Soldiers descended on a gathering of villagers at a roadside kiosk and quickly drew their guns. An accusation led to words, words led to scuffles and finally, an act of humiliation that was expected and intolerable at once. The soldiers viciously dragged two young men from the village to a waiting car, slapping their heads as their fathers watched.
“They represent the government,” said Khalid Saleh, an aid worker, who stood among a seething crowd watching the soldiers a few weeks ago. “The problem is, they consider us all Islamic State.”
The scene in Muneira, on the Tigris River in northern Iraq, offered a glimpse into the struggles of one Sunni Arab village in the year since the government drove the militants away: a place beset by suspicions, troubled by violence while coping, like much of the country, with death and loss.
A critical test for Iraq’s Shiite-led government is whether it can win the trust of the country’s Sunni minority in villages like this one, perched unsteadily on political and social fault lines. The nation, in turn, was demanding answers from Muneira about why some of its sons had supported a jihadist group dedicated to the bloody overthrow of the state.
In the 11 months since the village was liberated, its residents had become more isolated, impoverished and disparaged — by soldiers barely out of their teens, no less — than before the militants had arrived. Muneira was impatiently awaiting Iraq’s embrace.
The defeat of the Islamic State in its Iraqi strongholds, including the nearby city of Mosul, has presented this splintered country what many hope could be a moment of unity. At the very least, there has been a sense of shared sacrifice after thousands of soldiers and police officers were killed in the government offensive that freed millions of Iraqis, regardless of sect, who were trapped by the militants’ rule.
In April, a poll by the Almustakilla for Research group found that a majority of Sunnis were hopeful about the country’s direction — a startling finding given their longtime complaints about marginalization by the government.
But during multiple visits over the past year to Muneira, where 440 families live on a series of dull desert hills, expressions of optimism were tentative or fleeting, the hope seeming to evaporate by the day.
The legacy of a long conflict was etched into the village’s geography. Houses were destroyed — by the Islamic State or the Iraqi forces sent to vanquish them. Others were torched by a vengeful mob.
Bodies still wash up on the riverbanks some days, the human runoff of a hidden, dirty war between the security forces and its enemies still raging in Mosul and its surroundings.
Shepherds have found bullet-ridden corpses in their fields.
After the fight in the village, as he watched the soldiers drive off with his 21-year-old son Namir, Saadi Khalaf recalled a sense of possibility, long ago, before the Islamic State arrived. Men found jobs as police officers and soldiers or in other coveted government posts. “Young men got married. They bought cars. They built houses,” he said, ticking off the hallmarks of accomplishment here.
Now, the state was absent but for the soldiers standing sentry on the edges of the village.
Only a handful of police officers have returned to their posts, residents said. Jobless men have taken up cigarette smuggling or send their children off to sell bottles of water to the passing drivers.
Trucks roared through the village on a skinny dirt road that the military had recently transformed into one of the region’s main traffic arteries — yet another slight leveled against this place that left it choking under a cloud of soot and dust.
His son was released by the military a few hours after he was detained, but his father’s anger lingered.
“We see no bright future in Iraq,” Saadi Khalaf said.
Almost as soon as militants fled Muneira last fall, the place was shaken by revenge. Five houses belonging to members of an extended family accused of supporting the Islamic State were looted and torched.
In November, a group of men from the family walked through the rooms of one of the homes, which was emptied of most everything except a child’s bicycle, a melted washing machine and a singed coat rack. The men said they were falsely accused and blamed the arson on a Sunni tribal militia that was tasked at the time with the village’s security.
As the residents told their story late last year, three of the militia’s members watched from up the road. Rather than deny responsibility for the fire, they insisted that the destruction of homes had not been punishment enough.
“They are still breathing air,” said Shaker Atallah Helal, a former police officer and militiaman who wore dark sunglasses over a jagged scar on his face.
Their crime had been to join demonstrations against government abuses three years ago that were held in Sunni areas across Iraq. Islamic State militants infiltrated the protests, exploiting the anger as they began their terrible march across the country.
Many in Muneira had sympathized with the aims of the protests, even if they did not participate. That nuance was lost in the frenzied climate of revenge that followed the Islamic State’s defeat. “They are the ones who brought Daesh,” Helal said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Areas around Mosul were full of similar stories of house burnings and more violent retaliation in the early days of the government offensive. The source of the anger was no mystery. The countryside was dotted with mass graves containing the bodies of policemen and other security personnel who were executed by the militants, often with their hands bound behind their backs.
