Looting and Destruction in Tikrit
While the damage caused in the recapture of al-Alam and Dour was significant, the looting in Tikrit was more extensive and had much greater political consequences. HRW found that Shi’a PMF looted, torched, and blew up between 160 and 200 civilian housing and buildings in Tikrit.27 They also found that the PMF unlawfully detained around 200 men and boys. The whereabouts of 160 of these men and boys was still unknown at the time of HRW’s research. Officials, residents, and Reuters correspondents also witnessed several extrajudicial killings by the Badr Brigades, AAH, and the Federal Police.28
The looting of Tikrit caused a public uproar; even Prime Minister al-Abadi spoke out against it and noted that some 168 homes or properties had been damaged. On April 4, 2015, al-Abadi met with Salah ad-Din province officials, and they issued a joint decision for all PMF fighters to leave Tikrit, placing the city in the hands of the federal and local police.29 The looting of Tikrit and the political backlash was a major reason given for holding back the PMF forces in the liberation of Mosul.
The local narrative of what happened in Tikrit differs somewhat from the larger political narrative at the time. Local officials interviewed for this study confirmed that hundreds of homes and shops were looted but estimated that the damage was relatively targeted and contained. Both a provincial council member and a leader of the Sheikh’s council estimated that the level of damage did not exceed 20 percent of public and private properties and that it predominantly affected those who had been affiliated with ISIL. Locals also tended to split the blame, ascribing some of the damage to Shi’a PMF acting out of sectarian motivations and in retaliation for Camp Speicher, but much more of it to the local Sunni tribal PMF affiliated with the Shi’a PMF.30 As evidence, they pointed to the fact that looting and destruction was quite targeted against rival tribes whom the Sunni PMF forces blamed for supporting ISIL and, in many cases, who had directly targeted their properties and family members when ISIL was in control.
Fractured Control and Shi’a PMF Dynamics
Although Tikrit and its surrounding areas have been under Iraqi government and local governorate control since April 2015, this control is divided and shaky. With the main frontline with ISIL only 15 kilometers away at the Jilliam Desert in Dour, Tikrit and surrounding areas experienced frequent attacks throughout 2015. Another major offensive in March 2016 pushed this frontline back somewhat, relieving security pressures on Tikrit and Samarra and shifting the fighting to Shirqat. However, even in 2017, ISIL sleeper attacks and threats in Tikrit continued. Some analysts speculated that Tikrit was so under-manned that it was still vulnerable to being re-taken by ISIL.
ISIL is far from the only source of instability in the Tikrit area or the governorate as a whole. Perhaps even more concerning is the overall effect of competing security actors in Salah ad-Din on rule of law and stability. Although the Shi’a PMF forces are not formally in control and are often not visible, they rival Iraqi official forces for control, and some interviewees argued that they are “the true power holders” in Salah ad-Din. The most frequently mentioned and influential Shi’a PMF in the Tikrit, Dour, and al-Alam areas at the time of writing were Badr, AAH, and Hezbollah (for more on these groups, please see the Annex of quick facts on key LHSF groups).31 The Khorasani Brigades are also active in the nearby area. Many of the forces for these groups are based outside the main population areas – for example, Badr in the Himreen mountains on the border between Tikrit and Kirkuk governorate. However, through free access across the governorate and local forces affiliated with them, these PMF forces retain a substantial influence on the Tikrit area.
Interviewees, including governorate officials, said that the Shi’a PMF follow their own orders and do not defer to local authorities. The degree of PMF forces’ autonomy is so great that they even maintain their own detention sites in Salah ad-Din, in Baiji, Samarra, Balad, and Hamra. Member of Parliament Badr al-Fahal confirmed this fact publicly on television (and later said he received threats as a result of his disclosure). Given their significant force size and political autonomy, local governorate authorities are not able to control or check PMF behavior, even where it violates the law. As an example of the power dynamics, local officials cited conflicts between the Shi’a PMF and Iraqi forces, of Shi’a PMF disregarding Iraqi officials at checkpoints, and even of clashes between both forces. As an example, one local journalist cited an incident in the summer of 2016, in which – after an initial disagreement – members of Kata’ib Hezbollah detained members of Iraqi SWAT forces stationed in Tikrit. To resolve the issue and have their members released, the involved Iraqi and local authorities eventually had to back down from their position. Describing overall conditions in the governorate and local areas, as one provincial council member noted: “The Iraqi police are available [and] try to apply the rule of law, but…the existence of different types of forces and sometimes clashes with [these forces] weakens their performance.”
