Af­ter chas­ing out the Is­lamic State, Iraq labors to re­pop­u­late Tikrit

Tribal feuds, se­cu­rity fears and sec­tar­ian dis­trust

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY LOVE­DAY MOR­RIS IN TIKRIT, IRAQ love­day.mor­ris@wash­post.com Mustafa Salim con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Snaking past black­ened shop fronts and shat­tered homes, buses fer­ried the first civil­ian res­i­dents back to Tikrit this past week, an ini­tial step to­ward re­viv­ing the city af­ter Is­lamic State mil­i­tants were ex­pelled more than two months ago.

Chil­dren pressed their faces to the bus win­dows as the 200 fam­i­lies re­turned. Po­lice and mili­ti­a­men in the city cel­e­brated by fir­ing bursts of bul­lets into the air.

The en­tire pop­u­la­tion of Tikrit, about 150,000 peo­ple, had been forced out by the war, join­ing about 3 mil­lion Iraqis dis­placed by fight­ing across the coun­try. Re­turn­ing peo­ple to their homes as ter­ri­tory is won back from Is­lamic State mil­i­tants is a huge chal­lenge for the Iraqi gov­ern­ment, and one fraught with sen­si­tiv­i­ties.

Whether the ef­fort suc­ceeds could de­ter­mine whether the coun­try can re­cover its unity af­ter a war that has di­vided the coun­try.

Hur­dles such as tribal feud­ing, se­cu­rity and the restora­tion of ser­vices face the gov­ern­ment as it tries to re­set­tle res­i­dents. Per­haps most sig­nif­i­cantly, re­turn­ing Sun­nis are viewed with sus­pi­cion by Shi­ite mili­tia groups who have driven out the Is­lamic State, rais­ing fears of sec­tar­ian blood­let­ting.

“It’s very sad to see wide ar­eas empty, towns empty, vil­lages empty, farms empty,” said Hisham al-Suhail, head of the Iraqi par­lia­ment’s rec­on­cil­i­a­tion com­mit­tee. “Now we are mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

The bat­tle for Salahud­din province and Tikrit, its cap­i­tal, ear­lier this year marked the gov­ern­ment’s big­gest vic­tory against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and the first time it re­took a ma­jor pop­u­la­tion cen­ter.

Those re­turn­ing to Tikrit in re­cent days found a city nearly de­void of ser­vices. Its main hos­pi­tal has been de­stroyed, and wa­ter and power have not been fully re­stored. The city was rav­aged by fight­ing and then was looted by Shi­ite mili­ti­a­men. Un­ex­ploded ord­nance is still a risk, and am­bu­lances were parked on the city’s streets Mon­day as the first buses ar­rived.

“We’ve told fam­i­lies not to all go into their homes at the same time, just one at a time,” in case there are ex­plo­sives, said Ahmed al-Karim, the head of the gov­ern­ing coun­cil for Salahud­din province.

A ma­jor worry is the role that will be played by Shi­ite mili­tias that helped ex­pel the Is­lamic State from the city. Some Shi­ite fight­ers have sus­pected that Sunni res­i­dents sup­ported the ex­trem­ist group, which pro­claimed it­self cham­pion of the Sun­nis.

“It’s a big con­cern to us with the re­turn of the fam­i­lies. We are con­cerned about acts of re­venge, es­pe­cially in Tikrit, be­cause of the Spe­icher mas­sacre,” said Raed al-Jab­bouri, the pro­vin­cial gover­nor. He was re­fer­ring to the bru­tal ex­e­cu­tion a year ago of an es­ti­mated 1,700 sol­diers in the city by the Is­lamic State. Pic­tures of the mas­sacre— taken from video that the Is­lamic State re­leased — have been put up on the city’s main streets.

The city’s lib­er­a­tion was fol­lowed by wide­spread loot­ing, and some 400 houses were de­stroyed, Jab­bouri said.

Shops that were un­scathed the day af­ter the city was re­taken by pro-gov­ern­ment forces are now scorched.

How­ever, Shi­ite mili­ti­a­men ap­peared to have largely with­drawn by the time fam­i­lies re­turned, in ac­cor­dance with a gov­ern­ment or­der. Lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cers and mili­ti­a­men from the city are keep­ing or­der.

Asil Hamid, 23, who re­turned with her hus­band and three chil­dren, found her par­ents’ house black­ened by fire. A fam­ily friend in the lo­cal po­lice force said it had been in good shape when he had checked it 10 days ear­lier. She broke down as she left the acrid smelling build­ing.

Sus­pi­cion and re­sent­ment

Mean­while, in the coun­try­side of Salahud­din province, tribal feud­ing has com­pli­cated the re­turn of civil­ians to some ar­eas.

“It’s not just Sunni, Shia, Kurd, as peo­ple like to think. It’s Sunni on Sunni, tribe on tribe — such a kaleidoscope,” said a U.S. of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the sub­ject.

