BAGHDAD (AP) — Freedom from the Islamic State group comes at a steep price, as one newly wedded couple recently discovered. Eager to live a normal life, away from the harsh dominion of the militants' self-styled caliphate, the young pair is searching for ways to bypass the extremists' newly-implemented departure taxes and escape the IS-held city of Mosul.
"Do they really want me to give up the house my father spent years building to an Afghani or Chechen or to an Iraqi villager so that I can leave for good? They are dreaming," the 29-year old groom said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Most of his family had already fled last June when a shocking Islamic State blitz overran Mosul, but he stayed behind to protect his family home.
Fearing the city might simply empty of civilians, or that fleeing residents may join the fight against them, the Islamic State extremists are imposing tough measures to prevent people from leaving their territory.
Several residents, who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone on condition of anonymity to ensure their safety, said anyone seeking to leave must submit the title for their family home or car — if the vehicle is worth more than $20,000 — to be granted permission to leave for two weeks. If they fail to return within that period, their property will be confiscated.
Married earlier this year, they are finally ready to leave Mosul but trapped by the tough new restrictions, which were imposed in stages starting last October. The couple, who were engaged before Mosul fell, had dreamed of a lavish wedding with the traditional honking motorcade taking the bride from her father's home to the social hall for a celebration packed with friends and relatives.
"Instead we had a tiny wedding party with only three cars with modest decoration and almost no songs or music and only few relatives attended," said the 22-year old wife. "What bitterness."
The Islamic State group, which now controls about a third of Syria and Iraq, first banned all former police and army officers from leaving, for fear they would join the fight against IS-rule. Then the restrictions were tightened to allow only patients with urgent medical requirements or retirees who need to collect their pensions outside the city. In late February, the requirement for travelers to turn over their home or car title was imposed.
Mosul residents are watching with keen interest the ongoing offensive by the Iraqi army and allied Shiite militiamen to dislodge the Islamic State group from Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) southeast of Mosul. The retaking of Tikrit is seen as a crucial test for the Iraqi troops and a key step toward the ultimate recapture of Mosul.
The Iraqi forces entered Tikrit for the first time on Wednesday, from the north and south, and by Thursday, they were fighting their way through the city, along two fronts, hoping to reach the center within three to four days, according to commanders on the front-lines.
Meanwhile, in Mosul — Iraq's second largest city — many residents feel they have no choice but to endure under Islamic State rule.
"I can't leave here with my family because I have no other source for living," said a Mosul resident and father of four who sells wholesale cosmetics. "Every day when I come back home, I lock the house door on my family."
The restrictions apply only for those wishing to head south into government-held Iraq; residents can still travel to and from Turkey. Those leaving for urgent medical reasons now also have to provide collateral, and can only leave if their claim is approved by a special medical committee made up of IS-loyalist doctors.
One resident told the AP that when doctors in Baghdad changed the date of his surgery, one of his companions had to travel back to Mosul to obtain an extension to his two-week leave or else he would have lost his home.
Unwilling to surrender the deed to the groom's family home, the young Mosul couple found a taxi driver who moonlights as a smuggler sneaking residents out of the city. But the pair, both civil servants, could not meet his $20,000 price tag.
Trapped in their hometown, they are chafing under the Islamic State group's harsh interpretation of Islamic law. The wife has to cover herself from head to toe with an enveloping niqab garment. When out in public together, they constantly have to show proof of their marriage at militant checkpoints.
"I'm fed up, I want to live a normal life with my husband where I can go out with him at any time without worrying about our safety, the marriage documents and even without being annoyed by the niqab when eating at a restaurant," she said.
Both are now looking for a more affordable smuggler, saying the most they can afford is $5,000.
Follow Sinan Salaheddin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sinansm