Thousands of ISIS Fighters Surrender to Kurdish Forces

At the Kurdish screening center in Dibis, suspects are searched, their shoes taken, their pockets emptied and their belts discarded. Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
At the Kurdish screening center in Dibis, suspects are searched, their shoes taken, their pockets emptied and their belts discarded.
Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

The prisoners were taken to a waiting room in groups of four, and were told to stand facing the concrete wall, their noses almost touching it, their hands bound behind their backs.

More than a thousand Islamic State fighters passed through that room this past week after they fled their crumbling Iraqi stronghold of Hawija. Instead of the martyrdom they had boasted was their only acceptable fate, they had voluntarily ended up here in the interrogation center of the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq.

For an extremist group that has made its reputation on its ferociousness, with fighters who would always choose suicide over surrender, the fall of Hawija has been a notable turning point. The group has suffered a string of humiliating defeats in Iraq and Syria, but the number of its shock troops who turned themselves in to Kurdish officials at the center in Dibis was unusually large, more than 1,000 since last Sunday.

The fight for Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, took nine months, and by comparison, relatively few Islamic State fighters surrendered. Tal Afar fell next, and more quickly, in only 11 days. Some 500 fighters surrendered there.

The Iraqi military ousted the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, from Hawija in 15 days, saying it had taken its forces only three days of actual heavy fighting before most of the extremists grabbed their families and ran. According to Kurdish officials, they put up no fight at all, other than planting bombs and booby traps.

Seen up close, the fighters’ pretense of bravado soon disappears.

Their shoes were taken from them, their pockets emptied and their belts discarded, and, as they stood facing the wall, the backs of their dishdashas were stained with the evidence that some of them had not been to a toilet in days.

One of the men smelled so bad that when he was taken into the small interrogation room, those inside were startled. He filled the doorway, appearing even larger than his actual size. The interrogator unbuckled his hip holster, resting his right hand on his pistol. Everyone in the room seemed scared of the man, even though his hands were tied behind his back. His thick black hair was Medusa-wild and shoulder-length, though his handsome face had only a wisp of black stubble on the chin.

“Hello,” a visitor said. “Where’s your beard?” The Islamic State requires all men to grow full beards.

“I’m only 21, I can’t grow it yet,” he said, clearly embarrassed.

Kurdish interrogators allowed a dozen of the surrendered fighters to be interviewed by a reporter as they arrived at the local headquarters of the Asayish, the Kurdish intelligence service, in the town of Dibis, near the Kurds’ front lines opposite Hawija. Officers monitored all interviews.

Many of the fighters claimed to have been just cooks or clerks. So many said they had been members of the Islamic State for only a month or two that interrogators suspected they had been coached to say that. Gone was the contempt for the world’s opinion, spewed out in one violent video after another — many of them made in Hawija, where grisly killings, especially of Kurdish prisoners, were the norm during their three-year reign over that Sunni Arab city in northern Iraq.

Most of the prisoners, though, claimed to have never seen a beheading, or even heard of such a thing.

At first, the beardless fighter seemed an exception, admitting defiantly that he had been fighting for the group for two years, alongside family members. He readily gave his name: “Maytham Muhammed Mohemin,” he said, practically spitting it out. His hands were bound behind his back and he was effectively sitting on them, forced back into a red plastic lawn chair, yet the three Kurdish officers in the room kept more than an arm’s length away in case he lunged for their weapons.

During the interview, he grew nervous. He said he was from Hawija and had joined the Islamic State because he believed in its cause, because his elder brother had, and because the $100 a month pay was better than anything else around.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Rod Nordland