Iraq: What it feels like to be on the receiving end of Isis's pickup truck killing party
A man who hid from Isis for eight hours in a stack of straw tells Richard Spencer of the horrific day when the Iraqi jihadists came to his village, murdering his son, brother, nephew and sister-in-law
Amina and husband Elias Hassan; Amina was shot in a car
By Richard Spencer, Taza, Iraq
1:57PM BST 28 Jun 2014
The Isis death squad came in the morning, and were merciless on their Shia victims. One man who survived crawled through fields of wheat for a mile on his hands and knees, with the gunmen following, looking for him.
He had left his son dying in the road behind him. He heard the shots as his brother and nephew, who had run the other way to hide in a building site, were killed with two other men.
He hid for eight hours in the middle of a stack of straw from Iraq's early summer harvest, not daring to look out.
The next day, the villagers went back for the bodies. There were 21 in all, scattered through the streets and in the looted, burning embers of their houses. The bodies of his brother, nephew and two other men in the building site had not just been shot but stabbed in the head and body, on both sides, having been turned over and over as the rampage proceeded.
His brother's finger had been cut off, to remove his ring.
"I served in the army, in the war against Iran and in Kuwait," the survivor, Fadl Moussa Hassan said. "But I never saw anything like this. Even if you captured a prisoner and killed him, you did it cleanly, with one shot."
As Isis, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, extends its control over Sunni areas of the country, the politicians in Baghdad and the world's diplomats ponder a negotiated response. They do not trust the Iraqi army's ability to regain control of the country, nor wish to commit foreign troops in the numbers required to take on the common enemy.
One argument is that the Iraq crisis has a political root, in the discrimination suffered by Sunni Muslims at the hands of a Shia-led government. Many ordinary, non-jihadi Sunnis themselves say the insurgency is a popular uprising more than extremist terrorism.
That may be true, but it does not mean those with a will and a gun cannot use the crisis to promote their own strategies.
At the opposite ends of the religious sectarian spectrum, that strategy is ethnic cleansing.
An Amnesty International report on Friday made clear that murder and mayhem is not limited to the Sunni jihadists. Iraqi security forces or allied Shia militias killed scores of Sunni prisoners in the towns of Tal Afar, Baquba and Mosul in the last two weeks as they came under attack from the Isis-led alliance.
The aim appeared to be to prevent them escaping and, if sympathetic, joining up with the attackers.
But the jihadists' attacks on Tuesday, June 17, on the Shia villages of Barauchili, Karanaz and Chardaghli, near Tikrit, and Bashir, further north south of Kirkuk, have a raw, sectarian quality previously associated with the Alawite "Shabiha" militias of neighbouring Syria.
The villages' residents are not just Shia but from the Turkmen minority, a vulnerable minority within a minority.
But ethnicity seemed to be less important than religion: the attackers were shouting "God is Great" as they roared up to the village in their pickup trucks, captured American Humvees and armoured personnel carriers, waving their black flags, and Mr Hassan and other survivors said that they could even make out Turkmen voices among the attackers.
Mr Fadl, his brother, Elias, and other villagers from Barauchili gave The Telegraph a clinical description of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a pickup truck killing party. Their accounts have yet to be assessed by independent experts, though they have been confirmed by Iraqi security forces, but the accounts of those interviewed separately matched.
The villages were attacked from either end: they came from the north, to Chadaghli first, then just as men were rushing there to defend it, they arrived at Barauchili from the south, the flag-flying jihadi column pouring up the road from a neighbouring Sunni district.
It sped through the road-hump checkpoint. Some villagers tried to fire from nearby rooftops, but they were outgunned. Najaf Kahir, 41, a local teacher, was one of them - shot and killed, his father, Abdulwahid Reza Kahir, said.
Realising there was nothing they could do, the villagers fled, but too late. When Mr Kahir's 86-year-old cousin, Kamal, and his sons Mustafa, 34, and Abbas, 28, staggered from their house, the gunmen were already there, and they killed them on the spot.
Another cousin, Abdullah Reza Kahir had a better idea. Instead of fleeing north to the other Turkmen villages, he fled south to the Sunni Arab one, Albuhassan, where he had friends.
They took him and his family in, but Isis came knocking.
