TIKRIT, Iraq – The Islamic State is being crushed, its fighters are in retreat and the caliphate it sought to build in the image of a bygone glory is crumbling.
The biggest losers, however, are not the militants, who will fulfill their dreams of death or slink into the desert to regroup, but the millions of ordinary Sunnis whose lives have been ravaged by their murderous rampage.
No religious or ethnic group was left unscathed by the Islamic State’s sweep through Iraq and Syria. Shiites, Kurds, Christians and the tiny Yazidi minority have all been victims of a campaign of atrocities, and they now are fighting and dying in the battles to defeat the militants.
But the vast majority of the territory overrun by the Islamic State was historically populated by Sunni Arabs, adherents of the branch of Islam that the group claims to champion and whose interests the militants profess to represent. The vast majority of the 4.2 million Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes by the Islamic State’s war are Sunnis. And as the offensives get underway to capture Mosul, Iraq’s biggest Sunni city, and Raqqa, the group’s self-proclaimed capital in Syria, more Sunni towns and villages are being demolished, and more Sunni livelihoods are being destroyed.
Most Sunnis played no part in the militants’ rise. All are paying a heavy price for the sake of those who did, accelerating and deepening a reversal in the fortunes of the majority sect of Islam that had ruled the region for most of the past 1,400 years.
“ISIS was a tsunami that swept away the Sunnis,” said Sheik Ghazi Mohammed Hamoud, a Sunni tribal leader in the northwestern Iraqi town of Rabia, which was briefly overrun by the Islamic State in 2014 and is now under Kurdish control. “We lost everything. Our homes, our businesses, our lives.”
Across the border in Syria, where the war against the Islamic State is entangled with the complicated conflict between rebels and the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Sunnis are also bearing the brunt of the violence and dislocation. Sunni towns and neighborhoods are being leveled by Syrian and Russian airstrikes. The effort to crush the mostly Sunni rebellion relies heavily on Shiite fighters from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. Sunnis comprise the vast majority of the 5 million refugees scattered around the region and in Europe, according to the United Nations and the governments of the countries that are hosting them.
The dangers are clear, analysts and Iraqis say. Sunnis are at risk of becoming a dispossessed and resentful underclass in lands they once ruled, creating fertile conditions for a repeat of the cycle of marginalization and radicalization that gave rise to the Islamic State in the first place.
“It’s not just taking territory; you have to govern it properly, otherwise we’re just going to have a long-term Islamic State insurgency,” said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who is now with the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “If the new rulers don’t have local support, the Islamic State will always be able to recruit people, especially if the water isn’t turned on, the schools aren’t open and the electricity is off.”
Aid workers and diplomats say that is a worst-case scenario that need not come to pass if the war ends with reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation. In Iraq, where the biggest gains against the militants have been made, the prospect that they soon may be defeated holds the promise of a moment of hope and opportunity, for Sunnis as much as for the Shiites and Kurds leading the fight — a chance to reset relations and find a new accommodation with neighbors.
The nature of the accommodation is in question, however. The obstacles are immense, resources are scarce, and the prospects for real reconciliation still seem remote.
A journey through many of the towns and villages in Iraq that have been liberated from Islamic State control, most of them well over a year ago, reveals the enormous scale of the challenge. From the Syrian border in the west to the Iranian border in the east, there are wrecked villages, half-empty towns and people whose lives have been torn apart, perhaps irrevocably.
New rulers, new challenges
Although the territory seized by the Islamic State is mostly Sunni, the fighters wresting it back are overwhelmingly Shiite or Kurd. In some places, liberators with no previous ties to the communities they have freed remain behind after the battles have been won, filling the security vacuum, guarding against a return of the militants and also redrawing the map in ways that could unleash future disputes over land, power and politics.
One such place is Rabia, a Sunni town on the Syrian border that was seized by the Islamic State in August 2014 and was recaptured two months later by Kurdish peshmerga units. A town once governed by the central government in Baghdad is now administered by the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan.
Two years on, the Sunni residents are mostly just relieved that they are safe and that they were spared the prolonged battles that occurred in places such as Fallujah and Ramadi, where whole neighborhoods were flattened. Young men from the biggest local tribe, the Shammar, have formed a militia that helps the Kurdish forces control the town and flies the yellow-sun Kurdish flag at its checkpoints.
“When we were occupied by ISIS, the Kurds helped us, so now we have to stand with them to repay them for their sacrifice,” said Mohammed Khudeir, a leader of the Shammar Battalion.
The relationship between the residents and their new rulers is nonetheless fraught with suspicion and doubt. The Kurdish authorities require every resident to secure permission before traveling in or out of the town, an onerous burden for people who thrived on trade with nearby Syria before the war, many locals complain.
The requirement is necessary, said Capt. Mohammed Sadiq Sayid, the local commander of the Asayish, the Kurdish security forces, because so many residents are thought to be sympathetic to the Islamic State. “We have a big list of suspicious people,” he said. “We know who they are, and we are watching them.”
