On the drive into Samarra, in northern Iraq, there is an increased military presence. More and more armoured cars are noticeable and the sound of shooting can be heard in the distance. Only a few days ago, the Islamic State Of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) moved into the city of Samarra. Within a few hours they took over six neighbourhoods.
In one street they took over an office building, shooting their way in. With little or no security forces in the area, they faced almost no resistance. Once they had secured the building, up went their distinctive black flag with white writing. As it fluttered in the late evening heat, Samarra knew it had a problem.
The city is home to the Askari shrine, one of the most venerated Shia Muslim places of worship. In 2006 it was attacked by al-Qaeda. That was the spark that plunged Iraq into a sectarian war that killed thousands and nearly tore the country apart. Suddenly ISIL fighters were just kilometres away from the shrine.
Using bulldozers they began to barricade the neighbourhoods they controlled. Then came the public pronouncements. “Resist us and you will be dealt with,” was one. Another one assured the residents that ISIL wouldn’t harm civilians.
Some residents manage to flee, others stayed behind fearing for their houses and belongings.
ISIL made their plans. They announced that they would mount an attack on the Askari shrine. The Iraqi army had to act. Late into the night they sent airstrikes and artillery shelling into the residential areas ISIL had taken over.
Standing outside one of the buildings the Iraqi airforce struck, looking up you can see where the missile pounded through the roof and into the ground. The sides of the building still stand, but the middle is a concertina of concrete and glass.
ISIL quickly left the area leaving behind scared residents and uncomfortable questions. As one man told Al Jazeera: “You’re asking me questions, but what’s the real question? How were these men able to drive in with cars, bulldozers and guns, and take control of my neighbourhood?”
Repeating the question to a military commander, who was keen to show that the Askari shrine was never under threat, the commander told Al Jazeera: “They came and mounted a surprise attack. They won’t do it again.”
But a few days later, ISIL mounted the boldest attack they have ever undertaken. Using light to medium weapons, pick-up trucks and their faces covered with black cloth, 1,300 fighters took over Mosul, a city of two million. The Iraqi army abandoned their positions. As one of the men in Samarra told Al Jazeera: “They’ll be back. I saw their eyes. These are determined men.”
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