ALBU BALI, Iraq (AFP) — The attack came after sunset in the quiet Iraqi village of Albu Bali when Islamic State group gunmen drove into town and unleashed fire with automatic rifles.
“I heard the shots, I went out and I saw my nephew lying on the ground,” recalled Ali Menwar about the deadly violence that shattered the local calm on December 19.
The group of Sunni Muslim extremists “arrived at about 8:15 pm and started firing randomly,” said another local from the mainly Shiite village, Abbas Mazhar Hussein, 34.
As Menwar rushed inside, bullets smashed into the wall around him and two grazed his neck, which now bears angry red scars, before he could slam the gate shut behind him.
Others were less lucky in the village of 5,000 people, about 70 kilometers (40 miles) north of the capital Baghdad.
“My son, my grandson and my cousins fell as martyrs,” said Menwar’s neighbor Jabbar Alwan, his eyes welling up with tears.
“It’s very painful,” said the elderly man, who lost four relatives. “We didn’t expect this.”
When it was all over, eight people lay dead and another six were wounded in Albu Bali.
None of the attackers have been caught.
Fear of reprisals
Iraq has come a long way since major fighting ended over five years ago against IS, putting an end to its self-declared “caliphate” which once stretched across swathes of Iraq and Syria.
After a grueling urban battle in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, forces backed by a US-led coalition declared victory over IS in the country in late 2017.
But periodic attacks still claim lives among Iraq’s war-weary citizens who have endured decades of conflict which flared especially after a 2003 US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
An IS ambush last December 18 killed nine federal policemen in Kirkuk, 100 kilometers north of Baghdad — but all too often it is civilians who fall victim.
The residents of Albu Bali, like the majority of Iraqis, are predominantly Shiites, a branch of Islam that the Sunni extremists of IS consider apostates and label “rawafid” or “rejectors.”
Claiming the bloody attack on the Telegram messaging service, IS did not refer to civilians but claimed it had targeted “rawafid militiamen,” a term used to describe members of the Shiite-led former paramilitary group Hashed al-Shaabi.
Sheikh Khalis Rashid, the local chief, said Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani had called him after the attack and “begged me to prevent any” violent reprisal.
Such reprisals would likely have taken the form of attacks on nearby Sunni-majority villages sometimes accused of providing a safe haven to the jihadists, the local chief said.
According to a police colonel who asked not to be named, “the terrorists hide in the countryside and continue to attack sporadically.”
The municipality of Al-Khalis, where Albu Bali is located, is used as a “transit” zone for jihadists, explained mayor Uday al-Khadran.
The surrounding Diyala province and neighboring Salaheddin are crossroads for jihadists to the northern autonomous Kurdistan region, which according to Khadran “is not secure.”
A United Nations report last July estimated that “between 6,000 and 10,000” IS fighters remained across Iraq and Syria, “concentrated mostly in rural areas.”
According to Khadran, the group “no longer conducts military operations or seizes territory.”
Instead, he labeled IS attacks as “gangster operations,” noting that while there were security forces in the village at the time of the attack, there were not enough military forces.
Since the bloody attack on Albu Bali, nearly 200 army, police and Hashed forces have been stationed there, and surveillance cameras have been installed, said the police colonel.
But Alwan, the bereaved resident, said the villagers now live in fear of “another incident” and predicted grimly that “this was not the last one.”