Fighting in Tikrit in April
Hélène Sallon

TIKRIT â€" 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.

Empty hospital corridor in Tikrit â€" Photo: Tikritnews Facebook page

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.

Retaliations

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.”

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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