Liberated from Islamic State, Tikrit struggles with reconciliation

Tikrit is the first major Sunni city retaken from the Islamic State militants, who were pushed out of that stronghold with the help of U.S. airstrikes and Shia fighters -- some of whom are backed and equipped by Iran. But the struggle for national reconciliation is far from over, with accusations of looting and revenge attacks. Special correspondent Jane Arraf reports.

Read the Full Transcript


    And we turn now to an on-the-ground report from Iraq.

    NewsHour special correspondent Jane Arraf brings us this story from Tikrit.


    This courtyard in Tikrit has become a place of pilgrimage and a reason to fight. The plaque commemorates what is believed to be one of the biggest massacres in modern Shia history.

    Shortly after ISIS took over Mosul and Tikrit last June, it executed hundreds of young air force cadets and army recruits from nearby Camp Speicher. At least 200 were believed to have been executed here, killed because they were military and they were Shia.

    "We have offered our youth, the best of our youth to Iraq and the Iraqi people," says a representative of one of Iraq's most revered Shia clerics. "We have achieved our liberty through the martyrs of Camp Speicher."

    Tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia responded to a fatwa by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani calling on them to work with the Iraqi military to fight the Islamic State group. His representative says they don't need American help, just more Iraqi assistance.

  • SHEIK DHARGHAM AL-JABOURI (through interpreter):

    We need air support from the Iraqi government exclusively. Iraqi pilots have expertise in the area. Iraqi expertise should take precedence.


    Shia leaders have officially condemned revenge attacks against Sunni Arabs believed to have cooperated with ISIS. But ISIS, in pitting Sunnis against Shias, has deepened the historic regional divide.

    The massacre of recruits from nearby Camp Speicher and the ISIS video documenting it helped further its goal of fragmenting the country. One of the fighters, Hashim Basheer Salim, tells us he wants to die fighting.

  • HASHIM BASHEER SALIM, Shia Fighter (through interpreter):

    That's where the slaughter happened. Those in charge and the cameraman were standing up there. It was a slaughter. They treated them like spoils of war, not like human beings.


    He says they blame some Sunni groups for collaborating with ISIS.

    HASHIM BASHEER SALIM, Shia fighter (through interpreter): We didn't do the same thing with the Sunnis. In 1991, in the uprising, we were feeding them and clothing them. They stayed with us for one month, and then we sent them back to their families.


    But this is a much different Iraq than it was in 1991. The graffiti left by Shia fighters and posters with the Iranian leaders who inspire some of them show where the battle lines are drawn.

    Almost 200 bodies have been unearthed from near the palace. There are five mass graves found so far, and more expected. ISIS blew up this bridge to prevent Iraqi forces and Shia and Sunni fighters from advancing. Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown and a mostly Sunni city, was seen as a test for a coming battle for Mosul.

    This palace is one of the few places in Iraq where you can still see a likeness of the executed president. In this one, he is cast as the Islamic conqueror Salahuddin.

    It took weeks for the Iraqi military to take back Tikrit. But with the help of Shia fighters and U.S. airstrikes, they eventually managed to push ISIS out of these palaces and the city. But while they have taken back this city, ISIS is coming back in other provinces.

    Tikrit is the first major Sunni city retaken from ISIS. The victory has come at a cost. This was an ISIS stronghold, one of the first cities it captured after Mosul. Its fighters fought hard for it. The battle was street to street, and it shows. Now two weeks after ISIS was driven out, the only people allowed in the city are fighters and policemen.

    We were brought here by the popular mobilization forces, Shia fighters under nominal Iraqi government command. Most are backed and in some cases equipped by Iran. The Iraqi military couldn't have pushed back ISIS without them, but particularly in Sunni areas, some have been accused of looting and revenge attacks. On the streets, there are shops believed burned by looters or damaged in the fighting.

    This is the effect of three weeks of airstrikes, bombings, and explosions. You can still smell the smoke in some of these places. These blackened shops are pretty much all that is left of Tikrit's main commercial street. More than 100,000 people lived here. Officials think it could take more than two months for them to be able to return.

    Local police now secure the city. Parts of it are still rigged with explosives. ISIS fighters blacked out the faces on these shop. They believe depicting the human form is blasphemous. The fighters and police have relocked shops to prevent further looting.

    When we leave, the police fire in the air in a traditional show of celebration. For the Iraqi government, recapturing Tikrit was a huge and hard-won victory, but after this battle comes the struggle for reconciliation.

    I'm Jane Arraf for PBS NewsHour in Tikrit.

Listen to this Segment