Tikrit: Iraq’s abandoned city

Zaid Al-Ali writes: 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. [Continue reading…]

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