In Tikrit Offensive, Local Sunnis, Shiite Militias Are Unlikely Allies

Mar 19, 2015
Originally published on March 20, 2015 12:53 pm

The graying city mayor agrees to meet a few hours before he heads to the battlefront. He is haggard after living in exile since June, when the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, swept into his city — al-Sharqat, Iraq, a hour's drive north of Tikrit.

Ali Dodah al-Jabouri has a reason to fight: Islamic State militants killed his brother and 18 other relatives. But as part of a prominent Sunni Arab tribe, he is joining an unusual alliance with Iraqi Shiite militias backed and armed by Iran.

He was once fought Iran in a long and costly war an officer in Saddam Hussein's army. Now, he is changing his business suit for a military uniform to take part in the assault on Tikrit in the Sunni heartland. Tikrit is well known as the birthplace of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, but the fighting force is predominantly Shiites. Sunni tribes are a token force.

Jabouri says that the Islamic State is a common enemy, and that Tehran gained his loyalty because Iran has put boots on the ground and offered support while the Americans dithered.

"The Americans gave us nothing," he says. "No one helped us when ISIS came — not American, not Turkey. But Iran helped us, with guns, tanks and rockets."

There is a wide consensus from Baghdad to Washington that the best way — and possibility the only way — to defeat the Islamic State is to turn at least part of the Sunni Arab community against the militants, but so far the Jabouri tribe represents a minority. Many Sunnis have not risen against the Islamic State, out of fear, self-interest, or because they see the Shiite militias as even a worse option than ISIS.

Jabouri says the Shiite militias have gained momentum against the militants, pushing them out of Sunni areas south of Tikrit.

His city, al-Sharqat is a victim of the Islamic State and geography, located on a highway between the larger urban centers of Mosul, which the militants captured in June, and Tikrit. They've declared al-Sharqat part of their self-declared Islamic caliphate.

More militants have arrived in al-Sharqat recently, on a northward retreat from pro-government forces hitting Tikrit. Jabouri says he's going back to his city to kill them.

A decade ago the Jabouri tribe fought al-Qaida militants alongside Americans. Many Jabouris joined the Sunni Awakening movement organized and funded by the U.S. military. This time, Jabouri says he's fighting alongside Iraq's Shiite militias and the Iranians because they are willing to fight ISIS now.

"The Americans said we need two years" to liberate Tikrit and Mosul, says Jabouri. The Shiite militias and their Iranian advisers launched an offensive in early March.

The Tikrit assault reflects the influence Iran wields in Baghdad. Tehran set the date for the military campaign, according to Western sources, and helped train and arm the militias — paramilitary groups organized under a secretive Iraqi government group called the Popular Mobilization Committee, or Hashid Shaabi.

But as the militias have pushed out the Islamic State militants, there has been a major snag — Shiite revenge attacks, documented with photos. One particularly gruesome image that appeared on Twitter showed a Shia militiaman posing with the severed head of an ISIS fighter.

A Human Rights Watch report this week documents looting and burning of civilian homes in Sunni villages — charges the paramilitary commanders vigorously deny.

Washington has warned Baghdad of funding cuts if the militias are not reigned in. Baghdad has finally gotten the message, says Zaid al-Ali, author of "The Struggle for Iraq's Future"

"The prime minister made a very negative statement about criminal elements within the Popular Mobilization Forces," al-Ali says. "He made big deal that they will be punished."

It's a crucial message for the major battles to come, he says, especially in Islamic State-controlled Mosul, where there are more than a million mostly Sunni civilians who view Shiite-dominated Baghdad with fear and distrust.

"If there are terrible abuses in Tikrit, then of course ISIS will thrive on that — and they'll tell people in Mosul 'this is what's going to happen to you,' " al-Ali says. "Whereas if people are allowed to go back home in Tikrit and the city doesn't suffer terribly, that will send a powerful message to Mosul: 'This is the right side of the battle.' "

Police General Ali al-Jabouri believes he is on the right side of the battle. He's been fighting in Tikrit, another member of the Jabouri tribe who has sided with Shiite militias in the fight against ISIS. General Jabouri says he's heard about Washington's complaints.

"Yeah, sure, I heard this — but I don't think they have the full picture," he says. "I want to say, 'everyone knows who's ISIS.' In my area, I know who killed my brother, but I'm not going to make any trouble with civilians. Now, maybe the militias don't know that."

