One by one, the cities around this Iraqi town have fallen. Fallujah. Ramadi. The walled community of Hit.
Islamic State fighters have slaughtered thousands of people as they have tightened their grip on Iraq’s western province of Anbar. But Haditha has remained an outpost of resistance.
Its local tribes and the beleaguered Iraqi army have fought doggedly in the face of persistent attacks. Perhaps even more important, the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi government have been determined to prevent its large hydroelectric dam from falling to the insurgents.
The people of Haditha, though, are struggling to survive in a town largely cut off from the outside world. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has singled it out as its next target.
“It’s like we’re not living in Iraq,” said one resident, Israa Mohammed, 38, as she waited for a rare delivery of food aid last week. “There’s no way in or out. It’s like we are an island in the desert.”
The first group of reporters to gain access to Haditha in more than a year found the besieged city in desperate straits. With gasoline selling for more than quadruple the national price, bicycles are a more common sight than cars on its winding streets. Doctors have fled, and medicines are hard to come by. Electricity flickers on for just three hours a day.
For the Islamic State, Haditha is a valuable prize, with its nearly six-mile-long dam, Iraq’s second-biggest producer of hydroelectric power. In its latest audio message, the extremist group urged Sunni tribesmen here to surrender, warning that the militants could enter “at any moment.”
For the city’s defenders, the pressure is intense. At the army command center at the base of the dam, Maj. Gen. Ali Daboun, the head of operations, described the most recent assault by Islamic State forces, early this month. His voice cracked with emotion as he recalled how the group unleashed 37 suicide car bombs in the area during the offensive.
“All the sectors in the country have a hard job, but we have an exceptionally hard job,” he said.
Haditha lies deep in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar, about 150 miles west of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. Between the two cities sits a string of Islamic State conquests: the provincial capital, Ramadi, and the extremist group’s bastion, Fallujah. Hit, the nearest city, fell 10 months ago, cutting Haditha’s supply lines from government-held areas.
To the west of Haditha, the desert stretches toward the Syrian border, now almost entirely under the control of the militant group.
Mohammed, displaced from Fallujah a year and a half ago, said she and her extended family of 23 have been trying to leave Haditha for three months.
But usually the only way out is on military flights from the nearby Ayn al-Asad Air Base — the town’s lifeline — and spaces on the planes are hard to come by. A group of journalists was granted access with an aid mission last week organized by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office.
About 96,000 people remain in Haditha, according to its mayor, Abdelhakim al-Jughaifi.
“The people are suffering a lot because of the siege,” he said. “Then also Daesh are attacking all the time,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
In April and May, the price of a 50-kilogram sack of flour reached 1 million dinars, or about $840. That’s the equivalent of about $38 for a five-pound bag, around 50 times what it costs in Baghdad and roughly 10 times the price in the United States.
Local officials say prices have dropped recently as a few aid convoys have managed to reach Haditha. They are escorted by helicopter for the riskiest part of the route, which runs past Islamic State-held towns.
Residents complain, though, that when aid arrives escorted by tribal fighters or the army, it does not reach them and is instead distributed to certain local tribes or sold on the black market.
“From time to time, supplies arrive, and we don’t get anything,” said 50-year-old Samir Mishal, who had picked up a 50-kilo (110-pound) sack of flour.
For that reason, aid workers and Iraqi officials traveled along with a convoy bringing 21 tons of food to the town last week.
“We came here today, despite all the risks, because we wanted to see it go directly to the families,” said Mustafa al-Obaidi, a 26-year-old working with Iraqi Volunteers, a charity.
Hundreds of men and women queued to receive the flour, rice, tomato paste and oil Thursday, a day so hot that it had been declared a national holiday, with temperatures soaring above 120 degrees.
“They need food supplies; they need medicine. But because of the siege, this is the first time we’ve reached the city,” said Haider Majeed, an official with the prime minister’s office.
The town’s center has largely been protected from the fighting. But the 25-mile road from Ayn al-Asad to Haditha has been battered. It winds through Baghdadi, a village where pro-government forces expelled Islamic State fighters this spring. There, the police station is charred, and bridges are bombed out.
After government forces lost Ramadi in May, attacks on Haditha sharply increased, said Ibrahim al-Jughaifi, a spokesman for Haditha’s tribal fighters (and not a close relative of the mayor). However, assaults have dropped off recently as the Islamic State appears to be preoccupied with defending Ramadi from a counterattack.
Jughaifi’s tribe has been leading the fight here, but its members are under no illusions as to why they’ve managed to withstand the Islamic State assaults.
The U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi military have provided critical assistance because of the town’s strategic dam and its vicinity to Ayn al-Asad, where more than 300 U.S. Marines are based on a training mission.
“Everyone agrees that there are two things that have helped us,” Jughaifi said. “The existence of Haditha dam and Ayn al-Asad base.”
The dam is so important that the U.S. government expanded its air campaign against the Islamic State in September to prevent it from falling into the militants’ hands. Until then, the airstrikes in Iraq had been limited to areas near Sinjar mountain and the Kurdish region in the north.
The Islamic State, which is struggling to provide basic services in the areas it controls, wants to take over the dam to boost electricity supplies to its “caliphate.”
Unlike in some other areas of the country, the U.S.-led coalition has shown “seriousness” about protecting Haditha, Jughaifi said. However, he said, “they appear only when the battle is very hard and the danger is very close to us.”
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. Army Rangers were dropped into Haditha and seized the dam eight days before the fall of Baghdad. If it was breached, floods would wreak havoc on villages and farmland for hundreds of miles.
But the U.S. military is also remembered here for another reason. In November 2005, Marines killed at least 24 Iraqis in the town, including women and children, allegedly in revenge after one of their colleagues was killed by a roadside bomb. None of the accused served jail time, with only one convicted on a count of negligent dereliction of duty.
The U.S. military has recently overseen training for about 750 tribal fighters at Ayn al-Asad, though Jughaifi complains that promised ammunition and equipment from the Iraqi government have not materialized — so the fighters are largely limited to defensive operations.
“We have been forgotten,” said Awad Khalaf, a local police officer. “But we’ve agreed to all fight together until we die.”
Indeed, despite the hardships, many people in the town say they do not want to leave.
“But even if we wanted to, there’s no way,” said Ahmed Khalaf, a 35-year-old tribal fighter, as he queued for a bag of flour.
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.
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