Police cars have been repainted to say “Islamic police.” Women are forbidden from wearing bright colors and prints. The homes of Shiites and others have signs stating they are property of the Islamic State. And everyone walks in fear amid a new reign of terror.
That’s what life is like in Mosul, Tikrit and other cities in northern and western Iraq under the control of Islamic extremists after their lightning-fast military campaign that overwhelmed the Iraqi army in June.
The new normal for these residents means daily decrees about attire and raids to root out religious minorities in a campaign to impose strict Islamic rule in cities that tolerated multiple religions for centuries.
Residents chafe at the radical changes, and some are starting to rebel against the militants as they try to “cleanse” the region of anything ― and anyone ― deemed non-Islamic. As many Christians in Mosul have discovered, their only choice is fleeing.
“I was shocked when I heard the new decision forcing me to wear a veil and totally cover my face,” said Mais Mohamad, 25, a pharmacist in Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. “I can’t do that ― I was always free to wear what I like. I can’t live the rest of my life with my face covered.”
The militants, an al-Qaida splinter group so radical that it was rejected even by al-Qaida, initially concentrated on providing services such as sanitation and restoring order. The group, which insists on being called the Islamic State, issued religious decrees soon after taking over the city but didn’t enforce them, residents said.
Over the past few weeks, the group has begun to crack down in an effort to fulfill its ambition to create an Islamic territory spanning Iraq and neighboring Syria.
“The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (the group’s original name) decided that anybody who utters their (old) name will get 70 lashes,” said Ghaida'a Al-Rasool, a doctor in Mosul. “Their new name is simply the Islamic State.”
The group has established Islamic courts controlled by muftis, or Muslim religious leaders. Fighters regularly drive through the streets in trucks using loudspeakers to inform residents about changes.
“They have told clothing merchants to sell what they have within 20 days and then only jubbas are allowed,” said Saad Al-Hayali, an engineer in Mosul, referring to flowing, one-piece robes worn by Muslims throughout the Middle East. “They have forbidden dressing rooms inside stores, too.”
More worrisome for residents is the Islamic State’s move to cleanse its strongholds. Christians and other minorities were given an ultimatum: Convert to Islam or face execution.
“I left from my home when we received the threat,” said Abir Gerges, 45, a Christian schoolteacher who fled to Irbil, a city in Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region of Iraq protected by its own military force.
“I told my husband, ‘We have to leave,’” said Gerges, a mother of three boys. “He hesitated, saying, ‘How can I leave the house I inherited from my parents?’ But I told him they might kill us and kill our sons in front of us. What are we going to do with a house if that happens? So he decided to listen to me, and we took our money and my jewelry and a bag of clothes and left.”
Gerges and her family quickly saw the scope of the militants’ rule when they came upon a checkpoint far outside Mosul.
“I put on a veil, trying to hide, but they asked if we were Christian,” she said. “We were afraid to lie to them, so we said yes. One of them ― he was masked ― advanced toward me and said, ‘You must remove all the jewelry you are wearing. Now it’s Islamic State property.’ Also they confiscated all my husband's money. Afterward, they said, ‘Now you can go. That’s punishment for your refusal to be Muslim.’”
The new rulers are wiping out traces of churches and ancient shrines.
“The churches are closed,” said Al-Rasool, the Mosul doctor. “Yesterday, I saw an old church in the streets of the Ras al-Kur historic district. The doors of the church were walled off with cement and blocks.”
City Hall employees are expected to continue coming to work, but tolerance for non-Sunni Muslims is slight.
“They have reduced municipal employees’ salaries by half of their former amount, and they’ve told the Christians, Shiites and Shabak (minorities), ‘You are fired,’” Al-Rasool said.
The few Christians and Muslim minorities who remain live secretly, in fear of being discovered.
“I am still in Mosul, and I know for sure I will be dead if they know I am here,” said Hassan Ali, 55, a Turkmen Shiite and father of three daughters. “But what can I do? I can’t afford to move somewhere else. I prefer to die here rather than dying in refugee camps with no services and no food.”
It is left to underpaid Sunni workers to restore city services and repair electrical lines and water treatment facilities that were heavily bombarded by retreating government forces. Under the Islamic State, electricity is rationed, water pumps run dry, gas prices are spiking and shortages of daily necessities are common.
The new hardships of daily living are particularly difficult for women and children. Though women are not barred from walking alone outside, the atmosphere has prompted many to remain indoors, keeping their children close at hand because schools have shut down.
“They want all women to be veiled and not to go outside without a man,” said Omer Othman, 37, a shopkeeper. “This is a disaster for women. They used to perform half of the family’s daily tasks.”
The Islamic State on Aug. 3 seized two more small towns in northern Iraq, Zumar and Sinjar, both religiously mixed, forcing thousands of residents to flee, the United Nations said.
But the extremists may have gone too far when they started blowing up revered tombs and mosques that did not conform to their religious views, such as the burial site of biblical prophet Jonah.
“It brought out the conscience of Mosul residents,” said Al-Rasool, the doctor, referring to Jonah’s tomb. “All people from all religions and ethnic groups revere this site ― it is the guardian and heart of the city.”
Atheel Al-Nujaifi, the governor of Mosul, announced last week that a popular rebellion against the militants will start soon.
The Islamic State “behaved very nice at the beginning of the takeover of Mosul, but they start to uncover their ugly faces. They blew up three prophets’ graves, which opened my eyes,” said Othman, the shopkeeper. “I think people won’t be standing for these injustices, and they might rise up against them very soon.”
Anmar Al Shamary and Gilgamesh Nabeel write for USA Today. John Dyer contributed from New York.