DHULUIYA, Iraq — To reach Dhuluiya, a town north of Baghdad, we had to cross the Tigris River by boat. For the Iraqi government and its allies, the journey was much more difficult. They had to crush the Islamic State (IS), the de facto ruler of the area since July 2014.
“We lost 127 men from our town in the fight against Daesh [IS],” said Khalid, a fighter from the Jobour tribe, which fought alongside government forces and Shiite militias. “From the first day they entered this town, everything changed. Our life became hell, so we decided there’s no option but to kick them out.” As Khalid spoke to Al-Monitor, hundreds of fighters in military and civilian cars paraded down Dhuluiya's main street, chanting, firing weapons and dancing. On the sides of the street, women and children stood clapping and smiling to celebrate the end of the IS era in their town.
For months, Dhuluiya was an IS stronghold in the area between Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. Located on the Tigris River, the town was vital for transporting weapons and personnel between the two provinces. According to Hisham al-Hashemi, an analyst of radical movements, IS regarded Dhuluiya as a hotbed. “The group’s battles are fought on three fronts. The castle where the camps, storage and strong fighters are located — it’s a safe haven where Sharia is imposed, which is difficult [for enemies to attack],” he said. “Then comes the hotbed, a place more likely to be attacked, where Sharia isn’t implemented and locals aren’t fully loyal to the Islamic State. Dhuluiya is a good example. The third front is the distraction front.”
Hashemi, author of a book on IS titled “The World of Daesh,” told Al-Monitor that after IS' loss of both its castle and hotbed in the Balad district, Yathreb and Dhuluiya, it’s unlikely they will resume attacks in the area anytime soon.
Everything in Dhuluiya points to the fierceness of the battle fought here. IS wasn't alone. One of the town’s tribes — a small one — backed the group, so it’s unlikely the town will ever be fully restored to what it was. All the tribes are Sunni Muslims, but the biggest two, Jobour and Obeid, decided to stand by the government. An Iraqi security source told Al-Monitor, “That such tribes are wealthy and have investments worth billions of Iraqi dinars makes them closer to the government and in favor of stability. … From the first minute the terrorists entered the town, they contacted the authorities and expressed their will to fight alongside government forces. This is a good experience that could be copied in other areas. This is how we can win this war.”
As we advanced further into the city, we came across a group of soldiers entering the town and razing the IS flag. “We defeated them, those cowards,” said one soldier. “We are going to follow them to the last den they have in Iraq.” Other soldiers fired celebratory gunshots incessantly, making hearing each other very difficult. A few minutes later, the gunshots came to an end and a big convoy arrived in the center of the town. It was Hadi al-Ameri, commander of the Badr Brigades, a Shiite militia close to Iran. Ameri wasn’t alone. He arrived with the famous Abou Mahdi Mohandes, the legendary pro-Iran military commander who fought against Saddam Hussein for years and now leads the Popular mobilization forces.
We approached both men and asked about the next step. Ameri told Al-Monitor: “Our forces succeeded in clearing the area between Dhuluiya and Samara. The international coalition failed in freeing Kobani in Syria. If they are incapable, we can help, we can go there. There’s nothing impossible for us. We liberated Jorf el-Sakhr, Jalawla and Saadia. Today, Dhuluiya, and later, Tikrit and Mosul.”
Mohandes explained how the military campaign was planned: “The battle’s preparations needed one month. A week ago we started, and by recapturing Dhuluiya, we finished the first phase. We liberated the southern part of Balad, from Balad air base north of Baghdad to Ishaqi to the south of Samara, to the Tigris River in the north.”
Army soldiers, the federal police and tribal fighters celebrated their victory. The locals played a major role ending the battle — an indication that such cooperation might be helpful in other areas, especially since vast areas are still under IS control. An indication, too, that without reaching compromises with Sunni tribes in Anbar and Ninevah, the chances of defeating IS are slim.