In Salah al Din, the US is seen as Daesh's friend.
On a sweltering late August night in a small town of Iraq's central Salah al Din province, Jassim Al Jabouri is discussing preparations to clear nearby areas still infested with Daesh remnants. 'There are still some Daesh around Zargah, Udhaim, Mutaybijah, the area around the Hamreen mountains and the eastern bank of Shirqat. Four were killed today in Maydan,' he said, noting areas in and around the province.
The bespectacled and moustachioed middle-aged man from the dominant Jabouri tribe in the Sunni-majority area is a highly respected member of the local community, known as the go-to person for news on attacks and counterterrorism operations. Photos of him in olive green or khaki attire on various conflict fronts flood his Facebook page, which gained a large following during his time in the 'war media cell' of major anti-Daesh campaigns.
A former police officer, Jabouri - better known as Abu Amani - left the police force in 2012 and fought with the local Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) against Daesh after the terrorist group took over vast swathes of the country. The PMUs are a group of Iraqi state-incorporated armed groups, some of which were formed in response to Ayatollah Ali al Sistani's call for volunteer forces to fight Daesh in mid-2014. Others had previously existed as Iran-backed and trained Shia militias.
He was injured in Shirqat, in a restive area in the northern part of the province near Nineveh on the road towards Mosul. After his injury, he decided to focus on informing the local population, he told TRT World. He has since worked mainly in providing information to the public while studying media and accompanying anti-Daesh forces including PMUs, local police and the army on operations in the area.
The Sunni-majority province of Salah al Din has long been a breeding ground for insurgencies, due to its past and its geographical position. Its oil fields and refineries, a mountain range that acts as an ideal hideout, a desert to the west stretching to the Syrian border and its central position have long made it attractive to various armed groups.
The Kirkuk province is separated from Salah al Din to the east by the insurgent-prone Hamreen mountains, which the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) politicians and Peshmerga forces to the north consider the 'ideal border' between a long-desired Kurdish state and Iraqi central government territory. The Hawija area immediately to the east of the range is mostly inhabited but by Sunni Arabs. Many in the Salah al Din province accuse the Kurds of harbouring and protecting Daesh members as part of a bid to use them when it serves their interests.
Jabouri said that most people think, for example, that in Tuz Khurmato 'the Kurds and IS (Daesh) are working together' and that 'there are kidnappings every week.' Salah al Din is also the native province of both former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Daesh leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who was born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al Badri in the town of Samarra.
Many Daesh and Al Qaeda commanders in Iraq have also come from the province. Though the Iraqi prime minister officially declared victory against Daesh in the country in December 2017 and security has significantly improved over the past year, attacks and counterattacks have not stopped throughout the province. Thus, Jabouri continues to use his popular Facebook page to post photos and news he receives through his vast network of contacts built up over the years.
Abu Amani's brother, for example, long worked closely with a well-known counterterrorism officer named Ahmed al Fahal, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2009. Both men continue to be in contact with a vast range of officials, commanders and local sources, they told TRT World. I have accompanied Jabouri on several occasions in late 2017 during major anti-Daesh operations in the area. He commanded respect from both security forces and residents of the area.
During the operation to retake Hawija in October 2017, I went with him to several surrounding villages shortly after they were declared free. At Al Salihiyya city, a tight group of medical and military personnel were gathered around a stretcher on which the still-warm corpse of a teenage girl lay.
Some said the girl died in a crossfire, while others claimed she had been targeted by the Shia-led PMUs from the south, who had been the first to enter the town shortly before. The girl was, in any case, the only one to die in the liberation of the village. Abu Amani was tasked with informing her relatives.
As we arrived at one of the homes, he was greeted with raucous joy by women who had taken off their black abaya robes and were ready to celebrate the liberation of the village from Daesh. Within minutes the mood had changed. The women sobbed after finding out the girl had been killed. The fruit, water and snacks Jabouri had brought in his vehicle to sustain the fighters should the battle prove difficult were instead given to the now grieving family, as the only thing at hand. A short while later, he visited another of her relatives to pay his respects. Some had already begun to gather to mourn around her body, now wrapped in a white sheet and a blanket on the front porch. The Jabouri tribe is the largest in the area and many in the area proudly claim to be Abu Amani's relatives.
On one trip in a shared minivan to Erbil in late August, for example, some of the passengers asked whether I knew Abu Amani and their cousin, as soon as they heard that a media professional was present. On hearing the affirmative, an elderly woman among them began shouting that the 'Americans brought Daesh' and insisted, with the enthusiastic support of others in the van, that all had heard others say they had seen US aircraft arrive in Daesh-held areas 'to help' the terrorists and demanded that 'the media report this' though she admitted she had not seen proof.
Conspiracy theories are rife in the area and an indication of widely held beliefs able to sway decisions even if evidence for the rumors is lacking. The passengers also claimed that 'hundreds of our boys' from the town of al Alam were taken to Mosul by Daesh and are now in Baghdad, being held by the authorities, presumably on suspicion of being part of the terrorist group.
Many in the area feel abandoned by both the government and the US, which supported them in their fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq in years past but was less willing to help in their fight against Daesh, several people told TRT World. Some have opted to join local PMUs close to Iran in response, which helped them significantly in getting their towns back from Daesh, despite being in a province known as part of the Sunni heartland.
In late August this year, crickets chirped outside Jabouri's home and the moon was overhead. Jabouri preferred not to speak much about what he feels personally about the war or the threats he says he continues to receive out of concern for his family. He is now studying media at the Tikrit University while continuing his online information activities and sometimes accompanying security forces on operations, especially PMUs. He received several phone calls and numerous security updates during the interview. Nevertheless, Jabouri acknowledged the importance both the US and Iran have played in the province and said that he would like to see greater US involvement - though he implied that he too believed that the US had 'helped' Daesh in some way, possibly to 'balance Sunni and Shia forces in the country.' Pragmatism is uppermost in the minds of many seeking stability in an infamously unstable region, and Abu Amani is no exception.