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Mezaliya, a Sunni village trapped between the frontlines

In a Sunni village in Iraq, residents are caught between the threats and accusations of IS and Shiite militias
The Shiite unit comes into contact with the villagers of Mezaliya. But the atmosphere during their exchanges is reserved and wary (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)

MEZALIYA, Iraq - The Sunni village Mezaliya, a few kilometres east of Tikrit, near the Hamrin mountains, is no longer part of the so-called “Caliphate”. Mezaliya was “liberated” in early April along with Tikrit. But in this war the meaning of “liberation” is quite complex from the point of view of the inhabitants of a Sunni village.

Al-Hashd al-Shabi, a Shiite-dominated coalition of various militias, fought against the Islamic State (IS) group in Mezaliya. But some Sunni communities who see themselves as oppressed by the Iraqi government support IS. Therefore, the villagers of Mezaliya are put under general suspicion by al-Hashd al-Shabi.

“Don’t accept an invitation for tea … it could be poisoned,” a Shiite fighter said during Middle East Eye’s visit to Mezaliya. On the other hand, IS accuses these same civilians of supporting their Shiite enemy. So the village, consisting of simple homes for some 300 inhabitants, including refugees from Mosul, is quite literally trapped. The people of Mezaliya find themselves at the same time between accusations coming from two sides and between the respective frontlines.  

The noise of battle is present in the village. IS fighters are hiding in the hills, in sight, and they still pass through the village at night. Shiite militias come during the day, providing food and water, according to the citizens.

“May God unite the hearts of all Muslims and drive away the devil between us!” declared this elderly man from the Rabi’ah tribe. “I cannot leave my property and go to a refugee camp. This is my home!” (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)
“I hope that the fighting will end soon and I will be able to go back to Mosul … back to where I belong,” said this woman in the entrance of the loam house, where she has lived for 10 months (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)
Each family in Mezaliya hoists a white flag in their yards to show their peaceful intent to both conflict parties. According to the citizens, IS did not mistreat them but raised taxes in the form of food (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)
A visit to the nearby school shows the conflict between Shiite and Sunni on a new level. A Shiite fighter shows the curriculum in this Sunni area, which still includes propaganda for Saddam Hussein, who suppressed the Shiites (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)
The Shiite unit “Saraya al-Jihad”, a member of the militia alliance “al-Hashd al-Shabi”, visits the Sunni village from time to time and provides them with supplies (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)
The Shiite unit comes into contact with the villagers of Mezaliya. But the atmosphere during their exchanges is reserved and wary (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)
The woman on the left lost contact with her family when fleeing from Tikrit in last June. Her relatives’ phones are disconnected. All she knows is that they are in IS-controlled Hawija (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)
Fighting continues in the surrounding area. The heavy noise of combat is audible in the Sunni community (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)
Some kilometres away from Mezaliya, a unit belonging to “al-Hashd al-Shabi” has been attacked by an IS sniper. Houses are being searched for the attacker (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)
A building in a neighbouring village has been heavily damaged during the fighting (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)
The houses of Mezaliya have so far not been affected; the white flags above each dwelling still flutter in the wind (MEE/Sebastian Backhaus)