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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Amid distrust, life returns slowly to Tikrit after ISIL

In the aftermath of the hard-won victory as Shiite militia drove out ISIL, Tikrit remained desolate – a symbol of the sectarian tensions that allowed for the rise of ISIL, writes Florian Neuhof
A displaced family returns to their home in Tikrit in June 2015, two months after Saddam Hussein’s hometown was taken back from ISIL. Hadi Mizban/AP Photo
A displaced family returns to their home in Tikrit in June 2015, two months after Saddam Hussein’s hometown was taken back from ISIL. Hadi Mizban/AP Photo

ERBIL // Residents are trickling back into Tikrit, their return offering hope that Iraq’s deep sectarian divisions can be bridged in the fight against the ISIL.

Shiite militia played a leading role in pushing ISIL out of Tirkrit in April, dealing the extremist group its first major setback in Iraq since it seized vast areas of the country last year.

The hard-won victory in the predominantly Sunni city was followed by widespread looting and destruction by fighters from the Shiite groups, which largely make up the pro-government militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Units, or Hashed Al Shaabi.

In the aftermath of the battle, Tikrit remained desolate, a symbol of the sectarian tensions that allowed for the rise of ISIL, which follows an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam.

But over the past two weeks the militias have largely withdrawn from the city at the request of the government, encouraging its inhabitants to return.

“We demanded that [the Hashed] are taken out of the city. The government pressured them to leave, and most did. There is still a small amount of them in the city, but they are more disciplined than during the battle for Tikrit,” said Jassim Mohammed, vice president of Salahuddin’s provincial council.

There have been few reports of looting since, and about 2,000 families had returned by the middle of last week, according to Mr Mohammed.

The UN estimated that the remaining 28,000 inhabitants fled the fighting in March and April, joining those who had already left the city of 150,000 after ISIL took over last year.

Tikrit remains littered with explosive devices left behind by the retreating insurgents, and water and electricity supply is intermittent.

Security has largely been handed over to the local police, who exist uneasily with the remaining militia.

The Hashed say that much has been done to improve discipline among their fighters. A military police has been created, and men suspected of breaking the law have been arrested, said Kareem Nori, a spokesman for the Badr Brigades, one of the groups under the Hashed umbrella.

“We have even arrested high-ranking officers who are now under investigation,” said Mr Nori.

The recent repopulation of Tikrit and the restraint shown by the Hashed, who in theory take orders from the government but in reality largely act independently, is an indication that Baghdad is responding to international concern over the Shiite militias.

While much of the support for the Hashed comes from Iran, the Iraqi security forces continues to receive military aid from the United States, which earlier this month announced it would expand its presence in the country.

A central plank of the US strategy is to include the Sunni minority in new military units it is training at several bases across Iraq.

Without the tacit support of the population, the largely Shiite Hashed and Iraqi army will struggle to advance further into the so-called Sunni triangle, the densely populated area to the north-west of Baghdad.

Yet mistrust of the Hashed remains strong among Sunnis, and many residents of Tikrit continue to shun the city.

“I haven’t returned because there is a sectarian militia in the city, supported by people who don’t want Iraqis to live together peacefully,” said Rodhan Al Shaher, who fled Tikrit last year when ISIL took over.

Mr Al Shaher took refuge in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region that has taken in a million Iraqis displaced by ISIL. Without the international community monitoring the situation on the ground, he will not go back.

“ISIL said we are traitors because we are with the government. The Hashed said that because we are Sunnis, we are obviously with Daesh. We are between the hammer and the anvil,” he said.

Mr Al Shaher’s pessimism shows the government is a long way from winning the propaganda war against ISIL, and bringing back the residents of Tikrit may not be enough to secure widespread Sunni support.

“I don’t think it will be a tipping point for a Sunni pushback against ISIL, because Baghdad’s messaging strategy and communications have not been effective in comparison with ISIL’s use of media and broadcasting,” said Aymenn Al Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, a US think tank.

Nor has the militia pullback from Tikrit resolved all grievances in Salahuddin.

Mr Mohammed said about 700 people from the province have been detained by the Hashed on suspicion of having joined ISIL. Little is known of their fate, and he thinks it is possible they have been killed.

“The cheapest thing we have in Iraq is blood,” he said.

Not everyone has been allowed to return to their homes in Salahuddin, Mr Nori admitted. He cited the Abu Ajeel and Al Bu Nasr tribes, many of whose members joined ISIL. Some of them allegedly took part in the massacre last year of 1,700 Iraqi recruits at Camp Speicher, the former US army base near Tikrit.

The Badr spokesman said the Hashed were mediating an agreement on the compensation the Abu Ajeel and the Al Bu Nasr would pay neighbouring tribes for death and destruction caused by its members. Once the blood money has been paid, the tribes will be able to return, according to Mr Nori.

The provincial government is contributing towards these payments to help resolve tribal tensions.

“For most problems, money is the solution,” said Mr Mohammed.

But in present day Iraq, goodwill gestures and ancient tribal customs may not be enough to rid the country of ISIL’s modern brand of extremism.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae