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The Fragile Peace Of An Iraqi City Once Run By ISIS

Jan 29, 2016
Originally published on February 1, 2016 12:40 pm

Nine months ago, the only way into Tikrit was to roll along dirt roads recently cleared of ISIS explosives. You also had to avoid celebratory gunfire as Iraqi security forces and their allies wildly announced their victory over the extremist group.

The city, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, was deserted at the time. After months of ISIS occupation followed by heavy fighting, houses were shattered, public buildings were burned and there was no electricity or water.

Informal Shiite forces, who had fought alongside the Iraqi army, hoisted their flags in the city center, just a smidgen higher than the Iraqi flag. It was an open question whether Sunni Muslims, who accounted for the vast majority of the city's population, would be willing or able to come home.

In several places in Iraq, Shiite forces known as the Popular Mobilization had helped oust the Sunni fighters of ISIS. And in each place there were reports of mass destruction, and of Shiite fighters preventing Sunnis from returning to their homes.

But on a recent visit, it seemed Tikrit had confounded expectations.

The city center is bustling with life. A central market is full of food and clothes, with families shopping busily. The signs of war are everywhere – one shop had a row of shirts hanging up from a charred beam. Residents say there's now some electricity and water, some schools are open and the security is, by Iraqi standards, decent.

"As long as the Iraqi security forces are here, I feel safe," says Masoud al-Hamoud, a pharmacist whose shelves were neatly stacked with perfumes and soaps.

The flags of the Shiite groups, with their red, yellow and green symbols and slogans, are still all over the city, though. And the Shiite forces still control a huge palace compound that dates to Saddam Hussein's time. The former Iraqi dictator was from Tikrit and bestowed favors on his city before he was ousted in 2003.

Sunni-Shiite Cooperation

Sheikh Jassim al-Jabara, the head of the provincial council's security committee, is Sunni. Like many Sunnis in Iraq, he fought against the Sunni extremists of ISIS and he says he was glad to have the help of the Shiite fighters of the Popular Mobilization, a movement that began in 2014 as a volunteer force when Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for resistance against ISIS.

"There are many people living in Tikrit now," Jabara says proudly, "and life is better than it was before ISIS came."

Estimates on the number of returnees vary from about 70 percent to as much as 90 percent of Tikrit's inhabitants, who numbered more than 200,000 before the fighting began.

Jabara says the Shiite forces have helped bolster local Sunni forces that now number in the thousands. The presence of this Sunni force is designed to reassure people that they won't be targeted for their sect. And, he says, "of course, [the Shiite forces] won't be here forever."

He acknowledges there have been a few problems with the Shiite forces, but says they are relatively rare. "You can count them on your fingers," he says.

After the city was retaken, rights groups and residents accused some of the Shiite groups of abducting young men and looting houses.

Signs Of Friction

Off the record, several residents and provincial officials say there are occasional instances of kidnapping and theft. Some people suspected of collaborating with ISIS while the group occupied Tikrit, or having family members who did, aren't allowed back to their homes.

There are other worrying signs that the reconciliation between Iraq's Sunni minority and Shiite majority remains elusive.

In Salahaddin, the province of which Tikrit is the capital, officials say there are about 120,000 Sunnis not allowed back to the Shiite areas where their homes are. There's an elaborate, though not yet complete plan for tribal compensation to those who lost families and property when ISIS was in control. However, it would only benefit Shiite tribes, although many Sunnis were targeted by ISIS too.

Moeen al-Kadhimi, a leader of the Badr organization, one of the largest of the Shiite Popular Mobilization forces, said his men are needed in Tikrit. He said their role is not just to retake cities from ISIS, but to hold them too. Iraqi government reports found the weakness of the Iraqi army was in large part responsible for the huge gains ISIS made in 2014.

"The Iraqi army cannot hold the ground," Kadhimi said in an interview in Baghdad. "We are afraid that if we leave, the army might retreat as they have before, and ISIS could come back."