Most of the allegations of misconduct or abusive behavior – most frequently kidnapping and detention of locals and looting and destruction of property – were attributed to Hezbollah and AAH. Local officials and tribal elders generally agreed that most Badr fighters were law-abiding and that the Badr Organization (both higher-level authorities and fighters) was more cooperative with and supportive of locals than other PMF groups, but still reported to their own command.
The contest for authority between the Shi’a PMF and local authorities is enmeshed in local political rivalries. At one pole is Governor Ahmed Abdullah al‑J’bouri, who most recently took up the governorship in April 2016 but had previously served in the same position in 2009 and 2013. The governor is generally opposed to PMF engagement in the governorate. However, though influential and stronger than other governors (i.e., in Ninewa), he is not able to prevent or contain their interference in the territory because the Shi’a PMF, in addition to their large numbers, weaponry, and entrenched positions, are politically supported by Governor J’bouri’s main rival, Yassin al‑J’bouri. The son of another prominent Sunni leader, Meshaan Al‑J’bouri, Yassin also controls his own Sunni PMF, predominantly from Shirqat.32
The fact that a prominent Sunni tribal leader would back Shi’a PMF to be active in his own governorate seems at odds with the more antagonistic rivalry that characterizes Sunni-Shi’a dynamics in much of the liberated areas. However, local analysts suggest that this may be a case of common enemies banding together. As one framed it, “Whatever is necessary to create chaos and make the area unstable is in the interests of both Yassin and the Shi’a PMF.” Several key informants interviewed suggested that the outcome of the ongoing competition between these two rivals would determine role the PMF would continue to play in Salah ad-Din in the future, and the overall level of stability. There were also significant concerns that these competing PMF groups, both local and Shi’a, could influence future political control and the dynamics of the upcoming elections. Several locals interviewed worried that the Shi’a PMF in the governorate could tip election results toward their close local ally, Yassin al‑J’bouri. As one local politician argued, “Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis [a key PMF leader] has a strong relationship with Meshaan al‑J’bouri and his son Yassin, and they all work against Abu Mazin (the governor). The next elections will be under their control, and they will choose whomever they wish. The winners will be one of their allies.”
Overall, interviewed local tribal and community leaders shared a great degree of mistrust in the Shi’a PMF, particularly AAH and Hezbollah, and viewed their intervention in the governorate as the most significant source of instability.33 One local official reflected the sentiments of those interviewed, saying, “The hashd [the Shi’a PMF] have played two roles in the cities they entered: one is positive, when they helped the Iraqi forces and the tribes to liberate their cities, and the other is bad, when some bad individuals accompanied them and perpetrated abuses. They tried to create problems on some occasions. They have looted some public places and private ones like the oil refineries.” While most cited Shi’a PMF abuses, some of the mistrust of Shi’a PMF appeared to be as much about cultural and political divisions as actual incidents of abuse; several interlocutors said that the Shi’a PMF were outsiders, with a different background and culture, who did not deal easily with local tribal culture and customs. Plus, while there were frequent reports of PMF violence, according to locals, some of this violence was actually perpetrated by Sunni forces working under the PMF, like the looting in Tikrit, rather than to Shi’a PMF themselves. The next section will discuss the Sunni-Shi’a PMF dynamics and how this relationship might influence incidents of violence.
Sunni Tribal PMF
Another layer of complexity in the security landscape lies in the role played by local Sunni tribal forces. Although these local tribal forces are a small part of the overall force – with some estimates that they number no more than 1,200 in the governorate as a whole34 – they can extend PMF influence (or government influence) over local areas. In addition, because they are embedded in tribal dynamics and conflicts, their engagement in local security roles may sharpen existing local divisions, making their impact more significant than their small numbers would suggest.
As ISIL swept through Salah ad-Din, it played into existing tribal divisions and rivalries, with some tribes directly supporting and joining ISIL forces, and other, pro-government leaning tribes opposing them. Many of those opposing ISIL had participated in local government, been members of the Iraqi forces or local police, or had joined the US-backed Sunni Awakening against ISIL’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, in years prior – all of which would put them, their families, and property at risk of direct ISIL retaliation. As ISIL took control across Salah ad-Din, many of these pro-government Sunni tribal leaders fled with the retreating Iraqi forces and re-constituted local, tribal defense forces under the then-newly created PMF umbrella.
