Ghazia Ahmed al Jabouri, a diminutive mother of 14, can trace Iraq’s catastrophes through the upheavals in her own 79-year-long life. She not only has endured the violent deaths of three of her 10 sons, but she also survived two attempts on her own life by the Islamic State when it was called al Qaida in Iraq.
“They are monsters. They are dirty people. You can smell their disgusting odor,” she declared.
Jabouri fled Mosul in June as the Islamic State overran northern Iraq’s largest city, the start of an offensive that eventually savaged more than one-third of the country. Now living in a rented apartment in Baghdad, she shares the trials of dislocation with hundreds of thousands of other impoverished Iraqis uprooted by the latest of the calamities that have roiled the country over the past three decades.
Like millions of her countrymen, she’s borne her share of misfortune, including the deaths of her sons and a brother and the loss of her husband to illness. Her family has suffered from the dangers of taking sides in the sectarian war unleashed when the Americans invaded.
But few can claim to have stood up the way Jabouri, a Sunni Muslim, did to the Sunni extremists who emerged after the 2003 U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein. She did it, she said, by denouncing on television to his face the al Qaida sympathizer who killed her son Walid, a police captain, on a Mosul street in July 2004.
“I became famous on television. They showed me fighting against al Qaida,” said Jabouri, her rheumy eyes smiling from a wizened face framed in a black chador. “Those who killed my son were also police officers. Al Qaida saw me and wanted to kill me.”
The extremists tried to do just that within about a month of the broadcast. Twice. Both bids failed, although the grandmother of 12 was wounded by the car bomb used in the second attack.
“I was hit in the thigh by shrapnel. But I didn’t go to the hospital, because I would have been killed. We called the Americans, and they treated me,” Jabouri recalled. “I wasn’t afraid. I said, ‘Rats, we will drive you from your holes.’ ”
“I’m proud of my mother,” chimed in another son, Ali, 35, who was wounded in the first attack.
Jabouri, whose chin, wrists and ankles sport the small blue tattoos that are a tradition among some tribal women, now lives largely on donations from neighbors. She and her son Ali, a police officer who escaped separately from Mosul, then rejoined his mother and his wife in Baghdad two months later, were supposed to receive a 1 million dinar grant – about $860 – promised by the government to all displaced families. But they’ve been given only some mattresses and a fan.
It isn’t the first time the state has failed Jabouri.
Her son Faris died when he was 18 in a shooting accident while training with a youth militia to fight Iran, she said. It was June 1988, two months before the Iran-Iraq War ended.
“They didn’t give him any kind of funeral rites. Why? He wasn’t at the front,” she explained.
Worse, militia members showed up at her home just before the funeral, demanding payment for the machine gun that Saddam’s government had given Faris.
“We had set up a tent to receive mourners,” Jabouri said. “I told them he was in the camp when he was killed. So why are you asking for money? They left.”
The backdrop to Jabouri’s run-in with al Qaida in Iraq was the group’s first drive to capture Mosul, in 2004. Bolstered by foreign fighters coming from Syria, al Qaida in Iraq and local allies fought vicious street battles against U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces. While the offensive eventually failed, extremist sleeper cells remained entrenched in Mosul, emerging this summer to help the Islamic State seize the city.
Ali, Walid and two other brothers, Oday and Nimr, were in the security forces, dangerous jobs made more hazardous by al Qaida in Iraq infiltrators and sympathizers.
Jabouri felt that her sons had a duty to serve even though they’d be supervised by the American occupiers. Moreover, her ailing husband was unemployed, and the family needed the money.
Ali was in the Iraq Civil Defense Corps, an early U.S. attempt to create security forces to work with the American-led occupation force. He still has the corps permit authorizing him to carry an AK-47 and a U.S.-made 9 mm Star automatic pistol.
On the day in July 2004 that he died, Walid was patrolling a market, Ali recounted.
“We left the house together that morning and went our separate ways. Walid was in the market with other guys, searching for weapons. The Americans were looking on from a distance,” said Ali. “Someone came from behind, called him by name and shot him dead.”
“The Americans came in two squads. One chased the killer and the other tried to help Walid,” he continued. The shooter escaped.
Two days later, U.S. troops detained a police lieutenant in another shooting. The suspect, a man named Sukhair, was recognized as Walid’s killer. A hunt led to 13 of Sukhair’s associates, members of an al Qaida sleeper cell suspected in scores of assassinations.
The next day, Ghazia al Jabouri said, she went to police headquarters and confronted Sukhair and the others before a group of senior officials and a television camera. She recalled Sukhair telling her that he’d been paid $200 to murder her son.
