BAGHDAD — Soon after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the liberation of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS) March 31, stories began circulating about alleged acts of arson and looting of houses and stores by members of the predominantly Shiite volunteer militias of the Popular Mobilization Units. The nature of war against a fierce enemy facilitates gossip and rumors, so the stories are often conflicting, leaving Iraqis divided over the matter.
Some charge that the events are false allegations being used to destroy the image of the Shiite militias, which along with Iraqi army forces fought street battles in liberating Tikrit. Adnan al-Asadi, a parliamentarian from the State of Law Coalition, believes this to be the case, claiming in a press release April 5 that “accomplices in terrorism are spreading such stories.”
Other Iraqis, however, think the stories are factual in revealing the conduct of the units. Among those who believe they committed the alleged acts are Tikrit tribal members, some of whom issued a statement April 5 charging that the “militias have burned 400 shops in Tikrit.”
Ahmed al-Karim, head of the Salahuddin Provincial Council, claimed in an April 3 statement, “Shiite fighters continue to loot and burn buildings in Tikrit city.” On April 4, the Salahuddin tribes demanded that the units withdraw from the province. They also accused Iranian militias of wanton destruction in Tikrit as the battles raged, while acts of vandalism increased after the city's liberation. Shiite Iraqi bloggers have created a Facebook page, “Thalajati Sharafi” (My Fridge, My Honor), satirizing the assorted rumors and ridiculing the accusations leveled against the units.
The controversy over what happened in Tikrit is being publicly discussed in TV interviews and debates. Sunni parliamentarian Najeh al-Mizan told Ninevah TV April 6, “The militias have looted and stolen Tikrit.” On April 9, Karim al-Nuri, a Shiite and spokesman for the volunteer units, denied the accusations of wrongdoing, attributing the violations to “tribal conflicts and mere individual excesses.” Tamim Hassan, a fighter who participated in the Salahuddin battles, told Al-Monitor, “The individual acts of looting were exaggerated, as happened during many wars in cities.”
Some of the Shiite fighters were accused of stealing residents' refrigerators, electronics and gas cylinders, among other items. Jawad al-Shammari, director of the information office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq, told Al-Monitor, “It is illogical that a volunteer fighter, who has left his city and family, would steal a refrigerator and gas cylinder.” Possibly proving one allegation incorrect, he said, “The gas cylinders seized by the security forces were used by terrorists as IEDs [improvised explosive devices].”
Walid al-Tai, a journalist for the Al-Haqiqa newspaper, told Al-Monitor that he has in his possession “prepared field reports from the battlefields in Tikrit indicating that the residents admitted that the thefts were committed by some of the city’s residents.” The conflicting reports of what did or did not happen in Tikrit, and the difference between those denying or alleging the violations, raise the possibility for political and sectarian exploitation of the situation.
While Karim charged on March 22, “The Popular Mobilization Units have committed extensive violations in Salahuddin province,” the author Mona al-Hussein, who lives in the same area in Salahuddin, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview, “The violations are mere fabrications.” Political analysts are also divided on the matter. Jassem al-Moussawi, an author and analyst, told Al-Monitor, “The allegations of violations are designed to neutralize the Popular Mobilization Units, which supported the army and have succeeded in countering terrorism.” Yahya al-Kubaisi, a consultant for the Amman-based Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies, told Iraq's al-Hurra TV on March 28, “The security forces are involved in such violations.”
Abadi had said on April 6, “One hundred fifty-two houses and shops were burned down in the city of Tikrit,” but he did not identify the perpetrators. Between the denials and accusations, author Mohsin Ali Attiya, told Al-Monitor, “It is naive to deny the excesses, because Abadi himself has acknowledged them, gave orders to deal with the thieves and noted that the perpetrators will be held accountable.”
The controversy surrounding Tikrit makes clear that there are some who want to prevent the Shiite units from entering Sunni cities under IS control in the course of trying to liberate them. Among them is Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Ninevah province, who on April 9 said, “The Popular Mobilization Units will participate in the liberation of Mosul over my dead body.”
The alleged violations have renewed the determination of some Iraqis to bar volunteer militias from the battles to liberate Ramadi and Mosul, but their success is not guaranteed. According to an April 8 statement by Maj. Gen. Qassem al-Mohammadi, commander of Anbar operations, “The Popular Mobilization Units will participate in the liberation of Anbar alongside the security forces and tribesmen.”