A newly formed force, National Mobilisation Unit, will support the Iraqi army during the offensive on Mosul.
Al-Alam, Iraq – Displaced residents of this town northeast of Tikrit are returning after fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fled advancing Shia militias and Iraqi security forces two weeks ago.
But they are returning home to find an empty, gloomy place, full of rubble from destroyed houses and defaced by Badr Brigade fighters, one of the groups fighting ISIL, that first got into the town after ISIL was expelled. ISIL flags have been removed and pro-ISIL graffiti has been defacted.
The population of Al-Alam is around 60,000 people.
“[ISIL] entered Al-Alam without fighting and left it without fighting,” said a man identifying himself as Abu Layla, a resident of the town who has not left his house over the past few months. He explained that after ISIL’s arrival, the group destroyed houses belonging to policemen, soldiers, and officials linked to the Iraqi government.
Three weeks ago, more than 30,000 Iraqi security forces and mostly Shia militia groups called the Popular Moblisation launched a major offensive to retake Tikrit – the hometown of the former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein – and the nearby towns and villages, which were seized by ISIL last summer.
In al-Alam, more than 200 houses and stores belonging to the al-Jbarra and al-Ghanam families, seen as supporters of the government in Baghdad, as well as governmental buildings were blown up a few days after ISIL took control of the city, local residents and paramilitary fighters told Al-Jazeera.
looted everything in my house but at least they did not blow it up, thank God. No matter what we suffered, now we can go back home and we will compensate everything as long as we still have these walls.”]
Other houses were looted and etched with graffiti reading, “The real estate of the Islamic State”.
One of those houses is owned by Mansour al-Hamad, who upon returning to al-Alam was nevertheless pleased to find that his home was not destroyed. “I am so happy to come back to my home. [ISIL fighters] looted everything in my house but at least they did not blow it up, thank God. No matter what we suffered, now we can go back home and we will compensate everything as long as we still have these walls.”
A quick tour of Al-Alam reveals the identity of the fighters who liberated the town from ISIL. The words “Badr – The Military Wing” have been written in white paint on almost every corner and on every government building, often accompanied by its flag.
The Badr Organisation is the oldest and one of the best-organised Shia militias in Iraq. It was formed in exile in Iran in the 1980s to fight against Saddam Hussein’s rule during the Iran-Iraq war, and since then has been funded, armed and equipped by Iran.
Badr has been playing the key role in the war against ISIL since last June, when the Iraqi army melted away in the face of ISIL’s advance through the predominantly Sunni parts of the country’s north and west.
“Those, on the ground now, are the sons of al-Alam who joined the popular mobilisation forces [the umbrella under which numerous groups, including Sunnis, Turkoman, Christians and Kurds volunteers are fighting ISIL],” a paramilitary forces commander, who requested to remain anonymous for security reasons, told Al Jazeera.
“The members of the checkpoints that control the entrances of al-Alam now are from the al-Jouboor tribe from al-Alam, but they are loyal to Badr organisation and showed its logo on their uniform,” the commander explained.
At the eastern entrance of al-Alam, dozens of cars queued at a security checkpoint, waiting to be permitted to enter the town.
“Finally, we are coming back to our homes. Waiting for another one or two hours is nothing compared to what we suffered during the last nine months [of ISIL rule],” said Mustafa Mohammed, 34, who was returning to his hometown with his 12 family members.
“We were living in small tents in a camp near Samarra where the minimum of basic services were not available. Going back to our homes, even if they are just remains, is much better than living as animals,” said Mohammed.
Those manning the checkpoint are from al-Alam told Al Jazeera that their mission is limited to looking for ISIL fighters and collaborators.
No one is allowed to go back to his home without being approved by the members of this checkpoint,” said Sheikh Marowan al-Jabarah, the spokesperson of the Salahuddeen Council, a local council formed by heads of the tribes and coordinates with the central government.
“The names and pictures of the wanted people in Salahuddeen have been circulated on all checkpoints, and none of them will dare to go back,” said al-Jabarah. “Even their families will not come back, as they afraid of the victims’ families’ reprisal.”
Local officials in Salahuddeen, including the deputy head of the provincial council and head of the displaced people’s committee, told Al Jazeera that around 4,000 families have returned to their homes in al-Alam in the past few days.
The scale of the destruction seems to be worse in the nearby town of al-Dour, 40 kms east of Tikrit, which was also taken from ISIL by the Popular Mobilisation two weeks ago.
Many houses and buildings on its side streets were destroyed. On the main street, pro-ISIL graffiti have been crossed out with red paint, and replaced by the words “Kataib Hezbollah-Iraq”.
Kataib Hezbollah-Iraq is another Shia militia that has played a major role in fighting ISIL over the past year. During the recent offensive, it was tasked with taking al-Dour, according to Jaafar al-Hussaini, spokesperson of Kataib Hezbollah-Iraq as well as several Popular Mobilisation commanders.
Al-Dour is the hometown of Izzat al-Douri, the former Iraqi vice president during the Saddam Hussein era and the commander of the Naqshibindi Army, one of several Sunni armed groups that has supported ISIL. Al-Dour is also the home of many relatives of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL’s leader and self-proclaimed caliph, according to Iraqi security officials and residents.
“We were not allowed to get into al-Dour, but one of the local fighters told us that most of the houses have been burned,” said a resident of the town who declined to give his name for security reasons.
“We know that [ISIL] did not burn these houses,” he said, sarcastically [he believes that Kataib Hezbollah-Iraq did that ]musing that perhaps an electric problem was at fault.