Tikrit: Iraq’s Abandoned City

Tikrit Reuters.jpg
Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Debris on a road in Tikrit, April 1, 2015

On June 11, 2014, Mahmoud, a sixty-year-old employee at a school in Tikrit, Iraq, drove home for his afternoon nap. Thirty minutes later, he received a frantic call from a friend in Baghdad who demanded to know if TV reports that ISIS had taken over the city were accurate. Mahmoud dismissed them; after all, he had noticed nothing unusual during his drive home; nor had he heard any gunfire or other commotion from his house, which was near the main road. As he drove back to his school, however, he was shocked to see ISIS fighters driving around unopposed. As he soon learned, a contingent of just thirty militants in seven vehicles had seized control in the time it took him to have his nap. Iraq’s security forces, on which 100 billion dollars of Iraq’s money had been spent between 2006 to 2014, had simply melted away.

Located on the Tigris about one hundred miles northwest of Baghdad, Tikrit was an orderly former Baathist stronghold that had avoided the worst of the country’s recent conflicts. But over the next nine months, ISIS would remake the entire city administration, massacre vast numbers of soldiers and tribesmen, and impose its own harsh strictures on everyone from women and civil servants to smokers and lawyers. By the time Iraqi forces backed by US warplanes finally retook the city on April 3, following nearly a month of fighting, Tikrit was a hollow shell of its former self, and almost all of its population of about 200,000 was displaced. In the weeks since the liberation, many are seeking answers to some vital questions: How did ISIS take over the city so quickly in the first place? And what does Tikrit’s experience reveal about the way ISIS rules?

On June 10, 2014, when ISIS quickly overran Mosul—Iraq’s second largest city, 140 miles further north—Tikritis were confident that their own city would remain under Baghdad’s control. Though it was overwhelmingly Sunni, Tikrit had little tradition of sectarianism and Shia Iraqis who lived in or visited the city did not feel threatened. With a strong police presence and a major army base, Camp Speicher, it was also one of the few places in Iraq where safety was not a major concern. During the civil conflict (2005-2007), when Mosul and Fallujah burned, Tikrit’s shops and government offices were almost always open, and property prices soared. Children went to school; students and faculty filled the university every day. I visited regularly, sometimes with my wife and son, and forged lasting relationships with many of the city’s inhabitants.

Few people realized that ISIS had been preparing for the takeover for several years. As early as 2011 and 2012, when jihadist groups were becoming increasingly active in the Syrian conflict, Tikriti businesses were threatened by Islamist militants who were extorting money for their activities in Syria. During the summer of 2012, Youssef, the owner of a Tikriti IT shop, received a call on his cellphone. “We know that you want to do what is right, so give us what is owed to us,” the caller said. Youssef asked what they wanted. “100,000 dollars, that is our share.” Enraged, Youssef asked, “Who are you?” The answer came without hesitation: “The Islamic State.” The threat to Youssef’s life and business were clear so there was no question that some money would be changing hands. The two parties negotiated over a period of weeks, always over the phone, and finally agreed to lower the amount to 50,000 dollars, which he was told to transfer to someone in Samarra. The blackmailers acted with complete impunity and made no attempt to conceal their activities. I heard similar stories from other businessmen.

By 2012, militants began assassinating security officials stationed in the city. They were so effective that by June 2014, the local and provincial government’s institutions, which are seated in Tikrit, had been severely weakened. When Mosul fell, most senior local officials, including what was left of the police leadership, fled in fear of a pending attack by ISIS. While some locals, including some former Baathists, undoubtedly joined the ISIS militants, most of its senior civilian and security administration seem to have simply abandoned the city after Mosul’s fall, unannounced to the population itself.

