Iraq Diaries: Bridge-Building And Liberation Of Tikrit From ISIS

Tikrit was a test case for Iraq’s ability to unite the country after ISIS massacred 1,700 air force cadets, mostly Shia, at Camp Speicher there to drive a permanent sectarian wedge for the Iraqi state’s implosion 

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi in Tikrit after its liberation in 2015. Reuters

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In June 2014, ISIS butchered about 1,700 air force cadets, mostly Shia, at Camp Speicher in Iraq’s Tikrit as the terror group sought to deepen the sectarian divide to overthrow the Iraqi state. 

Tikrit would become a test case for Iraq’s ability to unite the country to take on ISIS and stem fresh reprisals. The massacre was designed to drive a permanent sectarian wedge and provoke cycles of revenge for the Iraqi state’s implosion. It was filmed and broadcast for this specific purpose.

A painstaking bridge-building process, however, helped frustrate the design. It involved Sunni and Shia leaders in a dialogue to defuse calls for revenge and paved the way for the return of tens of thousands of Sunni residents to their homes in Tikrit. The Tikrit model was replicated for peace-building in other places liberated from ISIS with positive results.

The dialogue focussed on dispelling a sense of collective blame. The process avoided a focus on the collective identities of the killers and victims. Individual culprits were identified to avoid collective punishments.

The confidence-building measures and frequent engagements helped the Shias understand that Sunnis too suffered at the hands of ISIS. It emerged that Sunnis ensured and guided hundreds of Shias, including Tikrit University students, to safety at the time of the massacre. 

Shia and Sunni tribes were also involved in the dialogue. A government reconciliation committee and representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose fatwa urging all able-bodied men to resist ISIS turned the tide against the terror group, also joined the process.

The process concluded with the condemnation of the Speicher massacre by Tikriti tribal leaders on live national TV. The leaders pledged to help identify and capture individual perpetrators from their tribes and support a memorial to the slain cadets.

Journalist Scott Peterson wrote that the public acknowledgment was a ‘watershed that helped convince victims’ families and their Shiite tribes that Tikrit’s Sunnis were serious about easing tensions.’

Years later British-educated Yazan al-Jiboury-led Sunni Brigade 51 under the umbrella of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi played a critical role in liberating Tikrit. 

Jiboury, whose tribe suffered at ISIS’s hands, was the first Sunni to join the force. He led the brigade of around 2,500 fighters in a long-drawn battle to drive ISIS out of Tikrit under the Iraqi army’s command. The battle was won after multiple attempts to liberate the city and a month of continuous fighting. 

Driving ISIS out was half the battle. Jiboury also arranged a meeting of 40 influential Tikritis to ensure the safety of the displaced families returning to the city. He told Peterson that ISIS’s public denunciation was the key and said they knew exactly who the criminals were.

Jiboury said they published the names, and pictures of the criminals with the support of their tribes without pinning collective blame. The process ensured 95% of Tikritis returned to their homes over a year after the city was liberated. 

In November 2016, Peterson wrote that property prices were up in Tikrit, calling it a ‘rare statistic in Iraq’, where the post-ISIS world was often grimmer.

Sunnis within Hashd’s ranks were crucial to its promotion of a nationalist vision as Iraq sought to overcome the damage the sectarian violence has caused to the country’s social fabric.

Hashd was never really a Shia force alone as the Western media has sought to project it without really acknowledging how fluid tribal and sectarian identities tend to be. Many constituents of Hashd included individual Sunni fighters. Entire formations such as Jiboury’s Brigade 51 were Sunni-dominated. 

Inna Rudolph, a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, wrote Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Hashd’s de facto chief, seemed to understand that ‘psychological and social bonds could be built with Sunni Iraqis’ and that there is nothing permanent or inescapable about Iraqi sectarianism.’

Rudolph wrote Muhandis put this ‘belief in action by stirring anti-American sentiments and highlighting the unreliability of the United States as an ally and protector of the Sunnis.’ She argued to succeed in maintaining a strong Sunni constituency, Muhandis’s successors needed to break new ground and rely ‘even more on bottom-up confidence building.’

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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