The Secret Life of an Iraqi Town That Actually Fought – and Won Against – the Islamic State

How one city succeeded in fending off the Islamic State where others barely even tried

The Secret Life of an Iraqi Town That Actually Fought – and Won Against – the Islamic State
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

For three years, the Iraqi city of Haditha withstood continuous attacks from the Islamic State group, enduring mortar shells, car bombs, Grad rockets, an active front line and a siege that lasted for 18 months before the city ultimately prevailed. The story defies the military logic of that moment, since the Islamic State had swept through large areas, pushed heavily armed groups and armies into capitulating and threatened Baghdad and Erbil, yet failed to capture this relatively small town in the heart of Anbar. More important, the group also desperately sought to capture the town and deployed substantial resources for its campaigns. What made Haditha stand out from the dozens of Iraqi cities and townships that surrendered to the Islamic State without so much as a fight?

New Lines Magazine interviewed leaders and eyewitnesses in Haditha who recollected what had befallen their city since the days leading up to the first attacks by the Islamic State, and how they succeeded in protecting their territory where so many others had failed.

It began shortly after the fall of Mosul on June 10, 2014, into the hands of the Islamic State, with virtually no resistance from the U.S.-trained Iraqi forces that had been based there. Months earlier, on Jan. 2, the Islamic State had overtaken Fallujah under similar circumstances. The tribal leaders of Haditha saw the writing on the wall: An attack by the Islamic State was imminent. But unlike other cities, Haditha would not capitulate, the leaders decided. They would instead fight, come what may.

“We were the first city to dig trenches and build sand berms, starting on June 11, 2014, one day after the fall of Mosul,” said Sheikh Abdullah al-Jaghayfi, who belongs to one of the most prominent tribes in Haditha, with over 110,000 members. One of the leading figures of the Jaghayfah tribe, the sheikh also became a prominent field commander of the Haditha Tribal Forces, tasked with fighting the Islamic State.

Map showing ISIS controlled zones in 2015 / Illustration by Joanna Andreasson

Up until the mid-1980s, Haditha was predominantly an urban center that lacked a strong tribal character. It was only after the influx of thousands of families from villages on the banks of the Euphrates River, due to the construction of the Haditha Dam (known before the 2003 U.S. military invasion as al-Qadisiya Dam), that tribal relations started to become integral to local society.

On June 13 — three days after the fall of Mosul — the Najaf-based Supreme Shiite leader Ali al-Sistani issued a call for “jihad al-Kafai,” a fatwa announcing war on the Islamic State that came on the heels of a directive issued earlier to the same effect by the Iraqi government.

But in the weeks that followed, the territory under the Islamic State command continued to grow, moving south to cities in the provinces of Kirkuk, Salah ad Din, Diyala and Anbar, meeting no resistance all the way to the capital, Baghdad. The leaders of Haditha watched these developments closely and ascertained how those cities “fell from the inside, thanks to Daesh’s sleeper cells and residents who collaborated with them,” recalled Mabruk Hamid Mahidi, the current mayor of Haditha district, using the pejorative Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. Mahidi is a former officer in the Iraqi army and senior fighter in the Jaghayfah tribe. In 2014, he was serving as head of the Security Committee in Haditha district’s local government.

“We were certain that Daesh would not have mercy on us and would kill us all if it managed to storm the city and take control of it,” said Mahidi. It would be “an existential battle,” he added. Victory or death.

An urgent meeting was held at Haditha’s police headquarters attended by tribal leaders, the head of the local government Khalid Salman and commander of the Judiciary Police Col. Farouk Tayeh. Mahidi, who had also been in attendance at the meeting, recalled how the men reaffirmed their resolve to “confront Daesh and prevent at all costs the storming of the city.”

They knew that the Islamic State would destroy these sacred places and all things the people of Haditha held dear.

It helped that the Islamic State ideology was not accepted among Haditha’s religious scholars, who adhered to a more Sufi-influenced Sunni Islam that is inherently at odds with the rigid Salafi-jihadist approach adopted by the Islamic State. (In terms of religious belief, the same goes for the majority of Sunni towns and villages across western and northern Iraq.) The city’s conservative residents honored shrines and tombs of local saints, like 13th century Sufi saint Sheikh Hadid, and they knew that the Islamic State would destroy these sacred places and all things the people of Haditha held dear. Such sacred places are not just religious symbols; they also belonged to ancestors of some clans in the local community.

