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What Happened in Tikrit After Victory Over IS?

If there was a single, overriding lesson to crawl out of America’s failure in Iraq War 2.0, it is that destroying a government/leader is the easy part. Replacing what you have destroyed with a functioning government is the key to lasting victory. If you do not, all you get is chaos and, eventually, more conflict. That’s what paved the way for IS into Iraq, and is the real test of “victories” over the Islamic State (IS) such as Tikrit.

The much-hailed victory over IS is seen by many in the west as a model for the eventual defeat of IS throughout Iraq. It may indeed be such a model, but, once again, not the one America thinks it will be.

A Quick Tikrit Primer

The Islamic State occupied and controlled the city of Tikrit from June 2014 until last month. IS is largely a Sunni entity, and was generally welcomed by the majority Sunnis in Tikrit as a bulwark against the Shia forces of the Iraqi government, the Iranian forces on the ground and especially the Shia militias unleashed by both. The United States assisted in the Iranian-led take over of Tikrit in April 2015 in part by providing close air and tactical bombing support to the Iranian and militia forces.

Occupied Tikrit

With the declaration of victory, American forces were distracted by some other shiny object elsewhere in Iraq, and the media which followed the fight as if it was a sporting event, moved on. No one seems to be paying much attention to what is happening in Tikrit now that the shooting has stopped. However, if the Iraqi government fails to secure control of the city in an equitable way that is inclusive of the Sunni residents, and if someone cannot stop the Shia militias from taking bloody revenge on the Sunnis, the schedule ahead will be simply more war.

So let’s visit Tikrit, alongside the one journalist that has bothered to go there.

Revenge and Disarray

A reporter for NIQASH (a network of Iraqi correspondents managed by an international team of editors at Media in Cooperation and Transition, a non-profit media organization based in Berlin, is a generally reliable and non-sectarian news source) had this to say (excerpted) after making his way into Tikrit:

It’s been almost a month since the Islamic State group was expelled from Tikrit. NIQASH went there and found a graffiti-covered ghost town ruled by opposing groups of gunmen, none of whom trust one another.

In Basha Street in the centre of the Iraqi city of Tikrit, there are several buildings that have been completely destroyed. On the walls that remain there is graffiti: “These houses belonged to members of Daash,” the writing says, referring to the extremist group known as the Islamic State by their Arabic acronym. Their destruction was clearly punishment for membership of the extremist group.

One of the houses belonged to Nasser al-Amounah, a well known local and a leading member of the extremist group. His house has been almost completely levelled. Only one wall of the building remains standing and on it is written: “This is the house of the criminal, Nasser al-Amounah”.

As yet there’s no real civilian life here, no schools open, hospitals, courts of justice or police stations active. Residents of the city who fled their homes some time ago – the city was largely empty when the security forces arrived to fight the IS group – remain displaced, in cities around Iraq waiting for an official decision as to whether they should return. In fact, the city is more like a ghost town at the moment, populated only by wraiths from the various kinds of security forces in charge of different areas around the city.

Getting to Tikrit is hardly fun at the moment either. The soldiers deployed along the highways leading from Baghdad to Tikrit look terribly tired and they all seem to be in a bad mood. They certainly don’t trust strangers. They act as though everyone coming through here may as well as be a member of the IS group, until they can prove otherwise.

Once inside Tikrit, it’s not particularly easy to move around. There are three types of security forces inside the city and each controls its own areas. The first and most powerful is composed of members of the unofficial Shiite Muslim militias, composed of volunteers who took up arms to fight the IS group. The second strongest organisation in Tikrit is the official Iraqi army. And the third group here are the local police, who appear to have only limited resources and powers.

It’s difficult to travel around the city, even for members of the different groups. The security forces in charge of one area don’t trust those in charge of the other areas and any movement between neighbourhoods needs to be coordinated by their leaders. In some cases coordination hasn’t happened and threats have been made; there have even been some minor skirmishes apparently.

“Every now and then there are clashes between the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias,” one senior police officer said. “There are conflicts about who is in charge of what. And the army have been ordered by the government to search for vandals and thieves but there are huge problems in completing this mission. We don’t actually know who is in charge of Tikrit.”

As one travels around Tikrit some of the loudest sounds come from the vehicles belonging to the Shiite militias who tour the streets; they have religious songs blaring from their vehicles continuously. You also see other vehicles who distribute food to fighters all over the city; the food is prepared in large pots on makeshift, road side kitchens and the cost of the meals is paid for with donations from Shiite Muslim tribes in southern Iraq. Rumour has it that the Iraqi government hasn’t been able to deliver food to the soldiers and the militias’ fighters in some cases because of corruption.

One of the most famous parts of Tikrit is the area where many palaces are located. As the BBC reports: “Tikrit’s palaces have a somewhat mythical status. The city is widely cited as having the highest number of luxurious palaces built during Saddam’s time”. After passing through various hands – from Hussein to the U.S. military to the Iraqi government and then to the IS group – the palaces have now become a base for the Shiite militias. Nobody can even approach the area without express permission from the militia leaders.

Elsewhere in the city, houses and buildings and even mosque walls are covered in graffiti, often of a religious nature, or praising the heroism of the fighters from the Shiite militias who participated in the fight against the IS group here. They say things like: “The soldiers of Karbala were here”. And: “The heroes of Basra defeated terrorism here”. Some of the slogans have apparently been removed on orders from the Iraqi government because they were written in Persian, a reflection of the Iraqi government’s growing unease at Iranian influence among the Shiite militias.

The former administrators of the city remain in Baghdad or Samarra and they organise anything they need to from there. “The Shiite factions want revenge and they believe that we are traitors,” one of the officials from the provincial administration told NIQASH anonymously.

If civilians do start to return they would not only face threats of vengeance from Shiite militias and even from local police (who were also endangered by the IS fighters in Tikrit) but also from tribal conflicts. There have already been some retaliatory murders apparently – local police acted against residents who had been affiliated with the IS group, who they say were part of IS sleeper cells inside Tikrit even before the city fell to the extremists.

Crossposted at WeMeantWell.com

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.

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