BAGHDAD (Reuters) - From the slaughter of children to edicts against suggestively shaped vegetables, al Qaeda’s brutality and its imposition of severe Islamic laws have been crucial to its decline in Iraq.
Its enforcement of a severe form of Sunni Islam in areas it controlled made everyday life miserable, sapping support among the people for its campaign against U.S. and Iraqi forces.
“I saw them slaughter a nine-year old boy like a sheep because his family didn’t pledge allegiance to them,” said Sheikh Hameed al-Hayyes, an influential Sunni tribal leader from the former al Qaeda stronghold of Anbar province in Iraq’s west.
Such violent acts, considered extreme by other Islamist groups, prompted many who initially fought alongside al Qaeda to turn against it. The group has claimed responsibility for indiscriminate bomb attacks in Iraq that have killed thousands.
The group has also posted on the Internet grisly video tapes of its attacks and beheadings of foreigners and Iraqi soldiers.
Singing, shaving and the medical treatment of women by male doctors were all among activities considered by al Qaeda to be haram, or forbidden by Islam, Iraqis around the country who lived under their rule said.
“Al Qaeda prohibited the shaving of beards and banned sideburns and long hair ... Barbers were killed because they did not obey,” said Kais Amer, a barber from Mosul in Iraq’s north.
The tales may sound fantastic, and are difficult to verify, but people elsewhere in Iraq tell similar stories of al Qaeda’s rules. Punishment for disobedience was brutal.
Disgusted by such acts, Sunni Arab tribal leaders — whose men once formed the backbone of the insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi forces — in late 2006 turned on al Qaeda, and with U.S. backing helped drive the group from its former strongholds.
Besides its indiscriminate killings and harsh interpretation of Islam, al Qaeda had also become a serious challenge to tribal authority, seeking control over economic activities and smuggling routes to neighboring countries.
Attacks across Iraq have fallen some 85 percent from a year ago to lows not seen since 2004, and major security crackdowns are underway in Iraq’s north, where U.S. and Iraqi forces say a depleted al Qaeda has regrouped.
“Al Qaeda’s very heavy-handed killing of civilians backfired on them. The Sunnis just wouldn’t stand for it any more,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Albers, intelligence officer for the U.S. division responsible for Baghdad.
“The self-described protectors of the Sunni community now kill more Iraqi Sunnis than anyone else.”
Anbar province in western Iraq was once an al Qaeda bastion, but later became the birthplace of the Sunni tribal leaders’ backlash against the group. Tribal leaders range from the very religious to whisky-drinking secularists.
Hayyes is among sheikhs who organized their men into local patrol groups to fight al Qaeda and other militants. Life under al Qaeda was not only violent, but also farcical, he said.
“They even killed female goats because their private parts were not covered and their tales were pointed upward, which they said was haram,” Hayyes said.
“They regarded the cucumber as male and tomato as female. Women were not allowed to buy cucumbers, only men,” he said.
Men would have fingers cut off for smoking, hair salons and shops selling cosmetics were bombed, ice vendors were killed because ice was not available during the time of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad — all common tales of al Qaeda justice.
“Al Qaeda wanted to kill me and blow up my shop because I sold music CDs,” said Ahmed Yasin in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Leaflets threatened women with kidnap or death for not wearing an all-enveloping robe. The forced marriage of Iraqi women and girls to al Qaeda members by tribes intimidated by the group was not uncommon.
Adding to al Qaeda’s growing isolation was its proclaimed aim of fighting for a Sunni Islamic state and its heavy reliance on foreign fighters. Many Iraqis fought the U.S. military in Iraq for nationalistic, not sectarian reasons.
Many of al Qaeda’s early leaders and fighters in Iraq came from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria and other countries. They smuggled in fighters to act as suicide bombers.
Until the overthrow of former President Saddam Hussein in 2003 Iraq was largely secular in outlook. Iraqis of different sects and ethnicities intermarried, women would dress in jeans and T-shirts and Baghdad was packed with bars and discos.
Most Iraqis are Shi’ites, a Muslim denomination that al Qaeda’s Sunnis consider heretical. The country is also home to Christians and members of other faiths, and al Qaeda has targeted Kurds even though many are Sunni Muslims.
“Sometimes they came to our offices and told us not to deal with Kurds,” said Raad Faris, a Mosul real estate agent.
“They displaced many Shi’ites, Christians and families of the security forces, and on the walls of their house wrote ‘House not for letting or sale by order of the Islamic state’”.
Al Qaeda took the homes of those it believed were enemies, and also used the pretext of fighting for Islam to extort and steal, often killing businessmen in areas it controlled.
“My son imported spare parts for cars. They killed him on accusations of being a foreign agent, then stole his money and goods,” Jalal Abdul-Karim, a trader from Ramadi in Anbar said.
“Al Qaeda committed ugly crimes in the name of religion. Their actions are far from Islam.”
Additional reporting by Amar al-Alwani in Ramadi, Khalid al-Ansary, Aws Qusay, Peter Graff in Baghdad and Sabah al-Bazee in Samarra; Editing by David Clarke and Samia Nakhoul