Sunni and Shi­ite tribes that fought along­side gov­ern­ment forces have ob­jected to the re­turn of mem­bers of other tribes who sided with the Is­lamic State be­fore the ex­trem­ists were ousted.

On the out­skirts of Tikrit, vil­lage af­ter vil­lage lies de­serted, aside from oc­ca­sional mili­tia out­posts. Bombed-out garages and restau­rants mark the land­scape.

In Alam, about six miles north­east of Tikrit, fam­i­lies have been al­lowed to re­turn since the vil­lage was cleared of mil­i­tants in March. The Sunni tribe there had fought along­side gov­ern­ment forces. But the nearby vil- lages of Dawr and Abu Ajeel, where many vil­lagers sup­ported the Is­lamic State, re­main empty.

Af­ter months of ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the tribes, there is now an agree­ment that fam­i­lies from those two vil­lages who did not co­op­er­ate with the Is­lamic State should be al­lowed to re­turn. But emo­tions run high.

The bod­ies of 13 Alam res­i­dents pub­licly ex­e­cuted by the Is­lamic State were found in Abu Ajeel af­ter it was re­taken from the mil­i­tants.

“There is a lot of ten­sion, and we re­ceive many, many de­mands, es­pe­cially from the young peo­ple, not to al­low [lo­cal res­i­dents] to re­turn be­cause they’ve killed so many peo­ple,” said Mar­wan al-Jab­bara, head of Salahud­din’s tribal coun­cil. “But we can’t just ban­ish a whole tribe. We have to re­turn the in­no­cents.”

The near­est pop­u­lated area to Alam that is not oc­cu­pied by the Is­lamic State is the city of Sa­marra, about 35 miles away. There are vast stretches of ter­ri­tory in be­tween that have been lib­er­ated but re­main empty. “It’s lonely here,” Jab­bara said.

Blood money

In Yathrab, a lush agri­cul­tural area of vine­yards and sun­flower fields far­ther south, ne­go­ti­a­tions have been par­tic­u­larly knotty. Here, the dom­i­nant tribe com­prises both Shi­ites and Sun­nis. The Shi­ite mem­bers had de­manded blood money from the Sunni side in or­der for fam­i­lies to re­turn. About 60,000 mostly Sunni fam­i­lies are still dis­placed from the town.

“It’s tribal law, tra­di­tion,” said Yousif Mo­hammed al-Tamimi, who is ne­go­ti­at­ing for the Shi­ite fac­tion of the tribe. “If mem­bers of any tribe kill some­one from another, they should pay money or there will be ret­ri­bu­tion.”

The gov­ern­ment has stepped in and agreed to pay about $20,000 for each vic­tim, Tamimi and other of­fi­cials said. But with sim­i­lar pay­ments needed to set­tle dis­putes across the coun­try, the fi­nan­cial bur­den is huge, said Suhail, the mem­ber of par­lia­ment.

“The prob­lem in­creases ev­ery time we lib­er­ate an area,” Suhail said. “The ter­ror­ists are de­stroy­ing and de­stroy­ing, and we have to mend our com­mu­ni­ties.”

Those who have “blood on their hands” or who co­op­er­ated with Is­lamic State mil­i­tants will never be al­lowed back, he said.

But even with tribal lead­ers mov­ing to­ward rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, many or­di­nary peo­ple say they are not close to for­giv­ing. As part of the Yathrab ne­go­ti­a­tions, the ham­let of Fadous is seek­ing blood money for 18 vil­lagers killed in a Septem­ber at­tack.

Even if repa­ra­tions are paid, they say, they want a buf­fer zone be­tween mem­bers of the Shi­ite branch of the tribe and the Sunni branch, who they ac­cuse of sid­ing with the Is­lamic State.

Zaina Fares Aswad said she lost eight mem­bers of her ex­tended fam­ily in that at­tack, in­clud­ing her 17-year-old son.

If the Sunni tribal mem­bers re­turn, she said, “I’ll be­head them my­self.”

PHOTOS BY AY­MAN OGHANNA FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

TOP: Zaina Fares Aswad says she lost eight mem­bers of her ex­tended fam­ily, in­clud­ing her 17-year-old son, in an at­tack that killed 18 in a re­gion where tribal feud­ing has com­pli­cated the re­turn of civil­ians. Sun­nis are viewed with sus­pi­cion by Shi­ite mili­tia groups who have driven out the Is­lamic State, rais­ing fears of sec­tar­ian blood­let­ting. CEN­TER: Res­i­dents re­turn to Tikrit, where wa­ter and power have not been fully re­stored. The city’s en­tire pop­u­la­tion, about 150,000 peo­ple, was forced out by the war. ABOVE: A child whose brother was killed by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants sleeps in the vil­lage of Fadous.

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