Thousands rushed to fight jihadis in Mosul, but their friends and families are expected not to mourn
By Callum Paton in Karbala
December 29, 2016 13:25 GMT
Just 15 minutes drive from the upscale homes and modern shopping centres of southern Iraqi city Karbala, Saif Saad’s streets are lined with houses built with breeze blocks and corrugated iron. One of the poorest neighbourhoods in Karbala, mounds of litter lie in heaps on the side of dusty dirt roads, some smouldering with acrid black smoke. Trucks and lorries, abandoned and rusting, dot the landscape.
Thirteen-year-old Obeida rides around Saif Saad on a sky-blue bicycle. On the bike, just a little too big for him, he passes a poultry shop and a tyre yard, where workers sit on seats salvaged from scrapped cars, as he returns home.
The house Obeida shares with his mother Raqwa and his four siblings stands apart from other nearby structures, and would be unremarkable were it not for the sign which dominates its front entrance.
It shows a serious-looking man holding a mounted automatic rifle. Above him flies the Iraqi national flag and below is depicted the Shia shrine of Imam Hussein and blossoming flowers. ‘The martyred hero Waleed Mohammed Hamed’, a red Arabic script reads next to the picture.
Obeida is the martyr’s son.
Raqwa remembers the night Waleed was killed with a sense of detachment, staring off into the middle distance as she retells the events. “At 1am they called me and they said he was wounded. They didn’t tell me that he was martyred then,” she says. “Then they called me again and asked to speak to his brother, and they told him about his martyrdom.”
Waleed suffered catastrophic injuries when, during the battle of Bayji in May 2015, he walked into a house rigged with an Islamic State (Isis) IED. He later died in hospital. He was a volunteer in the Shia Imam Ali Brigade and received no payment other than a one-off sum of 400,000 ID ($330).
That is all that is to be said of Waleed Hamed’s death, as far as Raqwa is concerned, other than that he, like the hundreds of other Shia paramilitary fighters killed fighting Isis, died a hero in the eyes of his family and the community.
This is the first response of most from Iraq’s southern Shia heartlands when asked about paramilitary fighters killed by Isis.
Obeida remembers how his father, a labourer, would give him money to go to school. Otherwise, he says little more about him, apart from than that he is proud he died fighting Isis and defending Iraq. However, snippets of the hardship the family has endured since Hamed was killed is occasionally revealed.
“First we asked him to leave the Hashid Shabi [PMF] because he was a volunteer and we were unable to make ends meet on their own. I was forced to send my sons to sell gum on the road,” Raqwa says. “But he always said no.”
By the accounts of his family, Waleed was a deeply devout man, and apart from work his principal interest was in participating religious events regarding Karbala’s holy shrine to Imam Hussein, the Shia faith’s third Imam. He considered a pivotal fatwa called for by Iraq’s Shia religious leader Ayatollah Sistani in June 2014 to fight the Isis principal of faith. “He would say we should protect our families, we should liberate our cities and respond to the fatwa,” Raqwa says.
On the rough concrete wall of the family’s house adorned with decoration, Waleed’s photo hangs next to images of Shia devotion: pictures of Ayatollah Sistani, the religion’s highly revered imams and its holy places. Raqwa has to survive in the leaky house on her own, relying on religious charity to keep going.
“Many families have sent money to the brigade to support us,” she says. “The children go to schools related to the shrine. They get money from the Shia organisations and rely on their charity,” Raqwa adds.
On the walls of a room set aside in the Karbala headquarters of the Shia PMF, the Ali Akbar Brigade, pictures of martyrs stare down at visitors. The scores of killed, looking straight down the lens of the camera, died across Saladin province, Anbar and Nineveh. The battles and their names are written in white lettering on the black plastic posters.
The brigade’s base is in the former Ministry of Transport building and the fighting group’s flags fly alongside a fleet of government buses. Inside, base co-ordinator Naif Ahmed explains that in their most recent battles at Tal Afar, where the brigade was fighting to cut Isis supply lines, four men were killed by Isis. He says that Isis has inflicted most casualties through IEDs and suicide attacks, adding that these are the tactics of a fighting force in retreat.
Ahmed says martyrs are only to be celebrated, not mourned. If he is killed fighting – he expects to rejoin the battle against Isis in Mosul as he did in Saladin province (he has already arranged to have his son come and replace him) – he would consider it a blessing. An officer in the Iraqi army for two decades, his decision to join the PMU is a deeply religious one.
“I could have joined the Iraqi army and earned $2000 per month … but I decided to join the PMU because of its affiliation with my faith. [My faith] is much more important than my family because it is what keeps my family protected and secure,” he adds.
The Ali Akbar Brigade was formed immediately after the fatwa by Ayatollah Sistani and the first aspect of its fighters’ training is doctrinal. It is directly linked to the shrine in Karbala and it places the city’s religious authority above that of PMF command in Baghdad. Ahmed explains that, if called, to he would go to protect Shia shrines in Syria. Although all of Ali Akbar Brigade’s fighters remain in Iraq, Iraqi fighters have travelled to defend the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab. Ahmed says he revers Zaynab as he does Hussein. “The only difference is Hussein is here close to us; she is far,” he explains.
The call to arms, for Ahmed, is far more important than the effect the war has had on his family, his absence and his reduced wages. “Right now I have two children in school and they are not doing very well because I am not teaching them,” he explains. “This is the priority. Even though they are not doing well in school, this is my priority. This much more important than my children’s education,” he says.
Outside the great mosque in Kufa, 80km south of Karbala, the tension between the loss of those killed fighting Isis and the political necessity of their heroism plays out once more. In one of the mosque’s central courtyards two young men are weeping over the coffin of their fallen friend, killed in the Mosul operation.
The wooden box is plastered with military adornments. The plastic coverings flash in the sun, yellow with the emblem of the PMF, red, white, green and black for the Iraqi flag and green and black for the Saraya al-Salam Brigade, Muqtada al-Sadr’s paramilitary organisation, the latest iteration of the Mahdi Army which fought the US invasion.
Approaching the two crying friends, their heads pressed on the coffin, an older man chastises them in front of a slowly forming group. “Why are you upset?” he asks. “You’ve had good news. Your friend is a martyr, he fought for this country.”