Ouster of extremists from Iraqi town leaves bitter divisions
QAYARA, Iraq (AP) — On the main shopping street of the town of Qayara, murals put up by the Islamic State group that told people how to dress and behave have been hastily painted over. New signs touting nationalism and unity now line a main highway since Iraqi forces drove the extremists from the Tigris River Valley town in August.
Deeper inside Qayara, however, fresh graffiti has appeared on some streets, revealing bitterness, anger and lasting fissures among the population.
"Blood for blood," reads the Arabic script spray-painted outside a destroyed home on the town's northern edge. Neighbors said the house belonged to a man who joined IS when the group first rose to power in 2014. Slang and obscenities against the owner also are written on a partially destroyed garden wall.
When Qayara was retaken by Iraqi security forces, it was hailed as an early triumph over the extremists as the country prepared for the long-awaited offensive to liberate the second-largest city Mosul that began Oct. 17.
But for some residents, the ouster of IS doesn't feel like victory.
Government services have failed to return. Oil wells set ablaze by the militants continue to burn uncontrollably. Violence persists, with residents carrying out revenge attacks in the wake of the brutal reign by the militants.
Mahmoud Shaker, who lives down the street from the destroyed house, said a group of local tribal fighters and policemen reduced it to rubble a few weeks after IS militants were pushed out of Qayara.
"We know this wasn't done legally, but for us, this is justice," the 25-year-old Shaker said. It was "common knowledge" that the man who lived there was a senior IS leader, he added, although he said he personally never saw the man commit a crime.
"Before the town was retaken, he fled with his family to Mosul," Shaker said.
On the edge of Qayara, Ala Hussein has lived under darkened skies for months. A short distance from her home, several oil wells have been burning uncontrollably since June.
The IS fighters first torched some of the wells as Iraqi forces began the operation to retake Qayara, hoping the thick, black smoke would obscure the town from warplanes of the U.S.-led coalition. In late August, as it became clear they were losing the town, the militants lit the rest of the wells before fleeing north toward Mosul.
Hussein's garden is covered with sticky, black droplets of oil that fall like light rain from the clouds of smoke. One of her fruit trees has died, and another is covered with a plastic tarp to try to save it. Her children's hands and feet are stained black by the pollution.
In the fields around the town, grazing sheep and cows all have turned a dark gray from the soot.
Firefighters show up every few days, spraying the flames with water and occasionally trucking in sand to try to snuff out the blaze, Hussein said, but it never improves.
"This is not liberation. We haven't yet had the taste of freedom," she said. "Where is our government? We don't have a government."
In central Qayara, doctors at a small clinic that serves as the only working hospital treat patients by the light of mobile phones. Dr. Abdul Salam Ali Ahmed said he can only afford enough fuel to turn on his generators for three hours a day.
When the hospital receives casualties from the ongoing Mosul operation 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the north, those who can't be saved must be buried within hours because there is no refrigeration to preserve the bodies.
A sign in the hospital's front hallway says that newborns cannot be issued birth certificates.
"The Ministry of Health hasn't sent us the required paperwork yet," Ahmed said. "We just keep our own records for now."
The central government in Baghdad has sent intelligence officials to Qayara to screen civilians for any ties to IS. A detention center has been set up in a mosque and an adjacent office houses an interrogation room.
Unlike the destruction of homes, their work is achieving justice through legal methods, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
"It's better than tribal revenge," one of the intelligence officers said. "When we arrest someone it's safer for him. It protects him."
Since the operation to retake Mosul began last month, they have detained thousands of people, with hundreds formally arrested and sent to Baghdad, the officials said.
At a cluster of homes near the oil fires, a young man flaunted a video on his phone that he said was taken in Qayara after its liberation. The video showed the corpses of IS fighters being abused by residents. It also showed a group of children punching and kicking one of the bodies.
Hussein, the woman whose house was covered by oil, believes that the Iraqi security forces were complicit when Islamic State militants overran northern and central parts of the country more than two years ago.
Many of the security forces fled in the face of the militants' advance, and some blame Iraq's political leadership with facilitating the fall of Mosul by ignoring months of warnings that the group was growing in power.
"The government sold us to Daesh in the first place," Hussein said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
"And now they want to accuse us of being terrorists!" she said, cursing both the militants and the government with an obscenity.
Associated Press writers Salar Salim and Mstyslav Chernov in Qayara, Iraq, contributed.