Neighbourhood in Iraq’s Dhuluiyah stands against jihadists

Caught between jihadists and the Tigris River, residents of one neighbourhood in a Sunni town in Iraq have taken up arms alongside security forces and held out for months. 

If the fighters, police and soldiers defending the Jubur area in Dhuluiyah north of Baghdad repel the Islamic State (IS) -- a Sunni jihadist group -- it would be a powerful symbol of resistance for the forces battling against it. 

And it could help gain support for the anti-jihadist fight among Iraqi Sunni Arabs who feel they have been marginalised by the Shiite-led government and targeted by its security forces. Their backing is key to regaining ground from IS and allied groups that overran much of the Sunni Arab heartland in June. 

Jubur, named for the tribe that resides there, is an idyllic area of colourful houses, soaring palm trees and the reed-lined Tigris, but the peace is broken by periodic bursts of machinegun and rifle fire and explosions. 

"The area, a small part of the map, God willing, will be an (IS) cemetery and... the beginning of the complete liberation of Iraq," Mohammed Mahmud Hamed said near the front line on the northern side of Jubur, past which lie militant-held parts of the town. 

Hamed was an Arabic teacher with no military training when the conflict began, but he now carries a Kalashnikov assault rifle and wears a magazine carrier over his robe. 

Behind him is Al-Isnad Street, which was once a commercial avenue but is now littered with bullet casings and blocked off by mounds of dirt, sections of concrete blast walls and a trench to guard against suicide bombers. 

Shops have been scored by gunfire and shrapnel, and nearby palm trees are charred black. - 'Example for Sunnis' - While sectarian differences are a major source of tension in Iraq, the common jihadist enemy has united Jubur's defenders across religious lines. 

Ahmed al-Saidi, one of the Shiite soldiers posted in Dhuluiyah, praised the "heroic Jubur tribe," while Hamed said that there is "no difference between us." Jubur has not fallen to the jihadists, but they have still been able to strike inside it, including with suicide bombers driving American Humvee armoured vehicles they captured from the Iraqi military. 

One such blast ripped through the town's main street, collapsing a building next to a mosque, smashing storefronts and leaving behind piles of twisted metal and other debris. IS "aims to divide the country and destroy it," 

Abed Mutlak Mohammed, a senior leader in the Jubur tribe, said at the area's eastern front line. He said the tribe in Dhuluiyah has become "the highest example to be followed in all the Sunni areas of Iraq". 

"A small tribe ... resisted (IS) for 90 days," Mohammed said, putting the number fighters deployed at around 1,500, though more will take up arms if needed. 

Mohammed said he wants the United States to expand its campaign of air strikes against jihadists in Iraq to the Dhuluiyah area, the latest chapter in the town's history of both supporting and opposing Sunni militants and fighting against and alongside American forces. 

At the eastern front line, the road is blocked by dirt barricades and a trench and guarded by soldiers and police. Numerous bullet casings and empty ammunition cannisters are scattered on the ground. 

A Ferris wheel rises above an amusement park next to the blockaded road, but instead of being filled with playing children, the site is occupied by security forces facing militants who hold the far bank of the river. 

Before the conflict, there were two bridges leading to Dhuluiyah, but one was smashed by a bus bomb and the other by an explosives-rigged boat. Now, small metal boats with outboard motors are Jubur's lifeline, braving sniper fire and shelling to bring in items ranging from ice to cooking gas and taking the wounded out for treatment. 

In Jubur, even the dead are besieged -- the town's main cemetery lies outside the control of anti-IS forces, meaning people have to bury their relatives wherever there is space. 

"Some of the families were forced to bury their dead in the house garden," said resident Ali Mussa, after pointing out the places where six of his relatives were buried in a dirt lot bordered by palm trees. 

 For the people of Jubur, it is a fight to the death, with Mohammed saying there would be a "massacre" if the militants succeeded in overrunning the area. "We will fight them to the last" Juburi in Dhuluiyah, he said. 

By W.G. Dunlop

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