“I took off my shoe and slapped him in the face,” she said.
She faced the other suspects. “One of them was Syrian. I asked him, ‘Why did you come to Iraq? Why didn’t you go to Golan (Heights) to kill Israelis?’ I was just frustrated and angry. So I spoke badly about (the late Syrian President) Hafez Assad. I called him some names.”
The confrontation aired on national television, which at that time frequently broadcast the arrests and confessions of terrorism suspects to build popular support for the U.S.-installed transitional government.
The next day, Jabouri said, Ibrahim al Jaafari, then a vice president and now the foreign minister, sent a helicopter to fly her to Baghdad to receive his condolences.
“I asked for those people to be executed,” she recalled telling Jaafari. “I didn’t want any kind of compensation or money, just for those who killed my son to be executed.”
Two days later, the suspects were taken to Baghdad. Eventually they were tried, convicted and executed, said Ali.
Al Qaida in Iraq’s first attempt at vengeance came about a month after the television broadcast. Ali tells the story:
“I was sitting outside the door of our house. Two men who’d gotten off a garbage truck to empty a garbage can pulled out guns and began firing. We had three machine guns in the house: one on the roof, one in the kitchen and one in the hall. My older brother, Oday, grabbed the one in the kitchen and fired. He killed them.”
Ali had been wounded in the shoulder, leg and arm in the initial burst of fire, and he collapsed to the ground. “That was when my brother opened fire,” he said.
A U.S. helicopter flew Ali for treatment at the American base at Mosul airport.
“We fled the house the same day,” his mother said. “The Americans sealed off our neighborhood and took us by helicopter to the other side of the river, where we rented a house from a friend.” She paused to puff on a cigarette.
“Two days later, a car bomb hit the house,” she said.
After treating her wounded thigh, U.S. troops moved Jabouri and her husband, Ahmed Ibrahim, to another home. Still, her family didn’t find safety. People in the new neighborhood soon began badgering Ali and Oday, 36, who was in the army, to quit their jobs and “leave the Americans,” Jabouri said.
Ali resigned from the Iraq Civil Defense Corps and joined the Facilities Protection Force, a U.S.-ordered effort to safeguard government buildings and other infrastructure. Oday transferred from the army to the police.
Three months later, Oday died in a roadside bomb blast.
“It was directly aimed at him,” Jabouri said.
This time, Jabouri said, she and her husband scraped together enough money to build a small house in a distant suburb that could be reached only through three checkpoints. Ali was assigned to guard a provincial building nearby. Nimr left to join the army.
“We were in hiding,” said Jabouri, whose spouse passed away in 2007, the same year that al Qaida in Iraq targeted and killed her brother, who’d joined the army.
The taint from siding with the Americans continued. Many of Mosul’s Sunnis were sympathetic to the extremists, and their support grew under the discriminatory policies of then-Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim.
“I couldn’t get married to a local girl. All of the families refused because of my mother and brothers,” said Ali. One of Oday’s friends eventually arranged an introduction to a Shiite woman from Baghdad. They married in 2009.
The seeming defeat of al Qaida in Iraq during the American troop surge in 2007 brought relative safety. Until this summer, that is, when the group, now called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, came roaring back from its sanctuary in Syria to overrun Mosul, where it began hunting down and executing officials and members of the security force.
“I was alone at home. All the neighbors had fled. About one dozen Daash fighters came in. Their faces were covered,” Jabouri said, using the derogatory Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “They asked me, ‘Where are your sons, Ali and Nimr?’ They knew their names.”
“I told them, ‘Nimr is in Baghdad. There is no way for you to go there by air or land. Ali is in the north with the Kurds. You can go there to get him.’ I had no fear,” she recalled. “Those who came didn’t recognize me. If they had, they would have killed me.”
“They were outsiders. I looked at their clothes. They weren’t from Mosul. They were Arabs,” Jabouri continued. “At this point, I decided to leave the house.”
Ali, who’d managed to escape to Dohuk, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, called a friend, who agreed to pick up Ali’s mother and drive her to join his wife and her family in Baghdad.
The Islamic State’s own strict ideology may have helped get Jabouri through the 220-mile journey.
“They’d ordered women to cover their faces,” she said, pulling her scarf over the lower half of her face. “Whenever I’d get to one of their checkpoints, I covered my face. When we finally reached a checkpoint with an Iraqi flag, I started crying.”
Reflecting on all she’s been through, Jabouri finds a little solace. “I am proud of my sons because of their bravery,” she said.
But she finds little else to be happy about.
“I haven’t had a good life. Just disaster after disaster,” said Jabouri. “Iraq is just like me.”