Middle East

Shaves at barbers’, corpses in streets as militants retreat

An Iraqi man shaves his beard inside a barber shop in Intisar district of Mosul, Iraq, November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

MOSUL, Iraq: The only shop to open so far after the army fought its way into the Intisar district of eastern Mosul is Ali Bashar’s barbershop. Inside, men were lining up to shave off the long beards they had been forced to wear under Daesh (ISIS). A few blocks away, four bodies of Daesh fighters lay on the road, covered with blankets and swarming with flies. A police officer said that they had been rotting there for 10 days, waiting for the army to remove the corpses.

Life has not yet returned to anything like normal in one of the first slivers of Daesh’s last bastion in Iraq to be recaptured by the army.

But residents moved freely through streets dotted with white flags of surrender, which they had raised to protect their homes as the army advanced. A young boy fetched cooking gas for his father. Children skipped around a dirt berm, not flinching at the sound of gunshots and blasts.

The battle to drive Daesh out of Mosul, a city many times larger than any other the militants have ever held, is the biggest military operation in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

A 100,000-strong alliance of Iraqi forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, has almost surrounded Mosul. So far the militants’ defenses have been breached only in the east of the city.

Elite counterterrorism forces have retaken several districts just north of Intisar, but military officers say a heavy presence of civilians in built-up areas is slowing their troops’ advance.

Tan army humvees were parked outside the barber shop, which had reopened over the weekend. Residents and a few soldiers packed into the narrow storefront on Monday.

It was not clear how many were waiting for a trim and how many taking cover from the occasional gunfire outside.

But the buzzing of electric trimmers and chirping of scissors spoke volumes, in a city where the ultra-hard-line militants had ordered mandatory long beards as one demonstration of their control over all aspects of life in the two and a half years since they proclaimed their caliphate from a Mosul mosque.

Black wisps of hair dotted the tiled floor. Beards were trimmed down to stubble or sliced off cleanly with straight razors.

“When they first came, they forbade cutting beards, then they prohibited using razors or thread, and then it was beard styling. Each day they would prohibit something new,” said Bashar, the barber, describing life under Daesh.

He exhibited a flyer which the militants had distributed outlining those restrictions in detail. He said he had stopped working after Daesh’s morality police detained him briefly for shaving a design into a patron’s beard, a popular style in much of Iraq.

Eleven days after the military announced that its forces had entered the Intisar district, a colonel Monday said the army had finally secured control of the entire area and advanced toward nearby Salaam neighborhood.

It was difficult to confirm the extent of army control during a Reuters visit to the area. Another officer told Reuters mortars continued to land there, and snipers were still within firing range.

Apart from the barbershop, nothing else is open. Shops have so far been unable to stock their shelves, so civilians rely on daily distributions of foodstuffs from the military. Some residents said aid had yet to reach them.

“There are no doctors here. If someone is shot, he will die in his house,” said Saad, a 22-year-old student. As he spoke, a large explosion from deeper inside Mosul shook the ground.

Moments later, a Humvee carrying a wounded soldier from the front line dashed to a first-aid station at the edge of the city.

Back at the barber shop, a resident scooped up two empty wooden ammunition boxes discarded by the army. They would make good tinder for his cooking fire, he said.

The man, who declined to be identified, had pulled his children out of school under Daesh. There were few jobs in the group’s self-styled caliphate, he said. “If you wanted to work, you had to join them.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 15, 2016, on page 8.

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