The graves lent the area an unshakable misery and powered the quest for revenge.
“We will not let them forget,” said Helal, who belonged to one of the unruly, ad hoc local militias that were given responsibility for securing areas recently liberated from the Islamic State. Helal’s militia — the Knights of Jabbour — was named for one of the region’s biggest tribes.
Within months, the men accused of attending the protests had disappeared from Muneira. “No one knows anything about them,” Yasser Ibrahim, a school principal, said at his house a few weeks ago.
The men’s families had stayed behind the village, he said. So had the militiamen who burned down their homes.
Conversations about Iraq these days often focus on the worry that disaffected Sunni Arabs will someday be tempted, out of frustration, to welcome the militants back. But that did not seem to be a danger in Muneira, where residents spoke about the Islamic State era with a mixture of horror and regret.
Some had been police officers in Mosul, stationed there on the fateful morning in June 2014 when the Islamic State easily captured the city, after the men trusted to guard it retreated en masse. “We all fled. I had to swim across the river,” said Ibrahim Jassim Mohammed, a police officer. “It was a black day for us.”
The militants kidnapped at least 24 people from the village, including the father of Ibrahim, the principal, who has not been heard from in three years, he said.
Rather than maintain a constant presence, the militants would drive through Muneira a few times a week. Ibrahim said that parents kept their children from attending classes to insulate them from the jihadists’ teachings. He would sit in the schoolhouse, every day, waiting for the gunmen to arrive, then lie about why the place was empty, he said.
But the efforts of its residents to resist the militants had won Muneira no favors.
The village was lucky if it received a few hours of electricity a day. Officials had not distributed food vouchers, residents said. Water was scarce, too. The trucks that rumble along the dirt road had exposed and ruptured the water pipes underneath.
Reflexively, the villagers believed that Iraq’s endemic government corruption had prevented the paving of the road.
And now no one knew whose responsibility it was to fix things.
With nothing to do, the men of the village could be found most days near a kiosk along the busy road, watching the traffic pass. Barefoot children, selling snacks to the truckers, had replaced their fathers as family breadwinners.
“We are hoping for good things for the government,” said Ammar Mohammed, a former soldier who these days carved out a living by smuggling cigarettes into Kurdish areas to the north.
“We have nothing but patience,” he said.
The fate of Muneira seemed to hang, in some way, on whether Hazem Khalil, a lifelong resident, would be able to stay.
Khalil’s older brother had been a senior Islamic State leader and was missing and probably dead. Two other brothers, accused of being associated with the militants, were in prison. Khalil’s elderly parents had fled after their house was burned to the ground in payment for the sins of their extremist son.
“I swear to God, I am the only one left,” Khalil said as he sat in his house with his children as they watched morning cartoons on television, reflecting on the calamity that had befallen his family and his town.
At the center of it was his older brother, Shaker, who had studied French literature, served as a school headmaster and was an imam at a local mosque.
He was recruited by the militants largely because of what they considered to be sterling credentials: He had been imprisoned for two-and-a-half years and tortured while in custody, his brother said. When the Islamic State captured Mosul, he served there as its minister for real estate.
In Muneira, people joked darkly that the militants did not destroy a single house without Shaker’s approval.
But it was not prison that had radicalized his brother, Khalil said.
“He was the product of extremism. He went too deep into religion,” he said.
It was also true, though, that resentment swirled around Muneira and other Sunni areas in the period before the militants took over. “Political agendas caused sectarian tensions,” Khalil said, referring to the government’s policies at the time. “There was no relationship between the security forces and citizens. There was a vacuum. That made it easy for ISIS,” he said.
With that legacy in mind, he added, “I was afraid of liberation.”
In the year that followed ISIS, his worries had yielded to guarded optimism. In his experience, the security forces had treated people well. The fearsome local militias had been disbanded. His neighbors refused to blame Khalil for his brother’s sins. For whatever reason, his corner of the village received regular electricity.
He had kept his job, at a nearby cement factory. Khalil had even decided to renovate his house.
He had received threatening text messages about his brother, but they had stopped about six months ago. Khalil was determined to stay in Muneira, and savor the humble graces.
“No one has questioned me about anything,” he said. “My house was not burned down.”
Aaso Ameen Schwan and Mustafa Salim in Muneira, Iraq, contributed to this report.