Iraq after ISIS: At site of massacre, bridge-building replaces blood feud

An ISIS slaughter in Tikrit in June 2014 terrorized Iraq's Army and drove a wedge between Sunnis and Shiites. But months of determined bridge-building have broken free of the powerful tribal impulse for revenge.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Darkness gathers Nov. 10, 2016, over the memorial to the Islamic State massacre of 1,700 Iraqi Shiite cadets from Camp Speicher in June 2014. The memorial is beneath a bridge in Tikrit where the victims were shot and their bodies thrown into the Tigris River by the Sunni jihadist group.

Darkness descends upon the massacre memorial at the water’s edge, where gutted concrete buildings – the remains of a Saddam Hussein palace – are smeared with graffiti that evokes loss and calls for revenge.

The Tigris River flows wide and silent here, as it did on that June day in 2014 when it was stained with the blood and floating corpses of Iraqi Shiites, victims of the single most deadly event in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003.

Even by the high atrocity standards of the so-called Islamic State (IS), the slaughter of some 1,700 people in the Camp Speicher massacre reached a new level. It was designed, filmed, and broadcast both to shock and terrorize Iraqi security forces – which duly disintegrated as IS militants swept across northern Iraq that summer – and to hammer a permanent sectarian wedge between Sunnis and Shiites.

But instead of Tikrit being consumed by an escalating, vengeful blood feud, something very different has taken root here: Peace, for tens of thousands of Sunnis returning to their homes; and relative justice, for Shiite families from southern Iraq whose sons were killed by the jihadists.

A systematic effort by Iraqi officials and bridge-building “facilitators” that pulled in key Sunni tribes and Shiite leaders – aided by circumstances specific to Tikrit, and supported for months by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington – managed to defuse explosive demands for revenge.

The lessons learned here could apply to the aftermath of the battle now under way for Mosul, the last IS stronghold in Iraq. Those who devised the successful Tikrit model note that every case is different; that Mosul is 10 times bigger and with many more actors; and that a far more complex post-IS balancing act will be required if Mosul’s once vibrant sectarian mosaic is ever to be restored.

Still, there is much to glean about the power of dialogue and new views of accountability from Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, where the sun-bleached plastic flowers, graffiti, and fading portraits of victims attest to the scale of the carnage –and the scale of the challenge.

'A lost cause'

“When we started, all the signs were bad.… We thought it was a lost cause,” says Omar Tariq al-Shindah, Tikrit's mayor. Forcing IS out in April 2015 took multiple attempts and finally a month of fighting by the largely Shiite Iraqi Army, more numerous unofficial Shiite militias, and smaller Sunni units.

As the battle commenced, photographs emerged on social media that appeared to show the revenge torture, beheading, and abuse of IS suspects and Sunni captives by the advancing forces.

“The big challenge was that people came looking for revenge. It’s not an easy crime – it’s huge, with more than 1,700 dead,” says Mr. Shindah, using a common figure for the Camp Speicher death toll. The root problem was an overwhelming sense of collective blame, by one group against another – long the common ingredient of Iraq’s sectarian wars.

“Unfortunately all the [Shiite] people of the south believed that all the people of Tikrit were responsible for what happened at Speicher. But that was not true,” he says.

So how to reconcile these two sides after such a crime? And how then to convince tens of thousands of Sunni families that they could return home safely, and be protected by the new, mostly Shiite forces in control?

Focus on individuals, not tribes

The first hurdle was the massacre.

Members of local tribes and Saddam-era Baathists – all of them Sunnis – had reportedly joined IS in the slaughter. IS considers Shiites to be infidels, and its fighters singled out Shiite cadets for death.

Along the banks of the Tigris today, even the official banner of the “committee for preserving the traces” of the massacre states that the killing “was witnessed and in the full awareness of tribal leaders and officials of the city of Tikrit.”

But a key step in the reconciliation process was stepping beyond the immediate focus on the tribal identities of the killers and victims. Months before IS was pushed out of Tikrit, USIP and two Iraqi partner NGOs organized a “Speicher Intervention Team” to find ways to prevent further bloodletting.

USIP helped found the Network of Iraqi Facilitators (NIF) in 2004, and the SANAD for Peacebuilding nongovernmental organization. Together they have engaged in conflict resolution, from Mahmoudiya south of Baghdad, where they once worked with the US Army in 2007 to mediate a reconciliation deal between 31 Sunni and Shiite sheikhs, to Nineveh province in the north, where Christian and Shabak religious minorities were feuding, according to USIP.

A series of meetings in Baghdad, some of them stormy with outrage and accusations, began to address the Tikrit aftermath. The facilitators, in a major departure from tribal norms, aimed to decouple the event from a purely sectarian framework by identifying individual criminals fit for punishment – not entire tribes.

Tikrit’s Sunni leaders provided evidence to show that they, too, had been victims of IS, which had targeted many Sunni officials, members of the security forces, and tribal figures.

“They explained to the tribes of the south: ‘We are like you, we suffered from these bad groups,’ ” says Mayor Shindah.

At the same time, the Sunnis gave examples to show they were not anti-Shiite. They described how some 500 Shiite Speicher cadets had secretly been shepherded to safety by local Sunnis. They noted also that Shiites among the 10,000 students at Tikrit University were unharmed.

Expanding the conversation

Those arguments helped, but still weren’t enough for the victims’ angry families.

