AMANDA – The Tikrit operation must show Iraqis a different picture

The Tikrit operation must show Iraqis a different pictureAs the coalition of some 30,000 fighters — including some 20,000 Shiite militia members, Iraqi government forces and volunteers — battles to retake the Iraqi city of Tikrit from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), there is significant concern over the high risk of sectarian reprisals against the local Arab Sunni population, despite the participation of an estimated 1,000 Sunni fighters in the operation.Tikrit is probably best known as former Iraqi President Saddam Husseinand#39s hometown.

It is the capital of Saladin Governorate, part of what US military officials used to call the andldquoSunni Triangleandrdquo after the 2003 invasion. ISIL has occupied a huge chunk of this so-called triangle.

Tikrit was seized by ISIL in June 2014. Two weeks ago, a huge offensive was launched to retake it.

The first stage was the liberation of towns to the north and south of Tikrit. The Tikrit operation began shortly thereafter The campaign is the largest offensive against ISIL since the barbaric group began its bloody campaign.

This assault is also a litmus test for plans to retake the large northern city of Mosul, which was also occupied in June of last yearThere is a good chance Tikrit will be freed. While this is in part due to the significantly improved command structure and skill of the coalition forces, it is also a consequence of the fact that ISIL has spread itself rather thinly by carrying out simultaneous offensives elsewhere in Iraq and in Syria It has become increasingly difficult to hold on to taken cities while carrying out offensives elsewhere.

However, success is not simply about running ISIL out of town it is also about gaining the trust of the Arab Sunni population. Many of Tikritand#39s Arab Sunni population do not trust the Iraqi forces and Iran-backed militias.

The government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has tried to empower Sunnis by establishing a national guard. Yet while the Iraqi government has characterized the operation andldquoa national effortandrdquo and has taken important steps to try to assuage the Sunni populationand#39s fears over the role of Shiite militia fighters and their Iranian aisers, there can be no doubt that Sunnis distrust the militias, alleging abuses at their hands in the past.

There is a real fear of andldquorevengeandrdquo and that the andldquoliberatorsandrdquo will punish what many of the militia view as support from Sunnis to ISIL and the occupation of Iraqi territory. This is not to say that they all support ISIL, because this is not the case.

Many Arab Sunnis are nervous about the rise and spread of Shia Islam across the region and the role that Iran, the leader of the Shia world, plays in nurturing this. Many also have bad memories of being marginalized during the rule of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who pushed sectarian policies.

Therefore, many view ISIL as the only bulwark against the rise of Iran and Shia Islam Some Sunnis also fear that Shiites will use the Tikrit operation to redraw the regionand#39s demographics by claiming liberated Sunni lands. It is up to the Iraqi authorities to prove these fears do not become a reality.

Ultimately, the only chance of wiping out ISIL is if the peoples of the region put up a united front and do not allow gaps and spaces for ISIL to fill by taking key steps to resolve Iraqand#39s significant social and economic problems. This a difficult task in a country like Iraq, which has had a turbulent history and where all parts of society have been seriously oppressed at one time or another, with frequent sectarian and ethnic tensions — with the worst in Iraqand#39s modern history following the 2003 US-led invasion.

Hence it is little surprise there is a climate of hatred and distrust. The Tikrit operation is an operation to show a different picture to Iraqis.

It should not be used as an excuse to carry out ethnic cleansing. Instead, the evacuated Sunni population should be allowed to return peacefully without problems and the Iraqi government, along with the international community, needs to not only pledge to finance the rebuilding of destroyed infrastructure — including homes, schools and other key buildings along with roads, electricity and water and gas infrastructure — but must also carve out a long-term strategy to tackle Iraqand#39s complex social and economic problems.

This is essential for the countryand#39s long-term recovery.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman