NINEVEH PROVINCE, IRAQ —
More than two and a half years ago, IS militants captured the Iraqi village of Bashmana, saying they were "liberating" the population from the government, before destroying lives and livelihoods.
About two months ago, Iraqi forces, including Shia militias, known here as Hashd Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization forces, recaptured the village and it is now slowly coming back to life.
On the other side of Mosul, the epicenter of the battle to retake Iraq from Islamic State militants, Iraqi forces are moving deeper into the city. But here in the western deserts, battles continue in the countryside as forces close in on Tal Afar, a strategic city between Mosul and the Syrian border where IS is expected to launch a bitter defense.
Hashd Shaabi soldiers say operations are slowing as winter sets in and increasing numbers of civilians are being held as human shields. Retaking Tal Afar, they add, could be a long and arduous struggle.
"We must liberate Mosul and Tal Afar soon, but the goal for Iraqi forces is not to just liberate the place from IS militants," said Sheikh Kareem al-Kharkani, a Hashd Shaabi brigade commander. "The goal is to free the people from IS militants and bring the area back to life again. Right now, there are many civilians in Tal Afar."
When the Hashd Shaabi arrived in Bashmana, villagers say, the tiny Sunni Muslim community was terrified that sectarian violence would ensue. Militants and other reports said Shia militias were responsible for murders and rapes against Sunni people as they captured IS-held territories.
But in Bashmana and other villages in this region, locals call Hashd Shaabi "liberators."
"IS militants made us afraid of Hashd Shaabi," explained Sheikh Mohammad Abu Omar, a local leader in the village of Bashmana. "Even the media made us afraid. But after the liberation, we saw the opposite of what we had heard."
Soldiers say Hashd Shaabi has captured at least 80 villages from IS, but the most difficult battle lies ahead.
And as winter weather sets in, both sides have slowed down; but IS militants continue to launch attacks.
Civilians, soldiers say, are increasingly the greatest challenge for Iraqi forces as more and more ordinary people are forced to retreat to protect militants who, soldiers say, would often rather die than surrender.