Shiite Militias Move Into A Sunni City: What Happens Next? : Parallels Forces from the Iraqi army, police and militias are clearing out the self-styled Islamic State, or ISIS, in Tikrit. Many of the fighters are Shiites, and they're moving into a Sunni city.
NPR logo

Shiite Militias Move Into A Sunni City: What Happens Next?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/396975962/396975963" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Shiite Militias Move Into A Sunni City: What Happens Next?

Shiite Militias Move Into A Sunni City: What Happens Next?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/396975962/396975963" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Opponents of the self-proclaimed Islamic State can finally say they're making progress on the ground. A motley collection of forces is clearing out the Iraqi city of Tikrit. It's long been famous as Saddam Hussein's hometown. More recently, it was one of the Sunni Muslim areas easily captured by the Islamic State. Now Shia-dominated forces are taking over. And that underlines one of the tensions that drove the Islamic State's advance to begin with. NPR's Alice Fordham reports from Tikrit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MILITIAMEN: (Foreign language spoken).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: As I arrive in Tikrit the day after anti-ISIS fighters took the city center, there are militiamen on the roof of a government building running up three of their yellow banners just a little higher than the national Iraqi flag.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MILITIAMEN: (Singing in foreign language).

FORDHAM: The commander, the head of one of many militias here, reluctantly breaks off a triumphant and song-filled television interview to talk to me.

ABU MAYTHAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "I can't separate myself from the Iraqi flag," he says, "but the yellow flag declares my identity."

MAYTHAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: His Shiite identity. He'll give only his nickname, Abu Maytham, because he says he's afraid of the Americans. U.S. military chiefs have expressed deep reservations about Shiite militias. The militias work together with the army and federal police in Iraq's war against ISIS. Often, they coordinate closely - but not always. The militias maintain their independence. Most of the government security forces are Shiite too. And that matters because Tikrit is almost all Sunni. Some people fear a cycle of sectarian revenge here, especially because this was the site of a notorious mass killing last summer. It happened amid the shattered glories of Tikrit's most famous son.

As we rolled into Saddam Hussein's palace complex here in Tikrit, there was the flag of ISIS painted on the blast walls at the door. And it's a symbolically important place here for the forces that are retaking Tikrit because this is where the Islamic State brought hundreds of recruits from the nearby army base at Speicher and killed them and threw them in the river. I speak with Ali Qassem, a federal policeman, a Shiite, sunburned and red-eyed after fighting for six days to retake this place.

ALI QASSEM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says he had friends who died when the Sunni extremists of ISIS slaughtered Shiite recruits.

QASSEM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Like they made martyrs for us, we made martyrs for them," he says. And it's this fine line between liberating the city and taking revenge that worries people. As yet, there are no civilians that I saw trying to get back into Tikrit. But in nearby towns taken back from ISIS, there's allegations of sectarian violence. Sunni civilians say Shiite militias destroyed and looted houses. Elsewhere, the government is also investigating claims they killed Sunni civilians. In the city of Samarra just down the highway, I sit with the city council chief, Omar Mohammed Hassan.

OMAR MOHAMMED HASSAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "This period is a test," he says. He sees both sectarian violence and crime among the militias. The council chief compiled a list of 180 militia crimes, mostly kidnapping and car theft, presented it to their commanders.

HASSAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "And actually," he says, "they instituted a disciplinary office, and the situation has improved." It does seem the militias do want to improve their image. On the way out of Tikrit, I stopped to talk to Sunni farmers whose land used to be under control of ISIS.

HADIA BADDARIA: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "We have no problem with the militias," says Hadia Baddaria, "although we are afraid of ISIS." As she stands in the palm-fringed fields, a truck full of the militiamen pulls up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK HORN)

FORDHAM: They've brought food and given a woman from the village a ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: She jumps out of the truck with a tiny baby in her arms, to the delight of the villagers, and heads home. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Tikrit.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.