The family's would-be protectors came out holding up a Koran. "For the sake of this holy book, let these men go," they said. There was some haggling, and the man's wife and daughters were allowed to remain inside.
But the father and his 15-year-old son, Hussein, were dragged out and shot in front of their hosts.
Meanwhile, the Hassan family were trying to head north. Fadl and his family were on foot, and straggling behind the rest of the villagers, which is why Isis caught up with them first.
"There were lots of other families, but we were behind them," he said.
Meanwhile his brother, Elias, was in his car with his wife Amina, heading in a different direction, west towards Karanaz. But when they reached the junction, Isis were already there - two men in a pickup, and one on the road with a sniper rifle.
As he tried to speed away, two shots rang out, and his wife's head slumped on his shoulder. When he finally made it to a hospital, she was dead.
Fadl Hassan said that while he was hiding in the field, his pursuers came close enough for him to hear their voices. Far from being the foreign fighters he had been taught to fear, some voices were local; some were even Turkmen.
The willingness of their neighbours to join the onslaught, including men from Albuhassan, whose children were their own children's classmates, shocked the villagers. But then the sectarianism of modern Iraq is not new. While some say that the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, however brutal, kept a peace between the sects, it also fostered the resentments.
Saddam had an Arabisation policy that took land and gave it to Sunni Arabs. In the town of Jalula, to the south-east near Baghdad, The Telegraph saw Kurdish Peshmerga forces who are taking on the insurgents and have driven them back into one corner of the town.
That corner is the corner occupied by a Sunni tribe which supports Isis - a tribe that was given the land there by Saddam and has no intention of giving it up.
A similar conflict underlies another massacre. The town of Bashir was once Turkmen, and was then handed by Saddam to Sunni Arabs in the 1980s as punishment for opposition from the Shia who lived there.
After he fell, the Turkmen returned, and the two lived side-by-side, uneasily.
Then, Isis arrived there too, on the same Tuesday, and with such speed that Qassem Ibrahim Ali was overwhelmed. He put his son, who though only 13 could drive, in one car with his wife, two teenage daughters and their three-year-old, then followed driving his neighbours to safety.
He never saw his family again. He rang his son when he arrived at the neighbouring village of Taza without passing them, but all his son could do was sob.
Five days later, the jihadists who had seized Bashir sent trucks pulling metal sheeting on which lay the decomposing bodies of 17 people, including his two daughters, Masuma, 19, and Nerjis, 12, both of whom had been shot in the back. His wife, Zahra, 13-year-old son Mohammed, and the three-year-old, Ali, are still missing.
A resident who hid inside his house for several days before escaping to Taza said there were still bodies decomposing in Bashir. In all, 13 people are unaccounted for.
"Isis said when we rang my son's phone that they had not deliberately killed my daughters, that they had died in the crossfire," Mr Ali said. "But there were no clashes as they were driving. There is no doubt they were executed."
Human Rights Watch has begun to document the sectarian cleansing and suspected murders by Isis of Turkmen Shia from other parts of northern Iraq, including Mosul.
"Isis has embarked on a campaign of forced displacement of minority communities," Letta Taylor, a researcher, said. "There is a clear pattern."
There may be underlying political causes for the Sunni insurgency.
There may be a pragmatic alliance between Sunni tribes, ex-Baathists and Isis, which will break down as time passes.
The tribes believe they can see off the jihadists sooner or later.
But there seems little hope of stitching Iraq into a single, multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian state again. In that case, the three parts will be Sunni, Shia and Kurds, and minorities will only get in the way. Maybe, some seem to think, it is better to get rid of them now.
Iraqi Christians, already reduced by three quarters since 2003, are again on the move, heading north to Kurdistan and then, in all likelihood, to Germany, Sweden and Michigan, where many already live.
Ten per cent of Turkmen have left the country in that time too, said Hasan al-Bayati, head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front.
The head of the Kirkuk city council - made up of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, Sunnis and Shia - was a Turkmen Sunni until last week. Munir al-Qafili was shot dead, clinically by gunmen who were well-trained enough to pump seven bullets into his head without scratching the body of the car in which he was a passenger.
It was a warning to all the Turkmen, said a fellow council member, who understandably asked not to be named. Mr Qafili had told colleagues not long before that he had received a warning from Iraqi intelligence his name was on an Isis hitlist.
His was a death foretold, and it will not be the last.