When they returned to their battered city of Tikrit last year, local volunteers tried to scrub away every trace of Isis rule. They cleared charred rubble from the streets and, in an act of exorcism, even filmed themselves in the places where the militant group once staged public beheadings, to prove to others it was safe.
Some remnants of Isis’s 10-month rule, however, have been harder to expunge. Omar, a volunteer who asks to remain anonymous, recalls that efforts by Tikrit residents to connect to the Iraqi government’s electricity grid were so unsuccessful that they reverted to a localised power system improvised while the jihadi force was in charge.
“The local system that people rigged under Isis still works better than our government’s,” he laughs — but beneath the joke lies an uncomfortable truth.
Recapturing territory from Isis, which at one stage controlled a third of Iraq, has been an enormous challenge. Cities like Tikrit show that rehabilitating these areas may be an even greater test.
The US-led coalition and Iraqi government have spent billions on defeating Isis and they have been winning, with 40 per cent of the territory the jihadi group once held back in government hands. Less effort has been put into planning the reconstruction of a country that the jihadi force has torn apart. The Pentagon says it has spent $6.5bn since 2014 on the military effort to force Isis out of Iraq. In contrast, it has spent just $15m on “stabilisation” support — highlighting the risk that once again, western powers could win the war but neglect the aftermath.
Iraq is facing a looming economic crisis, with a displaced population of 3.3m people, according to the UN,and renewed sectarian bloodshed which could fuel the very resentments that helped Isis seize control of Sunni majority areas. Such problems could turn military victories into practical defeats.
One year on from its “liberation”, Tikrit is lauded as a success story of post-Isis rule. For Tikritis like Omar, there are reasons to celebrate: up to 90 per cent of the 160,000 people who fled the city have returned. They are re-creating basic infrastructure. Revenge killings are rare.
But for US-led coalition forces and the government, the irony of falling back on Isis-era infrastructure highlights the challenges Iraq is still failing to meet.
“The government needs to convince people that things will be better,” says Zaid al-Ali, author of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future. “If they maintain the same systems then all this effort is purposeless and Isis, or some newer version of it, will come back.”
The birthplace of Saddam Hussein and the capital of Salahuddin province, Tikrit was among the first cities to fall to Isis in its whirlwind offensive in summer 2014, and one of the first to be freed, in April the following year. Rows of blown-up houses and dirt berms that criss-cross the city are a reminder that every inch of this land was hard won — and how long it will take to rebuild.
Falling crude revenues have put oil-rich Iraq on the verge of financial collapse. Officials say they need between $6bn and $10bn in loans just to cover the budget for the year. The central government has yet to fund any reconstruction projects in the country. Instead the bill has been picked up by the UN, humanitarian groups and locals.
At the University of Tikrit, professors like Awatif Jassim come on weekends to inspect bullet-scarred classrooms. They have 20,000 students back in class, but little equipment to teach them with.
“My college was completely looted — computers, machines, even the desks. We’d need ID45bn [about $4m] to rebuild,” says Ms Jassim, a dean of science. “For now, we do what we can.”
Down the road, local volunteers hand out food to impoverished families displaced from other Sunni villages, taking shelter in Tikrit’s bombed-out houses.
“Tikrit has had success, but it is the people who brought this city back to life,” says resident Yusra Saidi, a schoolteacher. “Our government has nothing to do with it.”
Aid workers worry that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for some of the displaced, who are largely Sunni, to reintegrate amid the destruction and suspicion wrought by the war. Once all-powerful under Saddam, the Sunni have been marginalised by a government dominated by the Shia majority. Their frustration was one reason that Isis — with former supporters of the deposed ruler in its ranks — was able to take root.
The UN has spent $8m helping Tikritis rebuild basic infrastructure but it says the full cost of the destruction is incalculable. Some parliamentarians say smaller towns near Tikrit could cost up to $10bn each to repair. This worries those looking ahead to the recapture of Mosul, the country’s second city and the main Isis stronghold, which the coalition wants to reclaim by the end of the year. It is expected to be the group’s last stand in Iraq.
“We’re saying to the coalition guys — can you not destroy entire towns please?” one humanitarian official says privately. “One, we have no idea how long it will take to repair this, or who’s going to pay. Two . . . you have lots of very frustrated Sunni.”
Bombed out mosques
More than reconstruction, the psychological scars and sectarian tension that Isis has ripped open may be more difficult to heal. Iraqis know some of their Sunni countrymen, even neighbours, joined or at least tolerated Isis when it blitzed across parts of Iraq. That is making it hard to convince many Shia leaders, foreign diplomats say, to prioritise the rehabilitation of Sunni areas.
