BAGHDAD — When Umm Ahmed returned to her Iraqi hometown, Tikrit, in recent days she found a city devastated by fighting with militants from the Islamic State: buildings burned, shops looted, schools shuttered and hospitals inoperable.
Still, it was home, and it was good to be back.
“Today, I am in the middle of Tikrit,” Umm Ahmed, 39, said last week, preferring to be identified by her honorific. “I never believed I would go back home. I am so happy and I cannot describe my feelings, and my tears of joy haven’t stopped, because of my return home.”
More than two months ago, the Islamic State was driven from Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein and the largest city the terrorist group has lost in either Iraq or Syria. It was defeated by a combination of American airstrikes, Iraqi forces and Shiite militias, some led by Iran.
Graphic | ISIS Loses Key Town at Syrian Border Tal Abyad, a Syrian town on the border with Turkey, is under siege.
Displaced families began returning last week in a crucial test of the Shiite-dominated central government’s ability to stabilize newly liberated Sunni Arab areas without aggravating sectarian tensions that the Islamic State was able to exploit last year when it seized territories across the north and west of Iraq.
Baghdad, so far at least, has passed that test, providing a small glimmer of sectarian reconciliation that could provide a template for stabilizing other cities, such as Mosul, if the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, can be driven out of there.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi came to power pledging to mend the sectarian fissures that were opened under his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. The reluctance of alienated Sunni soldiers to fight on behalf of the Shiite government has been cited as a major reason the Islamic State has so easily conquered large cities in Sunni areas of the country, most recently Ramadi.
Rebuilding Sunni Arabs’ trust in the central government will not be done overnight or in any grand gesture, analysts say. It will be achieved in small steps, like the peaceful resettlement of Sunni families of Tikrit — themselves only a tiny sliver of the nearly three million Iraqis who have been chased from their homes by fighting with the Islamic State, according to the United Nations.
The first families to return last week, from Kurdish areas in the north and near Kirkuk, rode in on buses escorted by Shiite militias. That, itself, was significant, as many residents had well-founded fears of becoming the victims of revenge killings by militias that suspected them of supporting the Islamic State.
The government has opened bakeries and shops in Tikrit and provided residents with six months worth of provisions, such as rice and cooking oil. Crucially, local Sunni forces — former police officers and Sunnis who joined militias — are providing security within the city.
Helping residents return to their homes, providing food and restoring essential services to devastated areas like Tikrit, analysts say, is equally important to the long-term stability of Iraq as military operations to confront the Islamic State.
“It’s definitely a positive development,” said Zaid al-Ali, an Iraqi analyst who has been in contact with Tikrit residents. “The larger perspective is it’s good for sectarian relations in Iraq. Sunnis are able to go home; Sunnis who were once accused of supporting Daesh,” he continued, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Mr. Ali, an analyst and author of “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future,” an indictment of Iraq after the American withdrawal, said that how Baghdad handled Sunnis displaced by the Islamic State was vitally important to the broader strategy of defeating the militant group.
So far, he said, the return of residents to Tikrit is “a big blow to ISIS’ narrative that they defend Sunnis from Baghdad.” If the repopulation of Tikrit goes well, he said, it could turn local populations against the Islamic State in places like Mosul, to the north, and Anbar Province, to the west, where the group is entrenched and enjoys some support from locals. That could prove decisive in any future military action against the Islamic State in those areas.
“A successful return of residents and restoration of services could represent a turning point in the fight against IS nationwide,” Kirk Sowell, the publisher of the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics, wrote this week of Tikrit. It would, however, “require careful cooperation between Shia militias and Baghdad-allied Sunni tribes.”
In March, when Shiite militias began to liberate Tikrit, many feared a sectarian blood bath to avenge the slaughter last summer of nearly 1,700 Shiite military personnel who had been stationed in nearby Camp Speicher, the greatest single atrocity committed by the Islamic State.
Those fears were largely unfounded, partly because the Shiite militias have become more professional since 2006 and 2007, when they were blamed for sectarian atrocities. Nowadays, they are seen as protectors of Iraq, and they enjoy widespread popularity among the Shiite public. Militia leaders, meanwhile, have urged restraint on their fighters because they hope to transform the militias’ newfound popularity into political power if the Islamic State can be defeated.
While there was extensive looting in Tikrit, there were no mass revenge killings. Bad behavior by the Shiite militias was, according to Mr. Ali, “nowhere near to the extent that had been expected.”
Still, while the resettling of the first batch of families has gone reasonably well, challenges remain. Only about 1,000 families, a small portion of Tikrit’s city’s population, have returned so far, according to a local official.
Electricity in Tikrit is still scarce; generators are running, but the city has not been reconnected to the national grid. And the central government, facing a severe budget crisis because of the decline in the price of oil and the cost of the war against the Islamic State, is too short of cash to fund any major reconstruction.
Fears about sectarian violence have given way to worries about conflicts between pro-government tribes and tribes perceived to have been supporters of the Islamic State.
Recently tribal leaders in the area, along with a representative from the Shiite religious establishment in Najaf, held a meeting on tribal reconciliation. Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr Organization, a longstanding Shiite militia that is supported by Iran, also met with the local tribes.
“It was a very fruitful meeting,” said Sheikh Kareem al-Nida, a leader of the Albu Ajeel tribe, some of whose members are believed to have supported the Islamic State. “All the tribes agreed to hand over all ISIS collaborators from our tribes.”
Then there is the residue of resentment among residents who say they waited too long to be afforded the right to return. For more than two months they waited in refugee settlements, they said, without word from the government on what their future would be.
They heard rumors that the militias had destroyed their homes, or that they would be forever banished from their hometown and that the families of Camp Speicher victims would be resettled there.
Many were still fearful to return, saying they were worried about being falsely accused of supporting the Islamic State. At checkpoints at the entrance to Tikrit militiamen check names against a computer database filled with a list of supposed Islamic State collaborators.
“There are no guarantees to protect me and my family,” said Mohammed Sultan, a Tikrit resident who fled to the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq. “The road to Tikrit is filled with security computers looking for the wanted. I don’t know if my name is listed. I’m afraid I will be arrested for no reason.”
Others who had returned said their worst fears had not materialized.
“There had been concerns about returning to Tikrit,” said Ayad al-Hani, who left Tikrit last year and returned last week. “Especially after the allegations of destroying, burning and the violations by a few bad fighters. But the picture is different now.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I was getting closer to Tikrit,” he added. “I thought it was a dream.”
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(via NY Times)