By Ghazwan Al-Jibouri in Tikrit
Sunni tribal elders and Shiite militias agreed that displaced locals could return to their homes in Al Awja. But militias are not going anywhere and nobody knows why.
Tikrit local Abdul-Rahman al-Nasiri has been waiting to return home for years. He left his hometown of Al Awja several years ago and, with his family, has been moving from town to town ever since. The 48-year-old and his family of seven are now living in a small house in the Sulaymaniyah in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Years of displacement have left me with nothing,” he explains. “I have even sold my wife’s jewellery and my car.”
But recently, the al-Nasiri family had some hope. “We heard that approval had been granted for those who were displaced from Al Awja to return,” he says. “But then we also heard rumours of arrests, kidnappings and killings of those who had returned. So now we’re waiting again.”
It has been around seven months since the militias in charge of security in the area around Al Awja agreed that the displaced could return here. Al Awja has long been a controversial spot. With a Sunni Muslim majority population, it was always in the spotlight as the home of the former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, also a Sunni Muslim who prioritised his sect while he was in power. The militias currently in charge of security here are part of a Shiite Muslim force that mobilized when the extremist group known as the Islamic State caused a years-long security crisis.
Last year in July, the province’s governor, Ammar Jabr Khalil, said that a deal had been done between local tribal elders and the militias, and that security checkpoints run by militias would return to the local federal police. But they haven’t as yet – and that’s meant that nobody has been able to return to Al Awja either.
Nobody really knows why, says Manaf Ali al-Nada, the head of the tribe that most of the residents of Al Awja belong to – Saddam Hussein belonged to this tribe too. “Up until today, the police haven’t been allowed to enter the area,” the community leader said. “We have great confidence in the federal security forces so we’re not afraid if they are there, but we cannot enter.”
The tribal elders had asked that security for the returnees be assured by federal police forces and that the Al Awja police station also be returned to them. However the militia known as Kataib Sayid al-Shuhada, led by Abu Alaa al-Walai, has refused to allow federal forces to enter or to give back any property.
“We were relieved when they said they would allow this but it hasn’t happened, and we still don’t know exactly why, “ added Badr al-Rifai, another community head from Tikrit.
A group of more than 200 families actually completed all the formalities that would have allowed them to return several months ago, al-Nada noted, but they haven’t been able to go back. This is despite the fact that many of people that live in this area have already undergone security screenings – to ensure they are not extremists – and many even work in security.
Al-Nada thinks it is because of the nature of the area and the symbolism it holds as the birthplace of the Sunni Muslim ex-dictator. The Shiite Muslim militias want to hold onto it – it’s a symbolic victory for them – and it also means they have a particularly negative attitude toward the local residents.
A source in the provincial government, who did not want to be named for security reasons, relates that most of the militias who agreed to withdraw, did actually do so. “But there are two factions that still refuse to withdraw and nobody knows why,” the source explained. “This is what happens when there are security forces on the ground that are not controlled by the state. Now only the government can resolve this situation and that will be dangerous.”
As for Abdul-Rahman al-Nasiri, he and his family will just have to wait until the matter is resolved – whenever that is – to return to their long lost home.