Iraqi town revels in new freedom
Biyara, controlled by militant Islamists until the US-led war, is wary of news that such groups may be returning.
The merchant shuddered when told that Islamic militants of Ansar Al Islam - the Al Qaeda-backed group dispersed by American bombs last March - may be returning to Iraq.
"If they come to my orchard, I will shoot them myself!" vows Shaho Abdulkarim, a merchant-smuggler with a perfect moustache. Such a visceral reaction is common in this village on Iraq's northeastern border with Iran, where Ansar imposed Taliban-style rule for nearly two years.
"They are not around, they can't come back," Mr. Abdulkarim says, sitting on the carpeted floor of the blue-domed mosque of Biyara, which was scarred by US bombs. "Then we were poor and vulnerable. Now we have someone backing us."
Biyara and a string of border villages tucked among the folds of steep mountain valleys, once ruled by Islamists, are now under the control of Kurdish militiamen of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the force that joined with US ground troops to oust Ansar last spring.
Washington accused Ansar of running a "poison" and explosives factory, and of forming a link between the Saddam Hussein regime and Al Qaeda. While evidence for such claims remains elusive, Kurds here voice nothing but praise for the US military's role in ending their nightmare of Ansar rule.
There are signs that such militants may be creeping back into Iraq, bolstered by other anti-US elements from throughout the Arab world set on attacking American troops. But the Biyara experience is one that few Iraqis are likely to tolerate again.
"What kind of life would you call this?" asks Sangar Mansour, a Biyara native who says he was forced to join Ansar in order to stay with his family.
"CDs were banned, music and songs were forbidden, picnics were banned, and you couldn't play backgammon in the tea shops," Mr. Mansour says. "We weren't allowed to wear shorts to play soccer, and whenever they called for prayers, guards visited each house with an adult. Those who failed to go, they beat him hard."
Iraqis here say they were shocked by the uncompromising views imposed by Ansar - a Wahhabi, and more radical Salafi, view shared mostly by the Taliban in Afghanistan, among some adherents from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf, and by Al Qaeda.
"I know Islam, but they created very difficult choices for people," says Mansour, noting that he knew of 85 young men who lived for a time in hotels outside Biyara, to escape the restrictions. "This is totally unique. This behavior told us that they must be something else."
There are still signs of Ansar rule in this village of 450 families, or 2,000 people. Four houses perched among the green forests were completely flattened by US bombs, and reconstruction is under way. The mosque has been largely repaired, too, though the ceiling is pockmarked with shrapnel, and fresh blue paint covers the patches on the dome.
Inside the mosque, on the right of the pulpit, the word Allah, or God, was painted long ago. But the word Mohammad, the revered prophet of Islam that had been painted on the opposite side, was whitewashed by Ansar. It explained that not even Mohammad could approach God's goodness.
From the balcony pulpit a few feet above, the words of an Ansar mullah during a prayer session back then still resonate among mosque-goers: "We view the US as a small spider."
And in a further echo of Taliban attitudes - especially toward the ancient Buddha statues that were destroyed in the last year of Taliban rule in Afghanistan - Ansar militants disinterred the remains of several sheikhs buried at this mosque and moved them, resident say, so that they would not serve as a separate source of worship.
That decision provoked unrest on both sides of the border, prompting a cross-border visit by Iranian officials, to confirm that the bodies had not been destroyed.
One Ansar leader, Abu Wael - who is believed to have been on Baghdad's intelligence payroll - ran an Islamic court in this mosque, residents say. Women were fined $40 for not wearing the correct head scarf, and "nobody dared to steal" - a crime that would lead to an amputated limb, Abdulkarim says. Early on, militants killed a teacher, an event that spread fear through the village.
"They sentenced one man who collaborated with the PUK to death, and we never saw his body again," he adds. "The family searched everywhere.... In this area, they are finished. None of their leaders is from here or has a base. They were strangers here, too."
Strangers imposing their will is what grated on many locals, even if they couldn't express their unease. Mansour says he and 10 others once sneaked half a mile away - and posted two guards - to share a single cigarette. Short-sleeve shirts and T-shirts were not allowed. Barbers and their razors were out of business.
"Crazy things" included public floggings. Loudspeakers would announce a punishment, and shops would be closed, Mansour says, to ensure the largest crowd. He watched as one man, who returned drunk from the city of Sulaymaniyah , was stripped down, given 70 lashes, and told afterward to "go wash and go to prayers."
Another incident he witnessed involved a young couple who courting. The boy was stripped, laid out on a blanket, and given 70 lashes.
As a former gunman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Mansour was told not to wear anything yellow - the KDP colors - and was later jailed for 15 days for using yellow prayer beads.
"I had no choice - I had to join them or leave the area. I couldn't leave my family," Mansour says. Today, beer is offered for sale with kebabs, and the stifling cloud has lifted for most Kurds here.
But the hard line was not limited to Biyara residents. Abdulkarim says his wife once visited a house owned by an Ansar family, and found a woman with 13 children - and nothing whatsoever inside. She sent some cash and food to help them out.
When she asked why they lived such Spartan lives, the woman replied: "In the second life, God will reward us."
"It was obvious, even to a blind person, that these people were Al Qaeda. They referred to bin Laden as 'Sheikh' Osama," says Abdulkarim. "The people were powerless and defenseless. We couldn't do anything. Without the coalition forces, who could have rooted them out?"