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Iraqis return to Tikrit after Daesh’s ouster

But they live in constant fear that militants may stage a comeback.

By (AP)

Published: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 12:27 AM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:07 PM

Tikrit — Abdel Mowgood Hassan climbs over toppled bricks and a torn-away front door to enter his uncle’s house in Tikrit, the first of his relatives to make a cautious return home since Daesh militants were driven out.

“It’s safe,” Hassan calmly says. “I checked for booby traps.”

He is one in a trickle of civilians to return to Saddam Hussein’s hometown in recent days after Iraqi forces and allied militias captured the city in April from the Daesh group.

But while police now patrol the streets, its civilians are worried about the future, apprehensive about the Shia militias that liberated Tikrit and fearful the Daesh group could come back.

United States-trained Iraqi police officers look over identification papers for all those returning to Tikrit, 130 kilometres north of Baghdad, wanting to stop the extremists from infiltrating this city on the banks of the Tigris River.

Occasionally, loud explosions still echo through Tikrit’s largely empty streets, as officers detonate roadside bombs and explosives left behind by the militants after their nearly 10-month occupation. Cleaners in orange jumpsuits sweep away debris as workers try to restore water and power.

Iraqi forces, backed by Sunni fighters, Iranian-advised Shia militias and US-led airstrikes, retook the city on April 1. Tikrit’s capture marked Iraq’s biggest victory yet against the Daesh group, which holds about a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria in its self-declared caliphate.

The military later handed control of the city to a provincial police force, in a model it hopes to emulate in liberated areas across the country.

It aims to have 13 police regiments patrolling cities and towns in the rest of Salahuddin province once the extremists have been driven out.

However, authorities acknowledge these police officers will more resemble a paramilitary force.

“Street fighting is part of their new training,” says Hamed Nams Yassin Al Jabouri, the commander of Salahuddin’s police force. “We are also training snipers.”

In a brightly coloured Ramadan tent at Tikrit’s outskirts, men, women and children endure exhaustive bureaucracy and searches by heavily armed police. Some are coming home for the first time in a year. Many return as they fled — with only the clothes on their backs.  “We were afraid to leave and now we are afraid to return,” says Samia Khadiyah, who took shelter in the tent with her three children while her husband completed their paperwork. “We don’t know who to fear and who to trust anymore.”  A military intelligence officer nearby says police arrested 11 people trying to enter the city in recent days on suspicion of being Daesh militants, without elaborating.

Once inside Tikrit, those returning find the extent of damage varying widely from one building to the next. Some have an occasional bullet hole, while others are in ruins, like the charred remnants of the provincial government’s headquarters. Some homes remain laced with explosives, a last-minute effort by fleeing Daesh militants to slow the Iraqi advance.

But perhaps more worrying for the Sunni residents returning is some of the new graffiti covering up what was left by the Daesh group.  In a neighbourhood near the Tikrit police headquarters, graffiti in Farsi reads: “Conquerors be victorious; Peace be upon the martyrs and Imam Khomeini,” a reference to Iran’s late supreme leader. The Iraqi government says only Iraqi forces fought in Tikrit. However, a number of Iranian military advisers, including Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the elite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, were on hand for the fight.  They worked with the Iraqi military and the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a fighting force made up predominantly of Shia militias.

Iraq’s Sunnis long have complained of discrimination and abuse since the 2003 United States-led invasion that toppled Saddam’s dictatorship and replaced it with a government dominated by the country’s Shais.  Disenchanted Sunnis and members of Saddam’s former government are believed to have helped speed the Daesh group’s advance last year. — AP

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