Tikrit After ISIS: A Ghost Town Ruled by Gunmen

The extremists were forced out, but the people have not come back. Now Shia militias, government soldiers have carved up the city.

Haidar Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty

By Mustafa Habib

TIKRIT, Iraq—It’s been a month since the fighters from the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, were expelled from Tikrit. We 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 center of town, there are several buildings that have been completely destroyed. On the walls that remain there is graffiti: “These houses belonged to members of Daaesh,” the writing says, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. Their destruction was clearly punishment for membership of the extremist group.

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

A combination of pro-government forces expelled ISIS from Tikrit in early April. But as yet there’s no real civilian life here, no schools are open, now hospitals, courts of justice or police stations are active. Residents of the city who fled their homes some time ago—the city was largely empty when the security forces arrived to fight ISIS—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 problematic at the moment. The soldiers deployed along the highway leading up from Baghdad 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 ISIS, until they can prove otherwise.

Once inside Tikrit, moving around is tricky. 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 ISIS. Those most obvious here are Hezbollah in Iraq, the League of the Righteous (or Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Arabic) and the Najbaa brigades.

The second strongest organization in Tikrit is the official Iraqi army, including counter-terrorism units and special forces. And the third group here are is the local police, who appear to have only limited resources and powers.

We were asked not to report which areas are under control of which groups for security reasons.

Additionally, all of the forces present in Tikrit are not happy to let those they consider “strangers” take pictures in the areas they supervise. After journalists reported on some members of the Shiite militias who burned and looted property and exacted their revenge on locals they thought were ISIS members, the militia men do not trust journalists. However, both the Shiite militias and the soldiers were happy to give visitors pictures they had taken themselves.

The security forces in charge of one area don’t trust those in charge of the other areas and any movement between neighborhoods needs to be coordinated by their leaders. In some cases coordination hasn’t happened and threats have been made; people here say there have even been some minor skirmishes.

“Every now and then there are clashes between the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias,” one senior police officer told us, on condition of anonymity. “There are conflicts about who is in charge of what. And the army has been ordered by the government to search for vandals and thieves, but there are huge problems in completing this mission.”

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“We don’t actually know who is in charge of Tikrit,” he complained. “None of the different forces—the army regiments or the Shiite militias—respect one another’s decisions. Trying to coordinate with these different groups is also very complicated.”

As one travels around Tikrit, some of the loudest sounds come from the vehicles belonging to the Shiite militias; they have religious songs blaring from their vehicles continuously as they tour the streets. You also see other vehicles that distribute food to fighters all over the city; the food is prepared in large pots at makeshift roadside kitchens and the cost of the meals is paid for with donations from Shiite Muslim tribes in southern Iraq.

Rumor 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. Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was from Tikrit, and during his reign, anywhere between 60 and 100 palaces were built here.

After passing through various hands—from Hussein to the U.S. military to the Iraqi government and then to ISIS—the palaces have now become a base for the Shiite militias. Nobody can even approach the area without express permission from the militia leaders. One of the palaces is thought to be the site of one of a heinous massacre carried out by ISIS, where it killed around 1,000 young soldiers. There are excavations going on in the palace gardens to find corpses.

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 ISIS. They say things like: “The soldiers of Karbala were here,” and, “The heroes of Basra defeated terrorism here.”

Some of the slogans have been removed on orders from the Iraqi government, we were told, because they were written in Persian, a reflection of the Iraqi government’s growing unease at Iranian influence among the Shiite militias.

In the western part of the city, a former police headquarters has become a central point for all of the forces here. There are military and police vehicles parked outside as well as unmarked cars and trucks used by the Shiite Muslim militias. Inside the officers and militia leaders have apparently been discussing how to facilitate the return of civilians to their city. But the subject is a complicated one and it doesn’t seem like much progress has been made.

The former administrators of the city remain in Baghdad or Samarra and they organize 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 us, asking his name be withheld because he was not authorized to speak to media. “I have no idea why they treat us this way when we actually helped with the liberation of the city.”

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 ISIS fighters in Tikrit) but also from tribal conflicts. There have already been some retaliatory murders—local police acted against residents who, they say, were part of ISIS sleeper cells inside Tikrit even before the city fell to the extremists.

The Shiite militias who control the largest part of Tikrit say that they’re continuing to investigate any leads that might reveal who here was affiliated with ISIS. Ali al Moussawi, who is associated with the Najbaa brigades, says that fighters under his command found identity cards and passports that belong to members of the extremist group. “Some of the passports belong to foreigners,” he noted.

Al Moussawi said that his men had also found planning documents that indicated how ISIS was administrating the city, and two days ago they discovered a secret tunnel. He thinks that ISIS fighters used the tunnel to move around the city and to hide from opposing forces. The tunnel had been rigged with explosives, a trap set for al Moussawi’s men, but they managed to defuse the bombs.

This is another impediment to the return of civilians to Tikrit. Local police and special army units are hunting for bombs and booby traps, in the form of improvise explosive devices, throughout the city. Not a day goes by without finding new bombs and they believe there are hundreds still hidden.

Meanwhile Majid Abu Wisam, who is originally from Tikrit, is conducting a different kind of clean-up operation, a far more mundane one. Together with a group of other locals, he is trying to tidy up the city, and they are more hopeful than many. Despite the absence of other civilians and the presence of so much destruction, Abu Wisam says, he still believes the city will be rebuilt.

“It will be as beautiful as it was before,” he says optimistically. “But it will take some time,” he admits.

This article is adapted from one that originally appeared on the Web site Niqash.