Shiite Militias Move Into A Sunni City: What Happens Next?
A motley collection of forces is in the process of clearing out the self-styled Islamic State, or ISIS, from the Iraqi city of Tikrit. They include Iraqi army and police, as well as irregular forces. Those militias — and many of the security forces — are Shiite, and they are moving into a Sunni city.
When I arrived in Tikrit on Wednesday, the day after anti-ISIS fighters took the city center, militiamen on the roof of a government building were running up three of their yellow banners, just a little higher than the national Iraqi flag.
Their commander — the head of one of many militias here — reluctantly broke off a triumphant, song-filled television interview to talk to me.
"I can't separate myself from the Iraqi flag," he said. "But the yellow flag declares my identity."
By that, he meant his Shiite identity. He gave only his nickname, Abu Maytham, because he said he's afraid of the Americans. U.S. military chiefs have expressed deep reservations about Shiite militias.
The militias work together with the army and federal police in Iraq's war against ISIS. Often, they coordinate closely. But not always. The militias maintain their independence.
Most of the security forces are Shiite, too. And that matters because Tikrit is almost all Sunni. Some people fear a cycle of sectarian revenge here, especially because this was the site of a notorious mass killing last summer.
It happened amid the shattered glories of Tikrit's most famous son, the former dictator Saddam Hussein.
At Saddam's palace complex in the city, the ISIS flag is painted on the blast walls at the door. And it's a symbolically important place for the forces that are re-taking Tikrit because this is where the Islamic State brought hundreds of recruits from the nearby army base, killed them and threw them in the river.
Federal policeman Ali Qassem is sunburned and red-eyed after fighting for six days to retake this place.
He said he had friends who died in the ISIS slaughter of Shiite recruits.
"Like they made martyrs for us, we made martyrs for them," he said.
And it's this fine line between liberating the city and taking revenge that worries people.
So far, there were no civilians that I saw trying to get back into Tikrit. But in nearby towns taken back from ISIS, there were allegations of sectarian violence. Sunni civilians say Shiite militias destroyed and looted houses. Elsewhere, the government is also investigating claims the Shiite militias killed Sunni civilians.
In the city of Samarra, just down the highway, I sat with the city council chief, Omar Mohammed Hassan.
"This period is a test," he said.
He sees both sectarian violence and crime among the militias. The council chief compiled a list of 180 militia crimes, mostly kidnappings and car theft, and presented it to their commanders who, Hassan says, actually instituted a disciplinary office and improved the situation.
It does seem the militias do want to improve their image. On the way out of Tikrit, I stopped to talk to Sunni farmers whose land used to be under ISIS control.
We have no problem with the militias, said Hadia Baddaria, adding that the local residents were afraid of ISIS. As she stands in the palm-fringed fields, a truck filled with militiamen pulls up.
They've brought food and given a woman from the village a ride. She jumped out of the truck with a tiny baby in her arms, to the delight of the villagers, and headed home.
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