WASHINGTON – There are few signs of life in central Ramadi, ISIL’s latest prize in the vast western badlands of Iraq.
Photos and videos posted on the Internet show battle-scarred streets littered with rubble and bloodstained clothing, but devoid of people. Many once-vibrant commercial districts are shuttered or in ruins from airstrikes. The black flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant waves atop of what’s left of public buildings.
But the images of Ramadi that have emerged since it fell to ISIL don’t tell the whole story. Quietly, quickly, the jihadists also are working to provide fuel for heavy generators, ordered shopkeepers to reopen, and have begun demolishing old checkpoints to make it easier to get around, according to telephone interviews with residents.
The Sunni Muslim terrorists appear to be following the same blueprint as they have in other conquered parts of Anbar Province: seize territory, execute “apostates” and “traitors” in a bloodbath, and then reassure terrified civilians by producing goods and services that surpass those provided by the Shiite Muslim-led government in Baghdad.
Even ISIL photos served that goal — displaced homeowners rejoiced when they spotted their houses intact, waiting for them if they’d only return and submit to the medieval rules of the self-proclaimed caliphate.
Not many options
For many, that’s hardly an inviting option, and not just because of the group’s totalitarian control over virtually every aspect of life. There are also U.S. planes overhead and a counteroffensive promised by the fearsome Shiite militias that have stepped in for the overwhelmed Iraqi military.
But other options aren’t much more appealing. Anbar residents can gamble on fleeing to contested towns that are under the fragile hold of anti-ISIL tribes. Or they can strike out for Baghdad, which might as well be the capital of another country, because Shiite authorities have instituted heavy restrictions on Sunni families wanting to enter.
“We can’t leave, but we’re afraid to stay,” said Alaa al-Dulaimy, 39, a father of two who escaped Ramadi days ago and was among the lucky to make it to Baghdad. “We are prey between two predators.”
For many, staying put is the only option, and what they report in phone interviews is that ISIL is eager to provide fresh food and cheap fuel to loyalists even as it imposed a long list of rules that can seem endless: no English teaching, no smoking, no unveiled women, no price gouging, no skipping prayers, and so on.
Through longtime contacts and the help of local journalists who can’t be named for security reasons, McClatchy interviewed residents who’ve spent a year or more under ISIL rule in the Anbar hubs of Fallujah, Khalidiyah and Qaim. They told stories of grotesque hardships under its rule, but often as well of what some described as benefits.
Abbas Fadhil, 48, a construction worker and father of five, has spent the past year under ISIL rule in Fallujah, then Khalidiyah and now back in Fallujah. In that time, he said, punishments have grown harsher, with whippings now for an offense as minor as smoking.
He said local women used to protest when the caliphate’s authorities poked them with sticks to admonish them for improperly veiling or for failing to cover their feet with thick socks. But then the jihadists began marching the women home and seizing their fathers, brothers or husbands to face punishment.
“He’ll be held to account, in many cases beaten, whipped or imprisoned,” Fadhil said. “There used to be objections, but now everyone is resigned to it so they just follow the rules.”
Fadhil, along with other residents, conceded that some aspects of life have improved. In Fallujah, he said, there’s an efficient Islamic court where residents can file their grievances, “even if you have a complaint against the State.” Seven schools are operating, he said, teaching math and science along with religion, but abolishing English, history and any mention of evolution.