The Shiite militias and the charges of abuse are now a concern across Iraq, but for these members of the Jabouri trip, the fight against ISIS is a higher priority.

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Transcript

DON GONYEA, HOST:

In Iraq, the city of Tikrit and the areas around it are at the center of an ongoing battle. Sunni extremists with the self-proclaimed Islamic State took over the predominantly Sunni area in June. Now Iraqi security forces and allied militias are trying to drive ISIS out. Most of these forces are Shiite and backed by Iran, and some have a record of revenge attacks on Sunnis, but NPR's Deborah Amos spoke to local Sunni tribesmen who have unexpectedly joined the Shia.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Ali Al Jabbouri agrees to meet here in northern Iraq a few hours before he heads for the battlefront. A member of a prominent Iraqi tribe, Jabbouri is also the mayor of a city of 100,000, Al Shargat, now occupied by ISIS militants.

And tomorrow, you are going to change from your suit and...

MAYOR ALI AL JABBOURI: I am soldier in army - (laughter) my army.

AMOS: His army is a tribal force, more than a thousand men. This graying city mayor has reason to fight. Eighteen of his relatives are dead, including his brother, killed by militants in June. His city is a victim of ISIS and the map. Located on a highway between two larger urban centers, ISIS sees Mosul first, then swept down the highway towards Tikrit, grabbing Al Shargat along the way. ISIS declared Ali Jabbouri's city as part of the so-called Islamic caliphate.

JABBOURI: Yes. My city.

AMOS: Recently, more militants have showed up as pro-government forces hit Tikrit. Some ISIS fighters are retreating north.

JABBOURI: They left Tikrit and come to Al Shargat - the ISIS.

AMOS: So that's why you're going back to fight?

JABBOURI: Yes. So that I go to Al Shargat to kill any ISIS.

AMOS: A decade ago, the Jabbouri tribe fought militants alongside Americans. Many joined the awakening movement organized by the U.S. military. This time, Jabbouri says he's fighting alongside Iran and Iraq's Shiite militias. It's a surprising alliance considering Jabbouri was once an officer in Saddam Hussein's army fighting against Iran, and many Sunnis are especially wary of their powerful Shiite neighbor. But times are different, he insists. Iran is willing to put boots on the ground.

JABBOURI: (Through interpreter) Yes, that's right. I was in the Iraqi army, but you have to know what - when ISIS come, we just need help for anyone - America, Turkey, anyone. No one help us. Iran help us, and it's fine. Iran help us. No one help us. America don't help us.

AMOS: Iran is helping and backs Iraq's Shiite militias, but there's a major snag as pictures of Shiite revenge attacks against Sunnis emerge. One particularly gruesome image - a Shia militiamen posed with the severed head of an alleged ISIS fighter and posted it on Twitter. A Human Rights Watch report this week documents looting and burning of civilian homes in Sunni villages. Washington has warned of funding cuts if the militias aren't reined in. Analyst Zaid Al Ali says that Baghdad has finally gotten the message.

ZAID AL ALI: It seems to be the case now that the government is kind of getting its act together.

AMOS: The Prime Minister publicly condemned the abuse and warned of severe punishment if it didn't stop. It's a crucial message for the major battles to come, says Zaid Al Ali, author of "The Struggle For Iraq's Future." Sunnis in ISIS-controlled Mosul are all watching what happens in Tikrit.

ALI: If there are terrible abuses in Tikrit, then of course ISIS will thrive on that, and they'll tell people in Mosul, this is what's going to happen to you, whereas if people are allowed to go back home in Tikrit and the city doesn't suffer terribly, that send a very powerful message to Mosul that this is the right side of the battle.

AMOS: This Iraqi police general, also a Jabouri, believes he's on the right side of the battle. Ali Jabouri is a Sunni Arab fighting ISIS along with Iraqi Shiites. Still, the Jabouri tribe represents a minority. Most Sunnis haven't risen up against ISIS yet out of self-interest or out of fear or because they see the Shiite militias as worse. General Jabouri says he knows Washington has complained about the abuses.

ALI JABOURI: (Through interpreter) Yeah, sure, I heard this. But I don't think they have the full picture. I want to say, everyone knows who's ISIS. In my area, I know who killed my brother. But I'm not going to make any trouble with civilians. Now maybe the militias don't know that.

AMOS: These Shiite militias and the charges of abuse are now a concern across Iraq. But for these members of the Jabouri tribe, the fight against ISIS is a higher priority. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Erbil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.