THE old woman’s movements seemed innocuous at first. But after four days of scouring the terrain for an Isis sniper who had killed as many as 20 of their comrades, a group of Shi’ite militiamen began to wonder how a woman who lived on her own could produce so much rubbish that she was constantly going out to her bin.
When they searched her clay house they discovered that she had been taking food to the sniper, who was hidden in the bin.
“He had a medical drip in his arm so he didn’t need any water and he’d made a hole in the side of the bin that he could slide open and shut to fire out of,” said Abu Hussein, 59, a commander with Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militia fighting Sunni militants two hours’ drive north of Baghdad. “We arrested him of course.”
So far the Iraqi military has succeeded only in stalling Isis’s march on Baghdad. Iraqi air strikes, ground forces and pro-government militias have done little to dislodge its zealous fighters from the large chunks of territory they seized during a lightning advance towards the capital at the beginning of June. Yesterday it emerged that the United States was preparing to launch bombing raids to protect the city.
Yet despite the deadlock on the battlefield, the country’s political elite believe its fortunes are about to change. Last week, Nouri al-Maliki agreed to end his eight-year term as prime minister, caving in to pressure from the US and Britain who had grown frustrated with his rule.
Many have blamed Maliki’s reign, particularly his persecution of the Sunni Arab minority, for the rise of Isis. With Maliki gone, there is some optimism that his successor — the Manchester University- educated Haider al-Abadi — will be able to heal some of these wounds.
“We believe Abadi can reunite the country,” said Dawood Suleiman, a Sunni cleric, after prayers on Friday. “If he brings a unified government then the Sunnis will support him. The Sunnis can defeat the Islamic State [Isis] themselves.”
Time is running out. Some officials estimate that Isis raises $4.5m (£2.7m) a day by selling oil from the dozens of fields under its control in Syria and Iraq. This is used to buy weapons, pay fighters and provide humanitarian assistance in areas under its control.
Although rumours persist of a “zero hour” when Isis sleeper cells will rise up to seize control of Baghdad, Iraqi officials believe that for the time being, the militants will seek to push into the Sunni areas around the city.
“Once they are in the belt of Baghdad it will be incredibly hard to remove them. Look at some of the towns they are in now. Iraqi forces have been fighting them for six months with artillery and air strikes but they can’t get them out,” said Hisham Hashimi, an expert on Isis.