According to Mahidi, “there were no imams and preachers who supported the Islamic State, and the general belief was that if Daesh took over the city, it would ruin it, just destroy it and displace locals.” He added that many religious leaders in the city thought that the Islamic State did not represent Islam.

Yet despite this widespread sentiment — and as a sign of the sensitivity of Muslims rousing their brethren to fight other Muslims — only a few of the local religious leaders openly spoke up against the Islamic State.

Anbar’s prominent and Sufi-oriented Rebat al Mohammadi Scholars Council, which was represented in Haditha by Sheikh Abdul Qadir Bahjat al-Alusi, preached in a sermon that “fighting the Kharijites [was] a religious duty,” in effect issuing a fatwa to fight the Islamic State. Kharijites, or Rebels, is a specific religious label from early Islam referring to a radical group that rebelled against the fourth Muslim caliph after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, legitimizing a call to war against them.

Some scholars like Sheikh Osama Zabin al-Ubaidi, imam and preacher of al-Tawhid mosque, a Sufi mosque with known hostility to Salafism, called from the pulpit while carrying his machine gun in the first Friday sermon after the fall of Mosul for people to “fight Daesh,” describing them as “infidels who must be fought.”

Sheikh al-Jaghayfi acknowledged there were differences between the tribes of Haditha on the thorny question of Muslims fighting Muslims. “But the circumstances did not allow us to adopt a plurality of opinions. We had to unite to defend the city,” he said.

Even after the fall of Mosul, Haditha remained fully functional, and the local government services, education system and health departments were operating at full capacity. But it was clear to the leadership that the first line of defense was to address the Islamic State’s growing propaganda, which was starting to circulate on social media and among locals, on the streets and in coffee shops.

Indeed, in February 2014, the Islamic State managed to breach Haditha and carry out a car bomb attack against the Jaghayfah tribe’s overall chief, Said Osman al-Jaghayfi, killing him and five others. The sheikh had led the Jaghayfah Awakening Council, originally formed under the auspices of the U.S. to fight the Islamic State of Iraq, also known as al Qaeda in Iraq. This “showed that [the Islamic State] had collaborators inside the city,” said Sheikh al-Jaghayfi. The perpetrator is known to locals — Assi al-Ubaidi, a former special forces officer in Saddam Hussein’s regime from Hawija in Kirkuk in eastern Iraq who had joined the Islamic State’s first iteration after 2003.

The leaders decided that a purge was in order. It was no time to adhere to civil liberties or the laws of the land. Sheikh al-Jaghayfi recalled that period as a brutal time with all things abiding only by “tribal laws and customs.”

“We decided to cleanse the city of Daesh sympathizers and supporters. We did not wait for them to be brought to trial at a time when there was no state or government,” he said.

The city leaders swiftly formed a security force affiliated with the Haditha Tribal Forces to track down the Islamic State supporters, or even those suspected to be sympathetic to the jihadists. He described it as a battalion “of 25 fighters from Haditha tribesmen, which we called the ‘Shabakis Division,’ which is an abbreviation of the phrase ‘shabab mushakis’ [the feisty or vicious youth], because they were merciless with those suspected of sympathy, affiliation or support for Daesh.”

Sheikh al-Jaghayfi explained that after the car bomb attack, the city “took a firm stance against supporters of Daesh and those we suspected of cooperating with them.”

“We lost six people from our tribe, but we avenged them by killing 12 Daesh sympathizers within a few days,” he said. “We did not bury the dead of Daesh in cemeteries, but rather would throw their bodies in the Euphrates River or dig mass graves deep in the desert to bury them.”

I asked him how they ensured no innocent people were swept up in the purge. He said that the tribal fighters had informants within the Islamic State and also relied on correspondence found in cell phones of dead or captured members. “Everybody we killed was a confirmed member of the organization,” Sheikh al-Jaghayfi said, insisting that the purge campaign was a success. “Our city became free of Daesh supporters and its sleeper cells. This was a first step in the city’s resistance against Daesh,” he said.

New Lines could not independently verify the claim that all individuals swept up in the anti-Islamic State purge had sinister ties to the group. Mahidi acknowledged that the approach, which he called successful, was also “brutal.”

