Iraq: The Outlaw State

The Corpse Washer

by Sinan Antoon, translated from the Arabic by the author
Yale University Press, 185 pp., $22.00; $13.00 (paper)
An image from Clanking of the Swords IV, a recent film by the Sunni jihadist guerrilla group that now calls itself the State of the Islamic Caliphate, on the border of Iraq and Syria

Show them death and they will accept a fever.
—Iraqi proverb

The title Clanking of the Swords IV brings to mind a cheap costume drama. Yet the horrors depicted in this hour-long film, a recent product of the media arm of a Sunni jihadist guerrilla group that now calls itself the State of the Islamic Caliphate (SIC), are no medieval fantasy. The snuff action is all too real.

As we watch the film, peering along the barrel of a machine gun poking out the rear window of an SUV, it is real live rounds we see spattering into the side of the white BMW we are overtaking, shredding its windows, presumably riddling its passengers with holes, and certainly sending it careening into the ditch beside this bland stretch of Iraqi highway. We accompany an actual hit squad on a nighttime raid to the home of a “collaborator.” We witness them capture, blindfold, and humiliate a portly middle-aged man in a light brown robe. They then cut off his head, an act which requires the knife-wielding killer to jump on the victim and ride him piggy-back, with the cameraman following this ungainly pair as they stagger around the bedroom. The film spares us the final gory moments; we cut to the man’s mustachioed head, successfully detached, parked on the bed.

There are scenes of mass executions: of a row of bound, kneeling men killed with single shots to the back of the head, or of others machine-gunned where they lie, already stretched out in their own shallow graves. Some of this is set in slow motion. In one of the most chilling sequences we follow another team of killers manning a false roadblock. They are in full US-style combat gear, mimicking a crack unit of the Iraqi army. Cars are pulled over, their occupants’ names checked against a database on a laptop computer. Some are then waved on. Other drivers, not so lucky, are politely asked to get out of their cars for a further check. With the camera following they are led into a field next to the roadside and shot dead.

The State of the Islamic Caliphate was known until June as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). It has gained notoriety not only as a particularly ruthless and efficient operator among Iraq’s motley militias, a reputation it has extended to Syria since intruding into the neighboring country’s civil war in 2012. It is also the most media-savvy power in either theater. Advertisements such as the Clanking of the Swords series have helped it recruit an unmatched number of jihadist wannabes from around the world. Unlike the others, too, SIC’s ambition…

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