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Al-Qaida's grip transforms, terrorizes eastern Syrian city

| Friday, March 7, 2014, 7:12 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOTS Debris cover a street and flames rise from a building following a reported air strike by Syrian government forces on March 7, 2014 during the Friday prayer in the Sukkari neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo. More than 140,000 people have been killed in Syria since the start of a March 2011 uprising against the Assad family's 40-year rule. AFP PHOTO / BARAA AL-HALABIBARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images

BEIRUT — Once a vibrant, religiously mixed community, Syria's eastern city of Raqqa is now a shell of its former self, terrorized by hard-line militants who have turned it into the nucleus of their vision for the Islamic caliphate they hope one day to establish in Syria and Iraq.

In rare interviews, residents and activists in Raqqa describe a city where fear prevails. Music has been banned, Christians have to pay an Islamic tax for protection, people are executed in the main square and face-veiled women and pistol-wielding foreigners in Afghan-style outfits patrol the streets enforcing Shariah restrictions.

Raqqa, on the banks of the Euphrates River, is now the only city in Syria fully under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaida breakaway group that is considered the most ferocious of the militant factions that have latched onto the revolt against President Bashar Assad's rule. Black Islamic banners flutter on street corners and atop buildings — including churches — as the extremists put their strict Islamic stamp on the city.

“They have taken us back to medieval times,” said one resident. He and three other residents — all in the city except one who recently fled to Turkey — spoke to the AP by Skype on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by militants.

It was exactly a year ago that an alliance of Islamic brigades and other rebel groups swept into the city, cheering as they brought down the bronze statue of the late President Hafez Assad. Others tore down a huge portrait of his son Bashar, the current president, hitting it with shoes in euphoric scenes captured by activists and posted online.

Raqqa, a city of 500,000, became the first and only provincial capital to fall into rebel hands, drawing comparisons to Benghazi, the first major city in Libya to revolt against Moammar Gadhafi and become a rebel stronghold. The city had been considered a bastion of support for Assad, with its tribal leaders firmly in his camp. Residents were wary about the takeover, some happy to be free of Assad's control, but many worried about how rebels would rule.

Now residents and anti-government activists say Raqqa has come to symbolize everything that has gone wrong with the revolution meant to achieve freedom and democracy after rule by the Assad family.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known by its acronym ISIL, was formed last spring by the head of al-Qaida's branch in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to expand his operations into neighboring Syria. His barging into the Syria conflict sparked clashes with other rebel factions and prompted al-Qaida's central command to kick him out of the terror network.

Flush with cash, weapons and experience, the group has capitalized on the weaknesses and divisions of the Western-backed opposition, and the world's failure to take decisive action to help the rebels.

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