Meanwhile, Haditha’s own spies inside the Islamic State kept tabs on the group’s movements in cities throughout the western parts of Anbar province. After Mosul fell, Haditha’s leaders received word that the Islamic State was practically at their doorstep.

Indeed, the first attack came as soon as June 14, with a breach from the western side of Haditha.

“It came as expected. We’d received information from our collaborators,” said Mahidi, marking the date as the first “key victory” for Haditha. This victory would prove to be especially significant for the morale of the tribal fighters because, as it turned out, the Islamic State commander attacking Haditha was a member of Haditha’s Jaghayfah tribe.

“Daesh’s first attack consisted of a column of fewer than 10 cars carrying men armed with light and medium-range weapons and several RPG-7 rocket launchers, led by one Daesh leader Najih Khalaf al-Jaghayfi of the Jaghayfah tribe,” said Sheikh al-Jaghayfi, who fought his fellow tribesmen on the western outskirts of the city. The Islamic State had resorted to this tactic “to destabilize the ranks of the opposing forces, most of which were from the same tribe as Daesh’s attack leader,” he added. It was also a way to prove the loyalty of these tribal members to the Islamic State.

Sheikh al-Jaghayfi maintains that his fellow tribesman Najih Khalaf al-Jaghayfi, despite having joined the Islamic State, was “fierce and brave” and had several highly trained soldiers under his command.

During the attack, the Islamic State fighters breached Haditha with a suicide bomber who drove his car into a residential neighborhood located on the western side of Haditha, known as al-Issaf al-Fouri. But the attack was foiled, and casualties were minimal, thanks to the Haditha Tribal Forces who managed to repel the attack.

“We succeeded in breaking up the first attack thanks to heavy fire launched by the Haditha Tribal Forces, who took up positions behind sand berms. The driver of the car carrying the leader of the attack seemed to panic, because the car overturned and fell into one of the trenches, killing all of those in it, including the commander of the attack, Najih Khalaf al-Jaghayfi,” said Sheikh al-Jaghayfi. Days later, and with renewed confidence, the ranks of the Haditha Tribal Forces saw their numbers increase from 60 or 70 fighters to over 300. It was a significant step in bolstering the city’s defenses early in the conflict, forcing the Islamic State onto its back foot.

Haditha held vital military importance. Located less than 20 miles east of Ain al-Asad military base, which was hosting U.S. forces, Haditha also sits a couple of hours drive from Anbar’s two main urban centers of Ramadi and Qaim. The Haditha Dam, the largest in Iraq, arches north of the city and serves a water basin that stretches over 40 miles to the west.

According to Mahidi, the Islamic State had two goals in trying to control Haditha. The first one was to exact revenge from those in the city who fought against it, and the second was to control the dam and use it to prevent the government from carrying out offensive operations against its strongholds in Anbar, especially nearby Ramadi.

The Islamic State’s former spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s speech at the end of June 2015 reflected the city’s importance for the group and the lengths to which it would go to win the tribes’ loyalty. Adnani announced a general amnesty for tribesmen, police officers and soldiers who had fought the Islamic State, and he singled out the Jaghayfah tribe, threatening to “exterminate” them if they refused to surrender. Addressing them, he stated: “We now surround the city of Haditha and can enter it any moment. If we enter the city before you surrender, people will say that there used to be a tribe called Jaghayfah, and here used to be their homes.”

Sheikh al-Jaghayfi recalled Adnani’s threats and the city’s reaction at the time.

“We refused to negotiate with Daesh, which sent mediators with lists of wanted persons to be handed over to Daesh, including more than 150 names, most of whom were from the Jaghayfah tribe,” he said.

Asked about armaments, Mahidi said that Haditha Tribal Forces did not have heavy weapons to repel the anticipated attacks of the Islamic State. “The federal government at that time did not arm the tribes, so we relied on tribesmen bringing their personal weapons, which usually consisted of light weapons such as Kalashnikovs, with total numbers not reaching a hundred weapons,” he said.

