The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights was recently tasked with preparing a report for the PM’s National Reconciliation advisor regarding the return of IDPs to their homes in Diyala and Salahudin, investigating alleged abuses by the PMU, and looking at the mass graves uncovered near Tikrit that contain victims of the Speicher massacre. Very few members of the Commission and their staff were willing to go out to Diyala and Salahudin fearing the security situation and that locals may be hostile. Eventually one member managed to convince her staff to go on a visit to areas secured by the Iraqi forces. I arranged to join the convoy departing on 25 March to get more first hand accounts of the situation in these areas.
Dhuluiyah is a small town of around 65,000 people, half of which hail from the Jibour tribe and the other half from mainly 2 other tribes. All the residents are Sunni Arab and it is largely surrounded by the Tigris, making it difficult to access now that only one temporary bridge is in operation. It was besieged by daesh for several months, attacked from the Khazraj village to the north (Jibouris blame the Albu Jawari), the dirt road into Diyala from the west, and the embankment across the Tigris to the south. At the end of last year daesh had been pushed out of the surrounding areas and the siege was lifted, with families returning to their homes, some struggling to make ends meet with little income and government support, and in the worst cases a largely demolished house.
We were greeted on our arrival by Dhakir al-Jibouri, one of the tribal leaders in Dhuluiyah, who had invited key people from the local community to meet us and also offer us a traditional breakfast. Sheikh Dhakir, Abu Faisal, was the Sahwa leader in the area and had lost 7 of his close relatives in the fight against AQ in previous years. The locals explained to us how they managed to hold out against a vicious enemy, who lobbed over 3,000 mortar rounds and used suicide boats, sniper fire and RPGs to try to wear down the town’s defences. In the end just over 650 inhabitants of Dhuluiyah were killed, 500 of them were actually fighting for daesh. This was the uncomfortable truth that faced several Sunni Arab communities; daesh were in their own families. One police colonel who employed his cousins as his bodyguards was killed by them at the onset of the siege. Other stories show a similar pattern of betrayal and opportunism.
During the breakfast meeting we were introduced to Abu Aqil from the Albu Badri tribe, who turns out to be a distant cousin of daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Aside from disowning his infamous relative, he also explained that the most immediate danger to the families returning to their homes was inter-tribal conflict. This also extended to intra-tribal disputes as well, partly financial, but partly owing to one family having a daesh member who killed someone from another family.
We visited the new graveyard that had around 150 graves for those killed in the siege, mostly from the Jibour tribe. Some were very young children, some were elderly men, but all of them were locals who died inside Dhuluiyah. As we drove out of town we saw a large poster with an image of Hadi al-Ameri with a caption saying it was a gift from the local people in honour of the man who rescued them. Sheikh Dhakir said they owed their lives to the marjaiyah and Hadi al-Ameri, who led the Badr fighters across from Diyala and into Dhuluiyah, Balad, and then Samarra. But he was critical of the government for not providing enough support since the siege was lifted.
Our next stop was in Samarra where we met with Ameri and he set about answering questions in his usual defiant manner. Was US help needed in Tikrit? No. Why was there a delay in the battle? The Iraqi Army needed more time to complete its preparations in the western front of Tikrit before a push into the centre. Had homes been burned by fighters entering recaptured areas? Yes but these were a few isolated incidents by ignorant men out for destruction and perpetrators were caught and punished. What about homes that were detonated? Yes most of these were necessary because homes were booby-trapped and several people were killed when entering these homes.
He also mentioned having to mediate in inter-tribal conflict in the regained areas and that nobody could stop him from entering Mosul and securing it. There were comments of annoyance/criticism with the US, the media, the Iraqi army, human rights organisations, and those who denounce the PMU without also mentioning the achievements and successes.
The PMU role is undoubtedly the most contentious in the post-daesh Iraq. The most ideal scenario is that they are integrated into the proposed National Guard. Current estimates of the total numbers are 110,000 fighters under 39 different groups. What is seen at the moment is a concerted effort by each of these groups to maintain a distinct identity and not be subsumed under the PMU label. They have their own branding, bases, weaponry, leadership, and everything else that enables them as paramilitary groups, or as referred to by the media, militias.
The final stop was meant to be al-Alam just outside Tikrit but it was getting late in the day and we were discouraged from heading there. Privately I had known that a new wave of operations were due to begin that night in Tikrit but al-Alam is not on the front line and so it was technically possible to go there. On the way back to Baghdad we passed through Dhuluiyah again were we stopped at a home that housed 9 families whose homes were destroyed in the siege. Rebuilding efforts were slow in these parts and though sectarianism seemed to be on the wane, the danger of violence from other causes was not far away.