Prisoners at Abu Ghraib
Prisoners at Abu Ghraib
Birgit Svensson

ABU GHRAIB — This city's streets are deserted. It would seem certain that the residents of Abu Ghraib fear the Da'ish, the Arabic word for ISIS, as fear has been the dominant emotion since the terrorists began conquering territory in Iraq.

And now, the terror organization is defending their gains with brute force. A uniformed officer at a checkpoint assures us that "it is not because of Da'ish" that no one is out and about. Instead, by way of explanation, he points towards the sky where the sun is at its zenith. It's nearly 40 °C (104 °F) in the shade, and he seems to be saying people aren't out because they are trying to keep cool.

Abu Ghraib is the first city reached when driving west from Baghdad into the province of Anbar. ISIS has attacked the town several times, its notorious prison always the goal.

In July 2013, ISIS managed to free 500 prisoners who were among al-Qaeda"s core. They apparently fled to Syria next, where they were integrated into the hierarchical structures of ISIS, and returned to their former home of Fallujah at the beginning of last year. Now they reign over the city together with Tunisian and French ISIS fighters. The offensive started two days ago and has brought Ramadi, the capital of the province, under sole ISIS control.

To reach Brigadier General Ali Abdul Hussein Khadim, it's necessary to pass through 11 checkpoints, despite the fact that his headquarters is just 50 kilometers from Baghdad. And it's only another 30 to reach Ramadi, where, since Sunday night, the black ISIS flag has been flying above the governor's palace.

From the very beginning, the largest Iraqi province of Anbar has been an ISIS stronghold. At one time, the terror group controlled an estimated 60% to 80% of the territory, but now it controls 90%. Only Abu Ghraib remains to be captured. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave the order Monday morning to use Shia militias here.

Religious sects side by side

At midday the checkpoints are already manned by mixed forces. Sunnis and Shias are serving together. This was not planned, as the mostly Sunni province of Anbar doesn't like to harbor Shias. This is mainly because former Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki excluded Sunnis from many of the political processes and even manned the army with mostly Shia men. The yearlong peaceful protests were ignored, their demands deflected. In the end, the Sunni men joined ISIS in Anbar to fight the government in Baghdad. The battle for Anbar was declared to be a Sunni affair. But the situation has grown so grave that the prime minister has now deployed all available forces.

It appears that he is aware of the danger his decision brings. To avoid religious conflict breaking out again, Abadi had signs erected in Abu Ghraib and other places alerting residents to the presence of the Shia militias. "We serve all Iraqis," Sunni religious leaders declare.

Even the prime minister seems keen to avoid an escalation. In 2006, 2007 and 2008 there were many bloody confrontations in Baghdad between the religious groups, and it has been widely proclaimed to be a civil war. Thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Now, ISIS is attempting to reanimate this religious conflict by denouncing the Shias as infidels who should be killed.

Meanwhile in Anbar, Khadim, the brigadier general, has returned from an inspection of the front line section under his command. Germa is located five kilometers outside of Fallujah. Everything beyond that is ISIS land or "the Caliphate," as it is also called, reminiscent of the Sunni archetype of state. He says everything is quiet. His Al-Muthanna brigade is one of the five army units that have been stationed around Baghdad to guarantee its safety. But of all these units, Khadim's faces the most difficult task because it is charged with protecting Abu Ghraib as well as the international airport, which the terrorists desperately want to take. His predecessor died during one of the engagements.

All in all, however, ISIS is increasingly feeble, Khadim says. Propaganda is its mightiest weapon, which also accounts for the frequent desertions of Iraqi soldiers, even recently in Ramadi. The rumor had spread that 10,000 ISIS soldiers had crossed over from Syria. The approximately 1,000 Iraqi soldiers thought their mission futile and fled.

"ISIS hides in abandoned houses, circumnavigates large groups of people and throws explosive devices or places snipers on roof tops," Khadim says, describing its tactics. Khadim also mentions chlorine gas, which ISIS has used to kill some of his soldiers. This in turn heightens the fear.

The army's tactic is to play down the opponent's strength given that an estimated half of the army has deserted already. This is also evident in Khadim's troop strength. The brigade is made up of 3,462 soldiers of the regular army and 3,186 Shia volunteers who want to fight the Sunni terror group. Although the general stresses that Sunnis and Christians are also to be found among the troops, Shias represent the clear majority. On the way back to Baghdad, the military base Habbaniya comes into view. It is here that on Monday afternoon new recruits should have been sworn in, but the ceremony was another victim of the fighting in Ramadi.

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