Raid Khatab, an NIF facilitator, sketches a diagram to show how the Iraqi NGOs expanded the negotiations to include senior Shiite and Sunni tribes that had no direct involvement in the massacre – but had influence upon those that did.

This “outer circle” then drew up a two-page list of steps that would be acceptable to both sides, to seek a solution without appearing weak or collectively guilty.

“We met with the victims' families, but that was very tough, they were talking and looking for revenge,” recalls Mr. Khatab. “But this outer circle, when we bring the [Sunni] tribal leaders and south tribal leaders together … they came with a list.”

Members of the government’s reconciliation committee, as well as two representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, whose office said Tikriti leaders should publicly make amends – joined in the process.

The result was that, in front of more than 30 satellite TV channels, Tikriti tribal leaders denounced the Speicher massacre, blamed IS, and vowed to help Iraqi security forces identify and capture individual culprits within their own tribes, and help identify mass graves.

They also asked the Iraqi government to pay the slain cadets’ salaries to their families, to facilitate the return of Sunni families, and to support the memorial.

“Most of the tribes whose sons participated in the massacre at Speicher, they declared the responsibility of their sons’ crime,” says Sheikh Jamal Oqaab, a member of a committee tasked with identifying and fixing potential flashpoints, whose tribe fled Tikrit under IS and joined the fight to recapture the city.

That public acknowledgement was a watershed that helped convince victims’ families and their Shiite tribes that Tikrit’s Sunnis were serious about easing tensions.

Making families a priority

Critical to success, however, was to be the reaction of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the largely Shiite militia that was instrumental in liberating Tikrit, but had been accused of vengeful sectarian abuses.

“When we took over the city in the beginning, no one dared to speak to the PMF,” says Yazan al-Jiboury, commander of Brigade 51, a rare Sunni PMF unit of some 2,500 fighters. The British-educated Iraqi was the first Sunni to join the PMF for the anti-IS fight. He called together 40 influential Tikritis for a meeting in Kirkuk.

Mr. Jiboury says he told them that returning displaced families should be a priority, to prevent anger from deepening – and that he would guarantee their safety. That promise resonated, he says, because his own Sunni Jiboury tribe has also been targeted by IS and by some Tikritis, and so had reason for revenge according to traditional tribal custom.

“Eventually these people will come back,” Jiboury says he argued. “The more time it’s going to take, the more [Tikritis] are going to be against the government. So why don’t we bring them back now?”

The public denunciation was key for him.

“We knew exactly who was with IS, who the criminals were, we published their names, their pictures, and we said – these people are the criminals, and their tribe supported this,” recalls Jiboury, in an interview in Baghdad. “We don’t blame the whole tribe, when the tribe itself points out their sons who are the criminals. I knew them, but I wanted them to say so, as a tribe.”

In the meantime, Tikrit officials were working hard, from when Tikrit was liberated in early April 2015 to when the first group of 400 vetted, anxious families returned in a convoy of buses in June.

“All this time, more than two months, we spent in Tikrit to fix the electricity, fix the water, fix the roads, and took pictures and explained through social media to people that it is OK to come back,” says Mayor Shindah.

The mayor “played a great role to make sure everything would be safe, telling people to please return,” says Khatab. “He spent until midnight staying with families, drinking tea with them.”

“The nights for Tikrit families here at the beginning were a nightmare,” recalls Mr. Oqaab, the sheikh. The IS frontlines were still just a few miles away, and attacks continued for months. “They were afraid of ISIS – there were daily mortars, and some people were killed.”

Local officials made a big deal about the opening of every little shop, posting those moments on social media as further signs of normalcy. The mayor still has a photo on his cell hone of the day he turned on the city water supply.

So far, 95 percent of Tikritis have returned to the city, and property prices are up – a rare statistic in Iraq, where the post-IS world is often far more grim.

“The people at this time had one important message: To return to life, to make Tikrit return again,” says Khatab, adding that seeing the market still active after midnight gives a degree of satisfaction, because “inside ourselves we are very happy.”

Bigger challenge in Mosul

So if Tikrit can contain the legacy of the Speicher massacre, will the challenges in Mosul be that much greater? In a word, say these peacemakers: Absolutely.

“I expect a big problem in Mosul,” says Sheikh Oqaab. Tikrit is far smaller than Mosul, and is a purely Sunni city where the solution does not require Sunnis and Shiites to live side by side – only for Sunnis to live with security forces that are predominantly Shiite. By contrast, Mosul was renowned for its diversity. And when IS arrived, Tikrit largely emptied of all but IS collaborators, while in Mosul, much of the population remained.

“I think many people from Mosul joined ISIS, because they stayed for a long time – that will make deeper problems between the tribes,” says Oqaab.

The lessons from Tikrit are that liberation forces should be mixed, and that they “should have civil service teams right behind them,” says Oqaab. “When officials are all there, they should send a message to [the displaced]: ‘Life can return.’ ”

But the Mosul fight is on a different scale, after one month of fighting.

“In Mosul there are the Turks, the Americans, the Iraqi Army, [Prime Minister Haider] Abadi, Sunni parliament members.… There’s like 20 agendas working over there,” says Jabouri, the Sunni militia commander.

“Everyone wants to be involved, but you can’t have 20 cooks cooking the same meal.”

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