Tribal leader shares tales of massacres
Sunni sheik’s story underscores difficulty facing indigenous forces
BAGHDAD — There can be few greater humiliations for a revered tribal sheik than to lead hundreds of men in a full-scale retreat across the desert.
But for Faisal al-Gaoud, the leader of a powerful Sunni clan in western Iraq, worse was to come. As he and his men sought refuge from the jihadists of Islamic State, news came in of the massacres.
“They rounded people up five at a time and killed them,” he said. “In Heet city, they killed 50 people. They never gave us the bodies. They killed 40 in Hay al-Bakr — those bodies they returned. Mainly they were civilians, the police and soldiers had all left.”
The resistance of Sheik Faisal’s Albu Nimr tribe to Islamic State in the Sunni heartlands west of Baghdad had lasted 10 months. Its failure, and the murderous consequences, have cast a shadow over U.S. hopes of building a coalition among Sunni tribal leaders to defeat Islamic State. Tribal leaders have little formal status in Iraq’s government structures, but in fighting Islamic State, whose base is in their heartlands in Iraq and eastern Syria, their private armies of loyal kinsmen can be a major asset.
While some tribal leaders have allied to Islamic State, several other pro-Western tribes, including Faisal’s, have fought against the jihadists ever since they swept through western Iraq a year ago.
Despite support from the Iraqi government and its international backers, the Albu Nimr’s supplies of ammunition ran out and their people were forced into retreat.
Late last year, Heet, a walled city on the Euphrates River 150 kilometres west of Baghdad, was surrounded by Islamic State forces.
“A fighter told me, ‘the army have pulled back, the police have pulled back, the tribal fighters have pulled back,’” Faisal said in an interview. “The soldiers told me they had run out of ammunition.”
Faisal arrived at a gathering point in the centre of a 30-kilometre stretch of territory the tribe still controlled. He soon realized he had no choice but to lead his men in retreat: otherwise they would face certain death. Skirting Islamic State positions, he led a convoy of 400 jeeps through the enemy lines, on a circuitous route that took 11 hours to take them to safety.
Over the next few days, Islamic State fighters moved into their villages and houses and interrogated those left behind. Men who were found to have policemen, soldiers or other fighters as relations were taken away and shot.
One policeman, Mutar, said his wife and children crossed the Euphrates with his brother, a taxi driver, and his family, to stay with relations.
At a checkpoint, the jihadists seemed to know who they were. His brother had two sons in the army.
“They took my brother’s younger sons, Hussein, who is 16, and Fadl and Attiya, who are twins and 13,” he said.
“They arrested them, interrogated them, and tortured them. Then they shot and killed them.”
Over the next few days, the pattern was repeated, with up to 50 people being killed daily. The reports filtered back to the tribal leaders, who could do nothing.
Faisal is now based in the town of Barwana, north of Heet, trying to regather his forces. The Iraqi army also is trying to re-group, with the help of a U.S. retraining program.
Critics think the strategy of building up indigenous Sunni forces has to change. They say that relying on traditional tribal structures simply exacerbates Iraq’s sectarian dividing lines, and plays into Islamic State’s hands.
In Heet city, they killed 50 people. They never gave us the bodies. They killed 40 in Hayal-Bakr—those bodies they returned. FAISAL AL-GAOUD SUNNI CLAN LEADER