2 Mar 2015

Tikrit, where liberation from IS could bring yet more pain

It’s being billed as a “dry run” for an assault on Mosul, Iraq‘s second city, which has been in the hands of Islamic State militants since last summer.

Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, is under attack from a combined force of Iraqi army, Shia militia and Kurdish peshmerga trying to oust the jihadis. The Iraqi government claims they have already “liberated” al-Dour, the town where Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a hole in 2003.

The problem is that the most effective fighters are those least likely to show mercy to civilians. In other words – victory might turn into a bloodbath.

This is the Sunni heartland, home to many of Saddam’s old supporters who – after experiencing the vengeance of the last Shia-led government under ousted prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – decided that IS was the lesser of two evils.

One important tribe, the al-Jabouris, have reportedly sided with the government and are providing fighters for this campaign, but the majority have acquiesced to jihadi rule.

That makes them the enemy in the eyes of the Shia militia, who have a reputation for slaughter and kidnap.

“The problem is that the cure may kill the patient,” said Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics.

Last June IS militants and former Saddam Hussein loyalists massacred more than 1,500 air force cadets in Camp Speicher, near Tikrit.

Their relatives are more likely to want vengeance than an orderly retaking of the area following the Geneva convention. The Shia militia may be their instrument.

Moreover, Iranian news agencies are reporting that Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Al Quds force, is in Tikrit to “advise and supervise” Iraqi forces alongside his Iraqi counterpart, General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi.

The Americans worry that the Shia militia, who are heavily influenced by if not under the command of Iran, are the only force that can take on IS. They know that the Iraqi army is weak and disorganised, despite their attempts to arm and train them.

There’s no doubt that IS rule is terrible – men are flogged for smoking, women enslaved or incarcerated in their homes – but the people of Tikrit may fear that “liberation” will bring even more cruelty and pain.

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