Sheikh al-Jaghayfi confirmed the lack of weapons, stating: “In the beginning, we did not even have 70 fighters, and most of them were from our tribe, the Jaghayfah. We only possessed dozens of pieces of light weapons, a few medium-scale weapons, not more than 10 BKC machine guns. Some of our fighters did not even have a weapon but stayed with us on the western outskirts of the city as we had planned. Information from our collaborators confirmed the focus of Daesh’s first attack on the city after we had refused to negotiate with them to hand over the city without a fight.”

Government support did not arrive, and the Iraqi armed forces stationed at the Badia Operations Command withdrew from their headquarters between Anah and Rawa districts and stopped at Haditha. The two districts, located approximately 40 miles northwest of Haditha, had surrendered to the Islamic State without a fight on June 22, 2014.

“Three days prior to that we received assistance by means of 12 machine guns provided to us by Lt. Gen. Mardi al-Mahlawi, who was on his way to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan,” said Sheikh al-Jaghayfi.

Mahlawi is from the Albu Mahal tribe, the majority of which resides in Qaim district on the border with Syria. He previously held the position of Anbar operations commander until he was dismissed in 2013. He returned to service in 2015 as deputy chief of staff of the army, a position he held until 2018, when he had to retire, having reached the compulsory retirement age.

Sheikh Al-Jaghayfi explained that the Albu Mahal tribe sent dozens of fighters to fight alongside the forces of the Haditha tribes immediately after the fall of Qaim on June 22, 2014.

After the fall of Qaim, Anah and Rawa, west of Anbar, the security and Iraqi armed forces affiliated with the Badia Operations Command led by Maj. Gen. Diaa Danbos headed east toward Ain al-Assad military base. “Their withdrawal stopped at the outskirts of our city,” said Mahidi, who explained that the commander of the withdrawing force contacted Baghdad, informing them of the Haditha tribes’ decision to fight the Islamic State and their desire for the army units to fight alongside them. Sheikh Al-Jaghayfi estimated the number of the withdrawing Iraqi army vehicles to be approximately 400.

According to Mahidi, after more than two hours of communication between Badia Operations Command and officials in Baghdad, “the order was for these forces to deploy in the city and in the Haditha Dam area to establish a headquarters for their operations in that zone, while providing the necessary combat and equipment support to our forces, the Haditha Tribal Forces.”

“There was a unity of purpose between the Haditha Tribal Forces and army that gave everyone an additional impetus and morale boost,” explained Sheikh al-Jaghayfi, adding that the Iraqi army units deployed alongside the tribes’ fighters on the outskirts of the city where they expected the Islamic State to attack.

This support proved critical for Haditha, bolstering its chances for the ultimate victory later on. The Islamic State’s attempts to control the Haditha Dam, Mahidi recalled, were thwarted by local fighters as well as U.S. strikes in the early days of September 2014, which marked the first U.S. strikes in the whole of Anbar after the campaign against the Islamic State started a few months earlier.

The second turning point in the fight against Islamic State came in 2016, this time against hundreds of Islamic State fighters who attacked Haditha from three directions. The offensive was led by Abu Daoud al-Mahlawi, deputy governor of the Islamic State’s Euphrates Wilayah and the top security official there, overseeing more than 500 fighters.

“We called the attack the Nine Day Battle, because the fighting raged day and night between January 3 and 12, 2016,” said Sheikh al-Jaghayfi. “We believed that the international coalition forces would stop these large convoys and combat reinforcements from reaching the city, but they did nothing.”

By then, the Haditha Tribal Forces had more than 300 machine guns, most of which had been captured from the Islamic State during previous attacks. The Islamic State fighters relied on some 52 explosive-laden vehicles in various attacks throughout the nine-day battle, “but our forces foiled the attacks,” said Sheikh al-Jaghayfi.

“Daesh started losing morale as it became increasingly aware that entering our city had become impossible,” he added.

The Haditha Tribal Forces prevailed in defending Haditha, inflicting more than 150 casualties among the ranks of the Islamic State fighters, with many more left wounded. Abu Daoud al-Mahlawi survived but was later executed by the Islamic State leadership in Syria, according to Sheikh al-Jaghayfi.

It was the defining battle for Haditha, which in the course of the nine days had lost over 400 people, most of them civilians. Over 600 people were left wounded. With little irony, Sheikh Jaghayfi recalled how “the Iraqi government provided no treatment, except for a few people among the injured. The rest had to pay for treatment at their own expense, either inside Iraq or abroad.”

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