Thursday, February 11, 2016

Life In Iraq’s Tikrit Returns To Normal

Tikrit was retaken in March of last year. Afterward elements of the Hashd al-Shaabi and the Jabouri tribe burned down and destroyed sections of the city and several surrounding towns in revenge for the Camp Speicher massacre where the Islamic State (IS) killed over 1,000 cadets. Residents of the area were also not allowed to return for months because they were suspected of being IS sympathizers. Now most of the population is back, and life appears to be returning to normal.

National Public Radio (NPR) recently reported on the situation in Tikrit. NPR’s Alice Fordham found the central market open, people shopping, and 70-90% of the original inhabitants back in their homes. The Hashd controlled the presidential palace, but Sunni policemen were in charge of most of the city. Thousands of people have not been able to return to the area however as they have been labeled IS collaborators. Local Shiite tribesmen are also arguing over blood money for family members they lost while the area was under insurgent control. Given what transpired in the district beforehand this was an amazing transformation.

Tikrit was freed from the Islamic State in March 2015 followed by days of looting and destruction of property throughout the district. Three days after the city’s liberation the Salahaddin council called on Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to intervene and stop the burning of homes and stealing. The governor and head of council also protested violations going on in the area. Two security officers told Reuters that homes were being set afire, and the Hashd were behind the attacks on buildings. This was happening not only in Tikrit, but the surrounding towns as well. On April 6, Prime Minister Haidar Abadi said that 152 houses and shops had been destroyed in Tikrit, but didn’t say by who. Even by the end of April, there were still stories of buildings being damaged. A Tikrit municipal worker for example, was quoted in the Financial Times stating that 300 out of 600 structures in the north of the city were wiped out including two mosques. The Tikrit area was the site of the Camp Speicher massacre. IS and members of the Albu Ajeel tribe were blamed for rounding up 1,700 cadets from the base and executing them. When the Tikrit operation was launched many Hashd units said they wanted revenge for that bloodbath. That was why they carried out these acts.

Five months later Human Rights Watch released a report on the destruction of the Tikrit area. It found that Badr, the Ali Akbar Brigades, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, Saraya Khorasan, Jund al-Imam and Sunni volunteers destroyed at least 1,425 buildings in Tikrit, Dour, Albu Ajeel and Alam, 950 of which looked like they were blown up and 400 burned. 200 people were also arrested and 160 were never seen again. This all happened after the district was liberated, and supported the press reports made at the time. Many officials however denied that the Hashd were responsible instead blaming gangs and local tribes. Abu Mahdi Muhandis for example, the deputy commander of the Hashd acknowledged that there were violations going on in Tikrit, but blamed criminal gangs. Adnan Asadi a parliamentarian from State of Law said that elements of the press were carrying out a smear campaign against the Hashd, while a Hashd spokesman blamed Sunni tribes. The Hashd and its supporters obviously did not want to admit to any wrong doings, and neither did the government in the end. While everyone seemed to admit that there was a period of lawlessness after the Tikrit area was freed, the Hashd were never held responsible.

The next phase of the Tikrit story was the decision over who would be allowed to return. The major issue was over IS sympathizers. The Albu Ajeel and Albu Nasr tribes were blamed for not only joining IS, but the former was accused of taking part in the Speicher massacre. The Jabouri tribe, that sided with the government and fought IS, also wanted blood money for its members that were killed in the fighting. Because of their ties, the Jabouris were able to return, mostly to the town of Alam outside of Tikrit early on. By the middle of June, people who had been vetted started heading back to the district. In November the mayor of Tikrit claimed that 90% of the residents were home, and the United Nations reported that Salahaddin had the most returns overall in the country. Even some Albu Ajeel members were allowed to go back as long as they were not deemed pro-insurgent after a reconciliation meeting was held, and the Hashd signed off on it. Some 120,000 people have not been allowed back however. This has happened in other parts of the country as well. Tribes, the Hashd, the Peshmerga, etc. have all blocked people they believe to have joined the insurgents from going back to their homes. The government has tried to mediate some of these disputes, and even offered to pay blood money for dead relatives, but as in the case of Tikit, tens of thousands have still been excluded. They will remain displaced as a result, and have to re-settle in other parts of the country or perhaps try to move to Europe as others are currently attempting.

Tikrit is part success story, part tragedy. The Hashd and fighters from the Jabouri tribe destroyed sections of the city and surrounding towns out of revenge for the Speicher massacre and joining the insurgency. Over 100,000 people have also been kept from their homes because of those same accusations. On the other hand, the majority of the district is now returning to normality. People are back at work and school, and trying to start over. They are trying to think about the future, but the recent past is still in their memories as so much destruction was left in the wake of the Islamic State, and the retaliation that followed its expulsion from the district. The same pattern is being played out in other parts of the country as well, and will likely leave deep scars after the war is long over.


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