He added that the presidential compound in Tikrit was used as a mass grave for some of more than 1,500 military cadets killed by ISIS at the Speicher Air Base in June 2014. A survivor of that event previously told NPR that some local people participated in the killing, and that only Shiites were killed. The event is seared into the memory of Iraq's Shiites.

"We need to protect the site as a crime scene investigation," said Kadhimi. "Because of the size of the tragedy, we will not let it go."

The U.S. has condemned several of the Shiite groups. Some, like Kataib Hezbollah, are even classified as terrorists. They are backed by Iran.

The head of the provincial council of Salahaddin, Ahmed al Kareem, a Sunni, is pragmatic, rather than thrilled, about the presence of Shiite fighters in Tikrit. He says they were needed to get rid of ISIS. He even suggests that if the U.S. didn't want the Iranian-backed forces to gain ground, there should have been stronger American involvement in the fight against ISIS.

"The coalition forces were not serious in helping us liberate our cities," he said. "So it opened the gap for Iranian interference in Iraq."

When he sees advisers from Iran on the battlefield, he shakes their hands, because they're fighting against ISIS and that means his people can go home.

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Let's turn now to something else on voters' minds - the fight against terrorism. In Iraq, the war against ISIS appears to be gaining momentum. Pro-government forces supported by U.S. airstrikes have taken back several cities. Most of those places are ruined and deserted, but Tikrit is different. The residents have returned to this strategically important city just 80 miles north of Baghdad. NPR's Alice Fordham found life slowly coming back there, but with some tensions between the people and their liberators.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Nine months ago, Tikrit was full of fighters celebrating kicking ISIS out. There wasn't a civilian in sight, but now the main market is bustling with shoppers. A pharmacist, Masoud al Hamoud, tells me he came back right after ISIS were gone and started fixing up his shop.

MASOUD AL HAMOUD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "When the security forces are around, I don't feel afraid," he says. Around Tikrit, there's plenty of signs people are settling back in. We drive past construction workers starting new buildings among the houses destroyed by fighting. Electricity and water are back on most of the time. On the surface, things are moving forward. But there's something not quite right. Although most everyone in Tikrit is Sunni Muslim, there's flags everywhere with Shiite slogans and symbols on them. When Iraq security forces pushed ISIS out of Tikrit, they got a lot of help from informal Shiite armed groups. Plenty of Sunnis say they needed that help. At a house with fountains plashing outside, I meet a Sunni leader, sheikh Jassim Jubarah, who's also the head of the local security committee.

JASSIM JUBARAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: His other houses were blown up by ISIS. Now, ISIS is Sunni, but lots of Sunnis in Iraq like Jubarah fight against them, and he says he was happy to have help from the Shiite forces.

JUBARAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: In fact, the Shiites helped organize Sunni tribal volunteers to hold the city. But some of these Shiite groups are accused of abuses against Sunnis, and many Sunnis fear them. When my recorder switched off, some tell me the Shiite forces are definitely in charge here. And sometimes they steal cars or kidnap people for ransom. The longer they stay, the more resentment among Sunnis could build, the kind of resentment that can make ISIS seem like an appealing option.

JUBARAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: The Sunni Sheikh Jubarah acknowledges the tension, but says the Shiite forces won't be here forever. But they are going to be around for a while. I meet Moin Kadhimi, a leader of one of the biggest Shiite paramilitary forces. He says that as long as the Iraqi army is weak, his men will be needed against ISIS, or Daesh as it is in Arabic.

MOIN KADHIMI: (Through interpreter) Iraqi army cannot hold the ground and we are afraid maybe if we going to leave the army maybe they will retreat back as happened before and Daesh will come back.

FORDHAM: The U.S. has condemned several of the Shiite groups. Some are even classified as terrorists, and they're backed by Iran. The head of the provincial council for Tikrit, Ahmed al Kareem, tells me, well, if the U.S. had done more to fight ISIS, the Shiite fighters wouldn't have played such a big role.

AHMED AL KAREEM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: For now, when he sees the fighters and even their Iranian advisers, he shakes their hands because they're helping keep ISIS out of his city. And that makes it possible for his people to come home. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Tikrit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.