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Death In A Ghost Town: Life For Iraqis Stranded In Ramadi

A video uploaded on May 18 by Aamaq News Agency, a Youtube channel which posts videos from areas under the Islamic State (IS) group's control, shows an IS fighter waving a flag in Ramadi.
A video uploaded on May 18 by Aamaq News Agency, a Youtube channel which posts videos from areas under the Islamic State (IS) group's control, shows an IS fighter waving a flag in Ramadi.

Two weeks after Islamic State (IS) gunmen overran Ramadi, civilians trapped in the Iraqi city face daily terror, mass killings, and an impending humanitarian crisis, eyewitnesses say.

Most of Ramadi's civilian population fled the city after IS captured it on May 17. More than 17,313 families left Ramadi between May 15-29, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

But not everyone was able to join the mass exodus. Several thousand people remain in the city under IS control, says Ra'ad al-Khashea, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) in Anbar.

Many of those left behind are the city's poorest residents, who simply could not afford to leave. "There are no safe camps prepared for them and they do not have the means to rent homes elsewhere," Khashea says.

So what is life like in Ramadi for those who have had to stay behind and watch as IS imposes its brutal rule?

"Ramadi is now a ghost city. Its families have been displaced. Women are being killed, children are being killed, homes are being burned down and burglarized," says "Muhammad," a resident of Ramadi who fled the town after it was overrun by IS last month.

Ramadi's remaining citizens have found themselves living under IS's extreme interpretation of Shari'a law, which the militants imposed immediately on taking over the city, according to RFI's Khashea.

IS banned smoking and forced all men to attend the mosque for prayers, eyewitnesses have said. Only women and people with disabilities can pray at home.

The gunmen have imposed more rules on Ramadi's women.

As in other cities under IS control, Khashea says that IS has forced all of Ramadi's women and girls over the age of 7 to wear the hijab as well as the niqab, a cloth that covers the face. Women in Ramadi are also banned from leaving their homes without a "mahram," or male guardian. And IS has meted out severe punishments for those who do not comply with its rules. Those who criticize the group are publicly whipped.

"Anyone who tries to verbally denigrate IS or who even uses the Arabic acronym, Daesh, will be held accountable and punished with 80 lashes," Khashea says. "Eyewitnesses say that this has occurred a number of times in various parts of Ramadi."

Food Running Out

So far, limited food supplies have remained available in Ramadi's markets, which were operational before IS took over the city.

But since its fall to IS, Ramadi has been surrounded and under a blockade, so when existing supplies run out, residents will have difficulty obtaining food.

Between May 28-29, the Iraqi security forces sealed off all routes into and out of Ramadi as they advance northward through the city's outskirts, according to Anbar Operations Command. Meanwhile, IS is disrupting access routes into Anbar Province and dispersing Iraqi security forces away from Ramadi.

Khashea says there are some access routes into Ramadi from the west via the road to Hit, but IS controls these. And that means the militant group will be able to exert authority over Ramadi's remaining population by taking control of food and aid supplies into the city.

"IS has its mini-agencies, for trade, industry, and accounting, that undertake the supply of foodstuffs from other IS-controlled areas, thereby exercising power and imposing obedience on anyone seeking to obtain food or relief aid," Khashea says.

Sleeper Cells, Shari'a Courts, And Foreign Fighters

In addition to civilians who lack the means to leave Ramadi, Khashea says, Ramadi's population now contains members of IS sleeper cells who have fought alongside IS elsewhere in Anbar, Fallujah, or Garma.

IS militants, both Iraqis and foreign fighters, are also living in Ramadi.

Most of the IS leadership in Ramadi are foreign militants, as are those tasked with running IS's Shari'a courts in the newly captured city, Khashea says.

Panic And Terror

As IS imposes its extremist rule on Ramadi's remaining civilians, those who fled tell of the terror and panic they experienced as the gunmen overran their city.

"When [Ramadi's] government complex fell, it was a terrible moment, with families subjected to extreme fear and terror," recalls "Amira," a Ramadi woman who was in the city when IS overran it on May 17.

Amira told RFI on May 26 about the panic that gripped Ramadi on May 17 as IS suicide bombers detonated vehicle bombs and used an explosives-laden bulldozer to blast through the concrete barriers surrounding the government complex in Ramadi's center.

A U.S. State Department official has said the truck bombs IS used in Ramadi carried enough explosives to cause a blast the size of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which destroyed a federal government building and damaged hundreds more buildings, and killed 168 people and injured nearly 700 others.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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