Islamic State: How Iraqi widow's resistance became a symbol of hope

The self-sacrifice of Um Qusay, a widow whose Sunni tribespeople sheltered hundreds of mostly Shiite soldiers in 2014 from IS fighters, has won national acclaim. But the fight is far from over. 

Jane Arraf
A town resident, at a celebration of the one-year anniversary of liberation of al-Alam from Islamic State fighters, takes a selfie with Um Qusay who helped save soldiers surrounded by the group, in al-Alam, Iraq, March 10.

When Khalid Ismael got a desperate call from an army friend saying jihadists had surrounded him and five other soldiers, his mother didn’t hesitate. She ordered her son to take his sister and drive through 30 miles of enemy territory to rescue them.

The sister was there for a reason: the jihadists known as Islamic State (IS) weren’t stopping vehicles with women. And the mother, Alia Khalaf al-Jabouri, was to become a folk hero.

“I told Khalid ‘you have to go – Iraq needs its sons,’” says Ms. Jabouri, known as Um Qusay.

While the town would eventually save 850 soldiers from IS, Um Qusay went above and beyond the role played by townspeople in sending her children on the dangerous rescue mission and then sheltering 64 soldiers in her home.

Um Qusay and the townspeople are Sunni Muslim; the soldiers menaced by IS were mostly Shiite. In a country ripped apart by sectarian violence, civilians risking their lives for strangers from a different sect signals a degree of hope for a unified Iraq. And in Um Qusay, a poor widow and member of the Jabouri tribe whose husband and eldest son were killed by IS, the country has found an unlikely symbol of nationalism and self-sacrifice.

In June 2014, after taking over the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, IS rampaged through late dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, slaughtering more than 1,700 young army recruits and dumping their bodies into mass graves or in the river in the worst single massacre by the jihadists.

Seeing IS execute fellow soldiers, the group of 850 fled the Speicher military base and found themselves trapped on the other side of the river from al-Alam with the jihadists closing in. Members of Um Qusay’s Jabouri tribe ferried them in rowboats to safety while fighters provided covering fire from the bushes. 

Thirty miles away further down the Tigris River, the group of six soldiers was in even more danger.

Dozens of families in al-Alam sheltered the soldiers, for 16 days while the town fought off IS. The town later surrendered after IS captured and held hostage dozens of families. But before they let the fighters in, townspeople made sure that 400 of the Iraqi soldiers got out alive. The Jabouris fled in order to escape reprisals.

It would take months of fighting by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a mostly Shia militia, along with Iraqi troops to expel IS from al-Alam.

A reward and a request for blessings

A year on, Um Qusay’s photo is on billboards on the entrance to the town. After it was liberated, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi brought her to Baghdad to thank her and gave her $15,000 in cash and gold.

A steady stream of visitors comes to Um Qusay’s office in an empty house lent to her by the city council. In a reception area, she greets tribal leaders and military officials who come to thank her, ask what the community needs, and even ask for her blessings.

“Um Qusay emerged at a very difficult time to try to ease sectarian tension by her actions and her sacrifice,” says Sheikh Ali al-Sudani, a Shiite cleric from Baghdad who is her office director. “In spite of her poverty, she took care of a huge number of soldiers.”

She has a new nickname among some: Tawa’a, a 7th century woman from southern Iraq revered by Shiites for sheltering an envoy of Imam Hussein.

Despite her humble roots – she never attended school and was married at 13 – Um Qusay displays the confidence of someone born to high office. She steps away from receiving tribal leaders in a cavernous reception room to record a flawless video greeting to the PMF on the anniversary of the liberation of al-Alam. A young man accompanying a delegation of sheikhs from Najaf stands up to recite a poem he has written in her honor.

At a celebration nearby, the crowd parts as she walks by in a gold-trimmed black abaya. Children run around the sunlit parade ground as Sunni fighters from the PMF, Shia military officials, and women line up to take selfies with her.

Unpaid soldiers fighting Islamic State

But along with the fame come huge responsibilities, she says. The office is funded by donations, including aid she distributes to the needy. Her own sons who rejoined the Iraqi army and police to fight IS have not been paid for a year.

“People come to me if they want government jobs or they want to return to their police jobs. People who have nothing to eat come to me,” she says. 

When PMF militiamen prevent displaced families from returning to their homes, she vouches for the families and mediates to allow their return. 

While US-backed Iraqi security forces have taken back territory from IS, the group remains a threat across northern and western provinces. And Iraq’s economy is struggling amid low global oil prices.

Iraq’s tribal system still carries more weight than government laws or even the judicial system. Tribes have played a crucial role in the battle against IS – and Al Qaeda before it.

More than a decade of civil strife has divided many of the Sunni tribes. Some have supported the jihadists against what they believe is an illegitimate Iraqi government; others have joined the fight either as tribes or with government forces.

The Jabouri confederation is one of the biggest in Iraq and like most also contains Shiite tribes.

In 1991, after Saddam put down a failed uprising after Iraqi forces were driven from Kuwait, dozens of army officers from al-Alam were executed for treason. “That is why some of the tribes hate us,” says Rafid Ismael, Um Qusay’s son.

The al-Alam Jabouris are also resented because they fought with Shiite militia forces to drive out IS.

Suspicions over sympathies

While the Jabouris returned to largely intact homes after al-Alam was freed, others from tribes in surrounding villages have not had such a smooth return.

The militias have barred some from returning because they suspect them of IS sympathies; others found their homes were destroyed in the fighting.

Behind Um Qusay’s newfound fame is an indomitable will. When she was seven, her father was shot dead after he rejected a cousin of Saddam Hussein as a suitor for her half-sister. At 13, Um Qusay filed a lawsuit against her brother after he demanded she marry a much older man. 

A cousin from her clan she had never met attended the court session and said he would marry her.

Two years ago, just before the capture of Tikrit, her husband was in a field picking mushrooms with Um Qusay’s eldest son and a cousin when IS fighters shot them and then ran over them with a truck.

Women in Iraq’s conservative tribal society are often unseen and unheard. But the role of Um Qusay and her daughter in the rescue shows they can play a powerful role

At their home in al-Alam, her brother directs that no photos be taken of his sister Mayada, a seamstress. She sits quietly with hands folded while her brothers speak. But her brothers say she shares her mother’s iron will.

“I wasn’t afraid because I felt if I died I would be sacrificing myself for these people, and the only thing in my mind was to bring them safely to our house,” she says, speaking of the rescue mission in 2014.

Although Khaled and his sister went to fetch the six soldiers, he makes clear Um Qusay was behind it. “It was my mother’s idea,” he says. “If all Iraqis were like her, there would be no IS.”

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