If Tikrit is on a shaky path to progress, places like Muqdadiya, in north-eastern Diyala province, look frozen in time.
At the al-Quds mosque, commander Ahmad al-Tamimi and some of his fighters pick their way through the mangled furniture and melted mounds of flesh stuck on the floor. In February, an Isis suicide bomber blew himself up among Shia worshippers, killing 40. Two months later, local Shia officials and the paramilitary Shia forces, known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation units, are still refusing to clean up the macabre tableau.
“All of the blood lost in this mosque is Shia. We paid in blood to liberate our Sunni brothers. Yet we are accused of being bloodthirsty,” says Mr Tamimi, a commander in the Hashd 24th division. It is close to the powerful Badr organisation, a Shia group that Sunni MPs argue has more control over the province than the government. The sensitive region borders both Baghdad and the regional Shia power, Iran. Mr Tamimi says the refusal to clean up al-Qudis is a protest at the lack of security in Diyala, whose territories were liberated from Isis even earlier than Tikrit.
Many Sunni are wary of security efforts dominated by the Shia group, accusing it of being involved in kidnap and murder. Abdelsalam al-Jubouri, a Sunni parliamentarian from Diyala, says many Sunni politicians are too scared to leave Baghdad to visit his province. He blames the Hashd. “We receive outright threats . . . and people call all the time reporting kidnappings,” he says. “The Hashd uses them for ransom money.”
Diyala shows that expelling Isis is unlikely to be enough to bring back stability without addressing sectarian tension. Shia residents fear bombings. Their Sunni counterparts fear retribution — not only from Shia gunmen but Isis infiltrators who see them as traitors. After the attack on al-Quds, residents said, nine Sunni mosques in the area were firebombed.
Umm Hadi, who asked not to use her full name, is repairing the torched walls of her home in a Sunni district, but she is prepared to leave at a moment’s notice if the family is forced to flee again: “I keep bags packed and ready.”
The anxiety and distrust is shared with many Shia fearful of what happens if they reabsorb displaced Sunnis. Diyala has a brutal legacy of sectarian bloodshed. On a drive through the countryside, Mr Tamimi points to villages his men fought to recapture from Isis: the same places he fought al-Qaeda in 2004.
“Isis uses weak minds — especially people from the countryside,” he says during a drive to the village of Adhaym. It took the Hashd a year before it agreed to let Adhaym residents return, he says. Security officials let in about 500 families, which locals say is still only a third of the town. The miles of agricultural fields between Adhaym and Muqdadiya are verdant, but empty. Most villages look like ghost towns.
Despite the tension, the urge to go home is palpable across Iraq — even when there is no home to return to. In Adhaym, Umm Maher lives next to a pile of rubble that was once her home. At night, she sleeps in a plastic caravan trailer with her husband and five children, which they have parked next to the ruins. By day, she digs through the rubble, looking for bits of material they can salvage in the hope that some day they can afford to rebuild.
“For a year, we just dreamt of coming home,” she says. “Now I spend my days picking through bricks.”
Sunni parliamentarians like Adnan Janabi, of Babel province, are urging the government to do more to help people return to areas once under Isis control. He says Iraq needs to take a risk.
“We should be courageous enough to trust these people,” he says. “[If we don’t] we will end up pushing them to sympathise more with [Isis] instead of fighting it — unless they feel that we are their government, and they are our people.”
Before Tikritis were allowed to return, many feared there would be a wave of sectarian killings to avenge the Isis massacre of hundreds of Shia soldiers in a former Saddam palace near the Tigris river. It is now virtually a shrine, and Shia militiamen pray at a makeshift mosque just next to the concrete block where Isis filmed its gunmen shooting the soldiers and dumping their bodies into the river.
“Tikrit is a pretty remarkable success story by those standards. Everyone had these doomsday scenarios, and none of it happened,” says Mr Ali, the author, who is from the city. However, he warns, Tikrit is not a good barometer for other parts of Iraq. The population is politically and economically well-connected to the capital compared with other Sunni areas. Yet even here, signs of future troubles linger below the surface.
The Hashd works mostly at the main checkpoint outside Tikrit. Shia religious banners hang along the outskirts of town, and locals like Omar are still painting over the graffiti that Hashd fighters scrawled on city buildings.
On the city’s edge, hundreds of families have been detained in food storage facilities, residents say. They are Tikriti families displaced by the fight against Isis in nearby towns. They wait days, or even weeks, for the Hashd and local officials to give them security clearance to enter their own provincial capital.
“It’s completely wrong — these are human beings,” says one volunteer, who asks not to be named. “But no one here [in Tikrit] will complain. They are too grateful their own areas were liberated — that they got to go home.”
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