Tikrit Zaid 1.jpg
Zaid Al-Ali
A main intersection in Tikrit following ISIS’s takeover, June 19, 2014

After the takeover, the cadets at Camp Speicher, a large number of whom were recruits from the impoverished and mainly Shia south of the country, were just as confused as everyone else. Many were convinced that the Iraqi state had collapsed. The day after ISIS took over Tikrit, more than 1,500 unarmed cadets left the base on foot, hoping to find a way to reach their homes. By then, ISIS had reinforced its ranks with fighters from the Albu Ajeel tribe, which had previously been closely associated to the Saddam Hussein regime and some of whose members have yet to reconcile themselves with the post-2003 order. The militants captured the cadets, separated them into smaller groups, and executed all of those who did not manage to escape.

Some Tikritis lived so close to the killing grounds that they could clearly hear each shot. Zeinab, an Arabic language teacher who lived within a stone’s throw of the massacre, still covers her ears when she speaks of what happened. Others who lived downstream or on higher ground could see some of the bodies that the militants dumped in the Tigris. Tikritis who had contacts in Baghdad and in the Iraqi army called them and begged the Iraqi government to intervene. If a single helicopter had been deployed, several locals told me, it could have created enough space for many of the cadets to escape. But Baghdad did nothing and the shooting continued. Of all the atrocities committed by ISIS, it remains one of the worst.

####The New Order

In the first days after ISIS took power, few people ventured out of their homes. Those who did immediately noted that the new rulers had nothing in common with the Baathists and army officers that some expected to see: instead of mustaches, sunglasses, and a deliberate air of superiority, the militants had beards and a false pretense of Islamic modesty. They begged residents for forgiveness as they stopped and searched their vehicles, and referred to God in every sentence.

Some of the militants had local accents, but wore ski masks to hide their identities. With time, however, it became clear who had joined ISIS. One Tikriti, who has made an appearance in several ISIS videos, was a man who had been active at his local mosque, where he would often try to lead discussions, but was also known as an alcoholic and a womanizer. People who worked with him said there had been nothing in his behavior that betrayed violent tendencies. He eventually emerged in several ISIS videos as a participant in the Speicher massacre.

ISIS also pressed into service the impoverished villagers who lived in the region around Tikrit and had long been abused by the Iraqi state. Through conflict, sanctions, a discriminatory legal system and climate change, life in these areas deteriorated markedly over the past few decades. After ISIS overran Tikrit, militants approached these areas to warn everyone that the Iraqi state had collapsed and that they were now in control. Tikritis who drove in and out of the city over the following months describe checkpoints manned by scraggly and scrawny teenagers from the outlying villages.

No single emir was appointed to administer the city, but numerous committees were established. Any state officials, lawyers, and judges still in the city who had worked for the Iraqi state would have to “repent” if they did not wish to be executed, and their appeals were heard by a repentance committee. A real estate committee nationalized properties belonging to the provincial council members and senior security officials. A taxation committee collected duties on various activities.

One of ISIS’s first administrative decisions was to close the local courts. All disputes would now be resolved by an Islamic judge, whom ISIS had already chosen. At the university, militants also ordered the law, history, and biology departments as well as art classes to be closed. Iraqi flags were taken down and replaced by ISIS’s black standard. Mosques were forced to give way to ISIS preachers. Alcohol was banned, and women had to cover up with two layers of face veils and be accompanied by a male companion when they went out. Suspected traitors and informants were executed in the streets, typically by firing squad, instilling widespread fear.

The day Tikrit fell, Adel, an unemployed and carefree young man, spotted Ali, his nextdoor neighbor, leaving his home with a crate of wine. Ali walked to the nearby riverbank and disposed of the incriminating material. As he walked back uphill, Adel insulted him and called him a coward. A few days later, Adel stood on his balcony at the end of Friday prayers and watched as the faithful streamed out of the neighborhood mosque. For the first time, Ali was among the crowd. Adel watched as Ali adjusted his skullcap and cradled his prayer beads. A few days later, after having witnessed enough of ISIS’s brutality, Adel buried a dozen bottles of his own wine and fled Tikrit. As he reached Erbil twelve hours later, he suddenly remembered that he left two bottles of whiskey in plain sight in his kitchen. In a state of panic, he called Ali, who volunteered to bury the bottles on his behalf.

