Iraq Sunnis stay away from Tikrit amid fear of revenge-seeking militias
BAGHDAD - Iraqi government forces drove the Islamic State group out of Abu Mustafa's hometown of Tikrit over a month ago, but he has yet to return, fearing the Shiite militias that now patrol its bombed and battered streets.
The well-off businessman, who fled to Iraq's relatively secure Kurdish region before the operation began, has heard of widespread looting and vandalism, including of his own property. And he's heard that the militiamen are exacting revenge on Sunnis like himself, viewing them as sympathizers of the extremist group.
Shiite militia commanders deny such allegations, and have called on the Sunni residents of Tikrit to return. But of the hundreds of thousands who fled, only a tiny fraction have come back, complicating the government's efforts to restore normal life and bridge the country's sectarian divide.
Abu Mustafa, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of retribution, said he was eager to return home with his 10-member family. They have been living in a rented apartment in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah since early March.
"We were optimistic about the involvement of the Shiite militias in the battle for Tikrit, but this turned to shock after hearing about the misdeeds they committed," the 66-year-old food wholesaler said. "For now, I doubt that my family will be safe if we return to the city."
He said he left two cars in his garage when he left, but now friends in the police — a Sunni force made up of locals who share authority uneasily with the militias and army — tell him they are gone.
Since the Islamic State group captured Tikrit in June 2014, around 400,000 people have fled the province of Salahuddin, where the city is located, according to Sattar Nowruz, spokesman for the Ministry of Migration and Displaced.
The International Organization of Migration has tracked about 5,000 families returning to the province as a whole.
"If we are discussing Tikrit city, the main area, no one is returning as far as we know. In the surrounding areas there have been some returns," said Javier Rio-Navarro of the EU humanitarian aid operation.
In the immediate aftermath of the city's recapture, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had to call on the army to stop widespread looting by what he described as criminal gangs. But many residents blame the looting on the Shiite militias, which they believe are taking revenge on the Sunni city, the hometown of Saddam Hussein.
Iraq's once-dominant Sunnis have chafed under the rule of successive Shiite-led governments since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam's Sunni-led dictatorship and handed power to the Shiite majority. The sectarian tensions erupted into widespread killings in 2006 and 2007 that claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Sunni grievances were a key factor in the Islamic State group's rapid seizure of much of northern and western Iraq last summer, and the same mistrust is now keeping residents from returning to areas the government has recaptured. Al-Abadi has requested help from both the U.S. and the EU on post-conflict "stabilization" measures.
Abu Badr, another displaced Tikrit resident, has been selling off his wife's jewelry piece by piece in order to feed his family and pay rent in the Kurdish regional capital, Irbil. But he says he dares not return to Tikrit, after seeing the widely circulated videos on social media purportedly showing the looting and burning of houses.
"We do not trust the Iraqi security forces and we are not sure whether they can protect us from Daesh if they attack the city again," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. Like Abu Mustafa, he asked that his full name not be printed because of security fears.
Karim al-Nouri, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, as the Shiite militias are officially known, described such fears as "unjustified and exaggerated."
"We urge the people of Tikrit to return home, and they should not listen to the misleading rumors," he told The Associated Press.
But he and other officials acknowledge it will take time to make the recaptured areas habitable again.
"Some measures have to be taken, like clearing the area of bombs. The next step is to open police stations in these areas as a symbol of the state, the dignity of the state, and to restore services," Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghabban told reporters last week.
Many Sunnis remain suspicious, however.
Hassan al-Nada, a tribal elder from Saddam's clan, said the militias were actively preventing people from returning to Tikrit, giving the "excuse" that there was still fighting in the city.
"We just want to go back to our city. The city is liberated. Why don't they allow us to go back?" he said.