Iraqi forces recently recaptured one of the last remaining strongholds of the Islamic State group. It took just three weeks to liberate Hawija city as well as the surrounding towns and villages. But tensions over the Kurdish independence referendum led to the peshmerga fighters playing a limited role in this offensive.
In the village of Nafla, the villagers celebrated as Iraqi forces drove through in a convoy, ending three years of the so-called caliphate’s rule. Men quickly lined up to share a few razors to shave the beards they were forced to grow under ISIS rule. Others enjoyed their first cigarette — now able to smoke in public without punishment or fear.
Just a few miles away in the town of Qaryat Shumayt, locals took VICE News to the town centre, to the location where four young boys and men were publicly executed in front of a crowd of about 75 locals. Muafaq said he couldn’t eat for a week after watching the beheadings, compounded by the fact that ISIS had cruelly left the dismembered bodies on display for days after the executions.
The Iraqi forces’ success here leaves just the towns of Rawa and al-Qa’im in Western Anbar in the hands of the extremists. But the speedy liberation of Hawija poses many questions about what has happened to the fighters who didn’t die (1,316, according to Iraq Joint Ops) or didn’t surrender (more than 1,000), with concerns mounting that the territory they once held might now be home to many sleeper cells.
This segment originally aired Oct. 11, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.