As the Islamic State (IS) group loses ground in Iraq, the militants are showing strain in their rule over areas they still control, growing more brutal, killing deserters and relying on younger and younger recruits, according to residents who fled battleground territories.
The accounts point to the difficulties the extremist group faces as Iraqi forces, backed by the US, prepare for an assault on Mosul, the largest city still in the militants’ hands. For months, Iraqi troops, militias and Kurdish fighters have been clawing back territory town by town, making their way toward the northern city.
In the latest areas recaptured, Iraqi troops over the past month took a clump of villages near a key military base south of Mosul that they plan to use as a hub for the assault. Residents of the communities, which lie strung along bends in the Tigris River, say that in the preceding weeks, the militants ruling them had seemed to be scrambling to keep control.
In Qayara, the main town in the area, which remains in IS hands, beheadings and extrajudicial killings that previously were occasional became commonplace in a hunt for spies and deserters, said Jarjis Muhammad Hajaj, who was among thousands of residents who fled fighting in the area and now live in the Dibaga Camp for displaced people in Kurdish-run territory.
“They started making raids on houses, arresting people and beheading them,” he said.
Hajaj said the group’s fighters appeared increasingly nervous as they watched news of IS losses elsewhere.
Their ranks also appeared to turn more to younger, less experienced men. At one point, almost all the militants guarding the streets were teenagers, he said.
That, Hajaj said, was when he thought: “They’re collapsing. They’re finished.” The reliance on younger fighters in smaller communities could be a sign of overstretched manpower as the group’s more veteran militants redeploy to Mosul or to neighboring Syria. Other factors could also be in play, like difficulties in finding new recruits and the effect of desertions, which Kurdish officials have said are on the rise.
Fighters as young as 13 were patrolling the village of Awsaja on the other side of the river, said one resident.
He said the militants killed seven people for trying to flee the village, displaying their bodies on a bridge.