DIBAGA CAMP, Iraq – As the Islamic State group loses ground in Iraq, the militants are showing strains in their rule over areas they still control, growing more brutal, killing deserters and relying on younger and younger recruits, according to residents who fled battleground territories.
The accounts point to the difficulties the extremist group faces as Iraqi forces, backed by the United States, prepare for an assault on Mosul, the largest city still in the militants' hands. For months, Iraqi troops, militias and Kurdish fighters have been clawing back territory town by town, making their way toward the northern city.
In the latest areas recaptured, Iraqi troops over the past month took a clump of villages near a key military base south of Mosul that they plan to use as a hub for the assault. Residents of the communities, which lie strung along bends in the Euphrates River, say that in the preceding weeks, the militants ruling them had seemed to be scrambling to keep control.
In Qayara, which is the main town in the area and remains in IS hands, beheadings and extrajudicial killings that previously were occasional became commonplace in a hunt for spies and deserters, said Jarjis Muhammad Hajaj, who was among thousands of residents who fled fighting in the area and now live in the Dibaga Camp for displaced people in Kurdish-run territory.
"They started making raids on houses, arresting people and beheading them," he said.
Hajaj said the group's fighters appeared increasingly nervous as they watched news of IS loses elsewhere.
Their ranks also appeared to turn more to younger, less experienced men. At one point, almost all the militants guarding the streets were teenagers, he said. That, Hajaj said, was when he thought, "They're collapsing. They're finished."
The reliance on younger fighters in smaller communities could be a sign of overstretched manpower as the group's more veteran militants redeploy to Mosul or to neighboring Syria. Other factors could also be in play, like difficulties in finding new recruits and the effect of desertions, which Kurdish officials have said are on the rise.
Fighters as young as 13 or 14 were patrolling in the village of Awsaja on the other side of the river, said one resident, who asked to be identified by his nickname Abu Saleh for fear of reprisals against his family in areas still under IS rule. He said the militants killed seven people for trying to flee the village, displaying their bodies on a bridge as an example to others.
As Iraqi troops moved on Awsaja, the militants seemed confused on how to respond.
At one point, some IS fighters decided to retreat and ordered all the residents to come with them as human shields, Abu Saleh said. But that prompted an argument with others in the group who were remaining in the village to fight and wanted the residents to stay for their protection, said the 50-year-old psychologist, who fled with other residents and is now also in Dibaga Camp. Iraqi forces succeeded in retaking Awsaja in mid-July.
The area has been under IS rule for two years, ever since the Sunni militants overran much of western and northern Iraq, joining it to the territory they control in neighboring Syria in a self-declared "caliphate."
Though the group has been notorious for atrocities and its brutality in enforcing its radical vision of Islamic Shariah law, many in these Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq initially welcomed their rule. The Sunnis had long bristled under the rule by majority Shiites who lead the government in Baghdad. At first, IS provided them services the central government had neglected.
"When they first came, they gave the people money and food. And you know, the people are poor, they took it," said Sabha Khal Salih, a mother of two in the village of Hajj Ali, near Qayara. Young unemployed men joined the militants' ranks, she said.
But as time went on, living conditions deteriorated, in part because IS-held territories were cut off economically from the rest of Iraq. Also, the U.S.-led coalition's bombing campaign has strained IS's resources and prompted it to lash out against anyone it suspects of spying.
Abu Abdullatif, who worked in a clinic in Awsaja, said over the past three months, the militants became even more intrusive in enforcing their rules, even peeking into homes to see if women were properly covered there and imposing fines "just to get the money." Over time, he said, the food rations that IS distributed to the poor grew smaller, until finally they were giving only a few kilograms of flour — though members of the group continued to receive full rations.
Fearing residents were trying to escape, IS fighters strictly questioned — and sometimes demanded fees from — anyone trying to cross the river to markets in Qayara, he said, also speaking on condition he be identified by his nickname because he feared for the safety of relatives.
The group's fear of informants has fueled a crackdown in Mosul itself. This month, IS released a video titled "deterring the traitors," where six young men are shown being killed on a city street. In the video, the narration accused the men of being "the eyes of America," suggesting they were spies.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say the final assault on Mosul is still weeks away as forces fight to retake territory around the city. From the Qayara military base, Iraqi troops are still some 70 kilometers (40 miles) from the city.
The towns and villages around Qayara recaptured from IS are still too close to the front lines and too rife with booby-traps and explosives for residents to return. When Iraqi forces retook the area, many of the IS fighters changed into civilian clothes and disappeared into the surrounding desert.
Hajaj, the Qayara resident, said people in the area will never allow them to regain a foothold.
"Now we know who they are, we will never let them return," he said.