TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) — In Iraq’s Tikrit, liberation from the Islamic State group comes at a heavy price, both in loss of life and in the sheer devastation the militants leave in their wake.
Much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown and once a bustling city north of Baghdad, now lies in ruins.
Islamic State extremists captured it during a blitz last June that also seized large chunks of northern and western Iraq, along with a huge swath of land in neighboring Syria.
After a nearly 10-month Islamic State occupation, it took Iraqi forces and their allies, including Iranian-backed Shiite militias, a month of ferocious street battles to win the city back. They declared victory in Tikrit on Wednesday, and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes also helped turn the tide in the final weeks of the battle.
Today, the houses that still stand are pocked with bullet holes and Tikrit’s streets are lined with potholes where mortars slammed down. The provincial headquarters in the downtown — now adorned with Shiite militia flags in place of the Islamic State group’s black banner — is burned from fire and damaged from heavy fighting.
On Friday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned that the military will start arresting and prosecuting those who loot abandoned Tikrit properties. He also urged security forces to quickly ensure that normalcy is restored so that Tikrit’s residents, most of whom fled the Islamic State onslaught, can return home.
The looting was first reported within hours of the military victory but authorities have refrained from blaming anyone. A number of human rights organizations have accused the Shiite militias of carrying out revenge attacks on Sunnis in newly-recaptured towns, or destroying their homes so they can never return.
Some Shiite militias have set up checkpoints on the southern approaches of Tikrit, and stop passing cars to check for looted goods.
A satellite image of Tikrit, released in February by the United nations, showed that at least 536 buildings in the city have been affected by the fighting. Of those, at least 137 were completely destroyed and 241 were severely damaged. The Iraqi offensive to recapture Tikrit also exacerbated previous damage, particularly in the city’s southern neighborhoods where clashes were the most intense.
So much about life in Tikrit under the Islamic State group’s rule remains unknown.
On the city’s outskirts, near Camp Speicher — a base once used by American forces — blood stains are splattered on a wall, next to a window offering a picturesque view of the Tigris River.
Government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists, say a mass grave was found on the camp’s grounds with bodies of up to 1,700 Iraqi soldiers killed by the extremists in Tikrit and northern Iraq last June.
In the heart of the city, Iraqi policemen are out in full force, along with explosives experts working to clear remaining roadside bombs and booby traps left behind by the militants. Evidence of the damage caused by the bombs is everywhere — charred military vehicles and remains of cars bombs have yet to be collected from the city streets.
But elsewhere, there is little law and order, and the Shiite militias roam Tikrit streets freely, spray-painting their graffiti and slogans on buildings and homes.
Much remains to be done before Tikrit residents, most of whom are Sunnis, can return. Services such as power and water are yet to be restored.
The government says police and local Sunni tribes eventually will be empowered to maintain law and order in Tikrit, and the militias are expected to leave.
But that is still off in the future.