All Tikritis who had worked for the Iraqi army or police were told they would be executed unless they surrendered their rifles and paid a 2,500 dollar penalty. But even those who agreed to pay found that they were still subjected to severe punishment. One of the most egregious cases involved Basil Ramadan, a former officer in the Republican Guard before 2003 who had four sons in the Iraqi military. His family remained in the city after ISIS’s invasion and paid the tribute demanded by ISIS. But the militants suspected Ramadan’s sons of providing information to Baghdad and executed all four. A few days after the fourth was killed, Ramadan called each of his close friends to tell them that he was leaving Iraq definitively. Too much of his family’s blood had been shed, he said, and it was the only way to preserve his dignity. As soon as he finished speaking to the last of his closest friends, he picked up his rifle, entered an ISIS safe house, and killed seven militants, before being gunned down himself.

Despite the gruesome message of the Camp Speicher massacre and ISIS’s threats to anyone who had worked for the Iraqi state, some Tikritis resisted their new rulers. For example, a few cadets managed to escape the killings and were offered food and shelter by locals, some of whom also helped them reach the outskirts of the city with enough money to make their way home. After Tikrit was eventually liberated, it was discovered that more than twenty other cadets had been staying with local families, who had hid them for months. One member of the Jubour tribe, which occupied a large district on the other side of the Tigris from Tikrit, provided nine cadets with fake IDs and drove them one by one to Kirkuk over a period of weeks. He was eventually discovered by ISIS and executed.

The Jubours, who had contributed many members to the Iraqi security services after 2003, were particularly hostile to ISIS. On the first Friday after its takeover, ISIS sent preachers to local mosques to declare that all Sunnis who had worked for the state would be forgiven, even if they had killed ISIS members. ISIS then sent a more specific message to the Jubours that fifty-six of their people who were security officials would have to publicly repent and pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. The Jubours refused, leading to thirteen days of fighting. The Jubour fighters included at least one woman, Umayyah Naji Jabara, a member of the provincial council who decided to take up arms with her clansmen, and who was eventually killed. They were also helped by some of the cadets that they sheltered.

In the end, after suffering huge losses, the Jubours were overwhelmed. Still, they remained defiant. Months later, a government helicopter targeted a house in Tikrit where several militants had been sheltering, killing everyone inside. ISIS accused the Jubours of placing spotters in the city and of providing information to Baghdad. Militants kidnapped forty members of the tribe, who were never heard from again. Then in November 2014, militants spotted a tribesman in Alem carrying an Iraqi flag. Suspecting a plot to recapture their territory, ISIS launched a preemptive attack, kidnapping two-hundred young men, blowing up more than fifty houses, stealing all of their cars and trucks, and forcing everyone that remained to leave on foot.

####Exodus

Many Tikritis had heard about the violent methods used by ISIS elsewhere, but they initially thought those stories were exaggerated. After the Camp Speicher massacre they knew it was true and a first wave of people fled the city. In the following weeks, the exodus accelerated as conditions rapidly deteriorated, both because of ISIS’s incapacity to govern and because of helicopter bombing by the Iraqi army, in its intermittent efforts to retake the city.

Within a few weeks, water was largely cut off. Initially, electricity continued to work, because most homes in Tikrit are connected to neighborhood generators and ISIS would sometimes deliver fuel. With time, however, the power went off as well. During one of the early attempts to retake the city while al-Maliki was still prime minister, the university was occupied by the army, turning the campus into a battleground. Eventually, all services ground to a complete halt, including schools and even bakeries.

Tikrit to Samarra.jpg
Karim Kadim/AP Images
Citizens of Tikrit who have taken refuge in nearby Samarra, sixty miles north of Baghdad, March 22, 2015

Meanwhile, ISIS’s rule over Tikrit became progressively harsher. The city’s proximity to the front lines forced ISIS to give priority to military defense and most of the committees did not meet regularly, particularly as more and more of the city’s population left. The militants also could not maintain a single headquarters, as Iraqi government helicopters, in air raids from Baghdad, often targeted structures that hosted large numbers of people.

