TIKRIT — A line of vehicles has formed in front of the checkpoint at the southern entrance to Tikrit. The nine members of the Mouslah family, their personal goods and some food are stuffed into their overcrowded car. As policemen give instructions, the father, Nasser, fills out a form on the hood of the car while his children and wife wait under the shade of a tent. An hour later, he is given the precious paper, after the police and the intelligence services had verified that he was not on the list of those linked to ISIS, the Islamic State terror group.
After Tikrit's liberation on March 31, the jihadists have been pushed back 70 kilometers to the north, behind several defensive lines. But doubts remain about the identity of the men who helped ISIS conquer Saddam Hussein's former home territory in June 2014. Ten men had discovered with horror that their names appeared on the list of the terrorist group associates. "They are under investigation," is all that Iraqi colonel Karim Salman, head of military intelligence of the Salaheddine district, will say.
More than 1,000 families who'd fled last year were welcomed back to Tikrit earlier this month. The authorities in Baghdad, dominated by Shiite parties, want to give off a positive message to the city's Sunnis ahead of planned assaults on another Sunni district, Anbar in western Iraq. This follows accusations of robbery and looting that tarnished the liberation of this Sunnite city of 175,000.
No more bombs nor explosives
The Shiite militia groups have left security of the city in the hands of local police and of a militia group formed by the Joubour Sunnite tribe. But the fighters belonging to Badr, Asaïb and Al-Haq or Kataeb Hezbollah Shiite militias still have ways of controlling the city. "It is suffocating to see all of those checkpoints, but it is maybe necessary to keep the city safe and to encourage families to come back," says Oum Aïcha, 29.
In early June, she returned with her husband, who was called to help fix Tikrit's electric grid. It is all very much a work-in-progress. "All the bombs and explosives have been removed. More than 80% of the city has running water and electricity," says the city's mayor, Omar Al-Chandar. Some stores have reopened, but flour and gas are still in short supply.
At first glance, the desert landscape of Tikrit can be shocking for those who left nearly a year ago when the jihadists attacked the city. After a 10-month occupation and one month of fierce fighting, the former "Jewel of Saddam Hussein" on the shore of the Tigris River has all the scars of war: destroyed palaces and buildings, burned-out car chassis and looted stores.
Human representations painted in black on walls are a reminder of the recent presence of ISIS, while elsewhere Arabic graffiti glorifies the Imam Hussein and Persian slogans hail the Ayatollah celebrating the victory of Shiite militias and their Iranian ally.
In the neighborhood near the front-line, some people have found their home in ruins. Local authorities estimate that some 400 houses were destroyed. "My apartment's roof fell down. My goods were stolen or broken," says Saad Attaoui, who is staying in a cousin's house with his wife and their seven children.
Even far from the combat zones, some people have found their homes in shambles. They assume they have been ransacked and robbed by ISIS as well as the Shiite militia groups.
Einam Mostafa, 55, who supports her husband and six children on her teacher's salary, was outraged by what she found upon returning. "We are happy to come back. A lot of people gave their lives for us. But look around: everything was stolen in the house. Fighters used our bed sheets and our drawers as a toilet," she says in disgust.
Others still do not dare walk through the city, fearing they could be targeted in some intertribal vendetta. On the phone, Abou Ibrahim, a professor at Tikrit University, said he had become "embarrassing" for local authorities. They are "all from the Joubour tribe," a "corrupted" tribe according to him. He belongs to the Abou Nasser clan, a fact that is far from insignificant: Abou Nasser is the tribe into which Saddam Hussein was born, hated by the Joubour as well as the Shiite militias, and accused of having helped ISIS and participated in the slaughter of some 1,700 draftees last June.
The way some tribe members act, and the passive neutrality of others, contribute to a looming menace for all. "Nobody from these two clans has been back in Tikrit yet," explains Ibrahim. "We fear retaliations, kidnappings and extortion. My house and my three brothers' houses were already destroyed."
Negotiations are underway to allow for the safe return of innocent members of these tribes. But for now, much terrain remains abandoned. Ten kilometers to the south, in the small town of Al-Awja, where Saddam Hussein was born, Abou Ibrahim quips: "There once was a village called Awja."