Iraqi laboratory technician Younes was smoking a shisha water pipe and playing cards with his friends in the Iraqi city of Mosul last week when a dozen men with Kalashnikov rifles over their shoulders showed up.
“They told the cafe owner that allowing such forms of entertainment was sinful and they didn’t leave until he pledged to ban it,” said Younes, 30, who was too scared of reprisals to give his full name. “We’re hurtling fast toward the unknown.”
The group, dressed in baggy pants and long shirts, were members of the Islamic State, extremists who set up a caliphate in the Sunni Muslim heartland. Younes had been among the Sunnis who had welcomed the takeover of Mosul last month, believing it would liberate them from the military grip of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
The Islamic State is now starting to alienate the people who cheered its swift takeover of their cities and towns as it imposes a strict Islamic lifestyle. Since their takeover, the militants haven’t been able to compensate state workers who haven’t been paid or restore government-supplied water and electricity, which have been scarce.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government halted salaries for employees living in areas under Islamic State’s control, said Noureddin Qablan, vice chairman of the council in Nineveh province, whose capital is Mosul.
The Islamic State called itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or ISIS, until the end of last month. It may eventually try to form its own social welfare system to win local support, emulating Lebanon’s Hezbollah group and the Palestinian Hamas faction, Qablan said.
“But they won’t succeed because people don’t want to live the kind of life that will come with the welfare system,” he said. At the start of the crisis, people cheered “but that was the euphoria of winning. Now, people realize it’s not only about winning, it’s also about making things work,” he said.
Unlike after the U.S.-led invasion, the al-Qaeda breakaway group may be able to survive local displeasure with no American troops on the ground for moderate Sunni Iraqis to turn to, said Austin Long, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
“So even if the population in Mosul gets fed up, it’s not clear they will be able to then fight back against the Islamic State very effectively,” Long said in a telephone interview. “The Islamic State is nothing if not a very ruthless and effective military organization.”
The Islamic State evolved from al-Qaeda in Iraq, which U.S. troops and Sunni militias defeated after its powers peaked in 2006 to 2007 in a campaign that was known as the awakening. It regrouped and was able to expand last year in Syria, where a civil war has raged for more than three years, attracting fighters from Chechnya, Afghanistan and Europe.
The group’s push into Mosul last month came at a time of discontent among Iraqi Sunnis who feel marginalized by the Shiite-dominated government of Maliki. Though they don’t share the same militant values as the Islamic State, some Sunni clans joined the group, driven by anger at Maliki, whom they accuse of excluding Sunnis from government.
Now, some tribes in Salahuddin province have formed armed groups to fight the Islamic State, tribal leader Wanas al-Jabbar told al-Mada Press. He said the groups voluntarily took up arms and are not coordinating with the government, according to the Iraqi news agency, which says it’s independent.
Al-Jabbar said the Islamic State “deceived” some people in the early days of its takeover, “but those who have been duped have rebelled against its atrocities.”
Some of the complaints have economic roots, said Mohsin Khan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. The Maliki government has been hiring workers steadily over the past seven years, with most of the jobs going to its Shiite supporters, Khan said.
“Sunnis have economic grievances that the Maliki government has largely ignored,” said Khan. “Without the support of dissatisfied Sunni tribes, ISIL would not have been able to gain traction and achieve such rapid success.”
The Islamic State will have to decide at some point if it wants to consolidate power and govern or just be a war machine, said Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Hezbollah and Hamas are “ruling over their own people, whereby these people are coming from the outside,” Nasr said. “It creates an open question: ISIS can only govern if it’s able to do so by recruiting locals.”
Younes said he’s not interested in any kind of social services the Islamic State could provide. What he wants is a fair government in Baghdad that would treat its citizens equally irrespective of their religious sect.
“The people are tired,” he said by telephone.
The evenings that follow fast-breaking meals of Ramadan, in previous years dedicated to family or gatherings at cafes or entertainment parks, are now spent close to home.
“I don’t go to any cafes anymore,” said Younes. “I just sit with my friends on the pavement in front of my house so that if ISIL comes we can immediately disappear into our homes.”
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