No one knows exactly how many people were displaced under ISIS rule but by the time the operation to liberate Tikrit began, causing yet another wave of people to flee the fighting, there were no more than a few hundred locals in the city, and few thousand in the surrounding countryside, left out of the pre-takeover population of about 200,000. Those who remained in Tikrit were either too poor to flee, or were forced to stay to care for handicapped or elderly relatives who could not be moved. The city had become a dusty ghost town; anyone who remained kept out of sight to survive.

The vast majority who left traveled north, because the road south to Baghdad had become a military front and could not be crossed. Some took up residence in Kirkuk, but many of those who did were expelled from the city by Kurdish officials and moved on to either Erbil or Suleimaniya (from there many would eventually fly down to Baghdad). Fleeing often involved tense run-ins at ISIS checkpoints. Six months after ISIS’s takeover, a Tikriti named Mohamed could not bear life in the city any longer and decided to head southward by car in the hope of reaching Samarra. Thirty minutes into his journey, he was stopped by a group of ISIS fighters. He explained that he was on his way to pick up some relatives and bring them back to Tikrit, but could see that the fighters were unconvinced by his story. Mohamed then burst into a long tirade on the merits of the Islamic State and urged them to defeat the United States and its Zionist allies. But he noticed little enthusiasm for this argument either. Finally, he launched into a second tirade, this time against Safavid and Shia “infidels.” The militants were jubilant and fired celebratory shots in the air. They reassured him they would ultimately be victorious. Mohamed was allowed to proceed south where he quickly encountered pro-Baghdad forces. He immediately praised their bravery and, waving his arms above his head, urged them on to “victory against the ISIS dogs.”

As more and more people fled, ISIS dropped any pretense that it was there to protect the local population. At first, the militants would occupy the homes of security and provincial officials on the basis that their property had been annexed by the Islamic State. As the city emptied, the militants came to consider any abandoned property as fair game: hundreds of houses were broken into and looted. Televisions, refrigerators, chairs, tables, all furniture and appliances were stolen. Even irrigation equipment was lifted from people’s farms and hauled off to Syria. By early March 2015, one Tikriti who had just left fled to Baghdad told me that his city’s situation could not be worse, “even if it was taken over by North Korea.”

####The Future

The offensive to liberate Tikrit, launched in March 2015, involved a disparate group of armed groups, including regular forces, militias, volunteer fighters, local tribal forces, Iranian advisers, and US war planes. Throughout the campaign, dozens of bodies were transported daily to Wadi el-Salam, the world’s largest cemetery, in the Shia holy city of Najaf. Displaced Tikritis noted with consternation as Baghdad’s mainly Shia neighborhoods were lined with funeral notices for the young men who were dying in the battle to liberate their city.

One month after ISIS’s defeat, many locals who had left still consider it too dangerous to return to Tikrit. Since the liberation, hundreds of criminals have been operating freely, looting and destroying property. In one district, more than a quarter of the homes were destroyed after its liberation, and reports of property destruction are still coming in. The elected provincial council and the governor have not been able to return to the city. Municipal services have yet to be restored and few businesses have reopened. Many Tikritis are furious at the army and the police’s failure to restore order, and the government’s refusal to acknowledge the problem.

ISIS’s nine-month occupation of Tikrit was a disaster without precedent in the city’s modern history. Although the terrorist organization appears to have been uprooted for now, the circumstances that allowed its takeover—above all a decrepit and corrupt security administration and the failure to uphold the rule of law amid a sustained campaign of assassinations and extortion—still exist today. Restoring order will be impossible until the city is able to restore security and hold criminals and terrorists to account. Meanwhile, many Tikritis, scattered in temporary housing in various parts of Iraq, have been reduced to wondering if they will ever be allowed to return home.