Hawija is a large Iraqi town near northern Kirkuk, and it is now under the command of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Though ISIS is nominally new to the large town, violent, anti-government activity is not. Hawaji is one of Iraq’s “Sunni-dominated areas” known for vocal opposition to Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. Fifteen months ago, the Iraqi military violently raided a protest camp in Hawaji, killing at least 42 people.

Hawija is also a “historical stronghold” for the Men of the Army of Naqshabandi, a Sunni militant group dating back to Saddam Hussein’s regime, who joined ISIS’s campaign last month.

Though ISIS is now world-renowned for its swift, militant encroachment in northern Iraq, its approach in Hawija appears to be distinctly cordial. Shalaw Mohammed, a freelance journalist reporting for Niqash, recently visited Hawija:

ISIS is adopting a different, more moderate strategy here. It is fostering good relations with local Sunni Muslim tribes and has told them that they will be in charge in this area. It has also assigned local individuals to start a dialogue with other Sunni Muslim tribes in the area to try and get them to enter into alliances with ISIS too.

Mohammed played upon his tenure as an art student in Hawija to access to the ISIS-controlled town, and brought back a report filled with “black flags” and “free Korans.”

When the [ISIS security] men got to the car, one of them asked me why I was going into Hawija; I quickly pulled out my art school ID and said I needed to pick up my graduation certificate so I could apply for a job. The masked man told me that the art school was actually closed and that there are no new jobs going in Kirkuk. So why are you picking it up and what are you actually going to do with it?, he asked.

I explained that I knew some of the art school staff and that they were going to help me get a job.

He checked my ID card again, carefully, and then he gave me a copy of the Koran. He gave the other passengers a Koran too. “May God be with you,” he said and let us pass.

Haider, our taxi driver, who drives this road almost every day, said that from the very first day that ISIS took over they had been giving out copies of the Koran to each and every one of his passengers.

As we entered Hawija the first thing we saw was the building that was formerly used by the Iraqi army’s 12th Division. A large sign now hangs over the main entrance, reading “ISIS – Secret Operations Room” in big white letters. According to Iraqi Kurdish officials, ISIS now has an intelligence section so it can better monitor its rivals’ operations.

We didn’t stop driving. We passed by many buildings. One of them was the art school where I had studied. There was no sign on the building but masked and unmasked gunmen surrounded it. I asked what had happened to the art school and was told that ISIS had turned the school into a detention centre where members of the police and army and other locals were imprisoned.

Read Shalaw Mohammed’s full report for Niqash here.

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