many as 200,000 civilians have fled their homes in Kobani.
For Iraqi Kurds, who have been repeatedly displaced in the past few decades, such scenes are all painful reminders of their past and hint at what might have happened if ISIL had not been stopped when they reached around 30km south west of Erbil last summer.
Erbil is now home to tens of thousands of internally displaced people who were driven out of their homes by ISIL’s offensives in northern Iraq.
Ainkawa, a Christian-dominated suburb in the northern part of the city, hosts dozens of families that hastily abandoned their homes in the historic Nineveh plains when ISIL fighters marched towards the area in August. Um Asma, 33, is one of them. She currently resides in an unfinished building.
“May God bless anyone who can rid us of those criminals,” she says waiving her hands passionately. “We have nothing now. We lost everything we had… Why do we have to see so much misery?”
ISIL’s onslaught in Nineveh plains has been particularly costly for the religious minorities there. It’s believed that for the first time since the advent of Christianity in Iraq nearly 2,000 years ago, Mosul, a historically significant city for Christians, is almost empty of its Christian population.
In Sinjar near the Syrian border, the militants are believed to have killed hundreds of the followers of the ancient Mesopotamian Yazidi religion and kidnapped many Yazidi women. Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled their homes as they got word of ISIL’s assault fearing the group’s brutality and proselytising zeal.
Ghanim Elias used to be a teacher in his hometown of Bashika northeast of Mosul, leading a quiet life with other people in the mixed Yazidi, Christian, and Muslim town. He is now in Erbil along with hundreds of other Yazidis and acts as a community leader trying to attract aid for members of his displaced community.
“This is the beginning of the end for ‘Daesh’ [ISIL],” he says. “The campaign should have started earlier.”
Khero Farhan, another Yazidi who fled his hometown of Sinjar shortly before ISIL reached there, is now a refugee in Dohuk, a city around a couple of hundred kilometres north of Erbil.
Seeing how the group has operated, he doubts victory can be achieved any time soon. “It’s going to take a lot of time and power for Daesh to be beaten,” says the 40-year-old man.
“Without international and American support, the Iraqi and [Kurdish] Peshmerga forces cannot do this alone. Daesh has surprised them with its power… Its fighters do not run away from death.”