Although Sunni tribal leaders in many cases took the decision to join in popular mobilization independently, all of those interviewed confirmed that once they joined the Shi’a‑led PMF forces, they would then come under or be affiliated with one of the larger Shi’a PMF in practice. Once a member of the PMF, the much smaller, tribal PMF would depend on Shi’a PMF resources and salary. Even if they desired greater independence, they are too weak to directly challenge them in any given area and would not be protected by the government.
How these local Sunni PMF became affiliated with different Shi’a PMF varied on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, there appears to have been an informal assignment process once these groups registered in Baghdad, and, in other cases, Badr and AAH directly recruited local tribal forces in Salah ad-Din as they entered or cleared areas. Illustrating some of these trends, Khalid al-Gibara, a former leader of the local Sunni tribal PMF force in al-Alam that calls itself the Sons of Alam, described how his forces formed. He said that when ISIL captured al-Alam, he and many of his tribal family members had fled to Samarra, beyond the group’s control. Al-Gibara reached out to a personal contact, someone affiliated with AAH, to register his al-Alam tribal forces under the PMF. In addition to making his initial connection through AAH, al-Gibara said that financial payments and other supporting weaponry and supplies arrive from Baghdad irregularly. As a result, to effectively establish his forces, he had to affiliate with a larger PMF force – in this case, AAH.
The mobilization of the oldest and most operational of the Sunni PMF in ad-Dour, the Shammari brigade (drawn from Shammar tribesmen), followed a different pattern. Leaders of the local Shammar tribe were called to Baghdad in 2015 specifically to ask them to form a local force, which would work on the ground with both Badr and AAH. This ad hoc formation and assignment process continued as of the time of writing. In late Spring 2017, a new Sunni PMF force was started by a local Dour Sunni leader based in Baghdad, and was specifically created to act as auxiliaries to Khorasani brigades in the area.
The number of distinct Sunni PMF units in an area, the strength of these individual units, and the role they play varies considerably and is continually evolving. In addition to al-Gibara’s AAH-affiliated force in al-Alam, there is at least one other prominent Sunni PMF in al-Alam, under the leadership of a tribal leader known as Masa’ab al-Fahal. It was stood up shortly after ISIL’s capture of al-Alam in August 2014, and although it initially worked closely with the Badr organization, in 2017 it began to work more directly with ISF and local police in al-Alam, as Badr and other PMF forces’ direct intervention and activities in al-Alam and Tikrit waned (al-Gibara’s unit has also reportedly begun to affiliate more closely with local authorities than AAH for similar reasons).
In Dour, at least four distinct Sunni PMF units were operative as of the time of writing:
- The Shammari Brigade noted above was the most advanced and supported the 9th Brigade of the Badr Organization in their operations on the frontline along the Jilliam Desert in Dour. While not an advanced security task, it certainly placed them closer to the frontline and active fighting than many other tribal forces, which are maintaining checkpoints in liberated and relatively stable areas (for example, in places like Qayyara in Ninewa). The Shammari Brigade also was known to coordinate with the Khorasani Brigade, which was operating out of the Hamreen mountains, although they did not report directly to them.
- Separate from the Shammari forces, another tribal force was established shortly after Dour was captured by ISIL. Since liberation, it has mostly been active in Dour city, and assigned to primarily checkpoint and patrol duties within Dour city and at the entry points to other districts. They have worked most closely with the local police and authorities but, given Badr’s influence in Dour, also sometimes coordinated activities with them.
- The exact role that would be played by the Dour Khorasani-affiliated brigade noted above was not yet defined, as most of the forces were still undergoing training at the time of writing. However, the Khorasani brigades have so far engaged primarily in combat activities in Salah ad-Din, and kept a distance from any hold or stabilization role, suggesting that any auxiliary force would be engaged more in a fighting support role than in manning checkpoints, and would likely be operative in a wider area of operations than just their local area.
- The last and newest group within Dour had only been established in July 2017, and its numbers were still growing at the time of writing. It was not clear at the time what their exact role in security dynamics and affiliation would be.
Although dependent on Shi’a PMF for protection and resources, the local Sunni forces tended to have a different agenda than the Shi’a PMF and no natural allegiance to these outside forces. Nearly all tribal leaders interviewed expressed skepticism about the Shi’a PMF’s motivations and argued for a return to full government control. Al-Gibara, who had recently handed over leadership of his group to another commander in order to resume his normal job, said that he and his fighters did not always agree with AAH’s behavior and conduct toward locals. He said they had joined the PMF to liberate and defend their homes, and that the reason that his and other PMFs had begun to distance themselves from Shi’a PMF in 2017 was because of their different interests.