Tens of thousands of people who lived in surrounding villages are being prevented from returning to their homes, most of which in any case no longer exist. The ruins of wrecked buildings are strung out along the roads north and south of Rabia, watched over by peshmerga checkpoints. War may have caused some of the destruction, but the uniformity of the damage suggests sabotage, too.
In one village, Kazukha, on the road leading south toward the Yazidi district of Sinjar, three peshmerga fighters escorted Washington Post journalists around the derelict homes. They described using TNT and bulldozers to ensure none could ever be inhabited again, by employing just enough explosives to collapse the roof of each building.
The residents belonged to a tribe that supported the Islamic State and will never be allowed to return, said Capt. Aziz Haji Khalaf, a Yazidi who heads the Asayish in the nearby town of Snuny, once home to Arabs and members of the Yazidi minority.
“They wouldn’t even dare to come back,” he said. Using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, he continued: “They were all with Daesh, and they participated in the massacres of Yazidis. For this reason, we cannot live with Arabs ever again.”
Many Sunnis in the area did indeed support the Islamic State, at least at first, as a welcome alternative to the repression and discrimination of the central government in Baghdad, acknowledged Hamoud, the tribal leader in Rabia.
“If there was no support here, they wouldn’t have survived one hour. The Sunnis were very happy in the beginning. They did not know who they were, and they welcomed them as saviors,” he said. “Now we consider them a disaster.”
They say all Sunnis are Daesh’
The belt of destroyed towns and villages continues for hundreds of miles along the jagged perimeter of the Islamic State’s shrinking domain. Where all the people who once lived in these emptied places have gone can only be guessed.
Some will have escaped alongside retreating Islamic State fighters and are among the 2 million to 3 million people thought by the United Nations and the Iraqi government still to be living under Islamic State control, including in the city of Mosul. Some may have died, in the fighting and in airstrikes, but U.N. and government casualty figures for Iraq do not include those killed in Islamic State areas.
Many more — at least 4.2 million — fled in the opposite direction, away from the militants and sometimes straight into the arms of the oncoming forces. An Amnesty International report in October accused Iraqi militias and government forces of detaining thousands of people, mostly men, who were trying to flee the fighting.
The figures mean that not only do Sunnis comprise a majority of the victims of the war with the Islamic State, but also that a majority of the Sunni community has been afflicted. Sunnis represent about 20 percent of Iraq’s population of 32.5 million, according to CIA figures for 2014 — or about 7 million people — and U.N. figures suggest that as many as 6 million of them either have been displaced or their villages and towns occupied by the Islamic State.
Where towns once were wholly Sunni, there is a good chance that families that had no ties to the militants will be able to return after those communities have been liberated, aid agencies say. Some 900,000 displaced people have gone home in the past two years, mostly to Sunni cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit, according to figures compiled for the United Nations and the United States by the International Organization for Migration.
But in places where Sunnis once lived in proximity to Shiites or Kurds, hundreds of thousands are unable to return to their homes, even though the Islamic State has gone. They are living in limbo, in camps or in makeshift accommodations, unsure of their future in an Iraq where Sunnis are regarded with suspicion as potential Islamic State sympathizers.
“They say all Sunnis are Daesh, but it isn’t true,” said former truck driver Jassem Nouri, 50. Nouri has spent the past two years living on a building site in the northeast of Salahuddin province; his home, in the Sunni village of Salman Beg, is just six miles away, but the Shiite militias that ejected the Islamic State from the area over two years ago have refused to allow any of the residents to return. Last year, his two sons, former university students, were detained by masked men in unmarked uniforms and accused of working with the Islamic State. Nouri insists that they are innocent, but he has not been able to secure their release.
“The one thing that is breaking my heart is that my sons are in jail and I can’t prove their innocence,” he said. “If this government doesn’t change, there will never be security and stability in Iraq, just an endless blind revenge.”
The worst-case scenario
In the province of Diyala, bordering Iran to the east, a new cycle of violence is already underway. With its mixed Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish population, Diyala is considered a microcosm of Iraq. If it also is a bellwether for the country’s post-Islamic State future, its signals are gloomy.
In the 18 months since Islamic State fighters were driven out by Shiite militias, the old tensions between Shiites and Sunnis that helped fuel the Islamic State’s rise have resurfaced. Islamic State cells have re-infiltrated areas from which they were supposedly ejected, carrying out suicide bombings against mosques and cafes that have killed scores of Shiites. Revenge killings by shadowy militias have targeted Sunnis. At least 172,000 Sunnis who fled the initial Islamic State surge have returned, but there are still 82,000 who have been refused permission to go home. Some who did go back are fleeing again.
Among them is Abu Mohammed, a 46-year-old electrician who gathered up his nine young daughters and left three months ago after a spate of sinister killings in his village outside the Sunni town of Mahmudiyah.
Back in the same tented refugee camp of Qura Tu in the north of the province, where he had taken refuge from the Islamic State a year earlier, he checked off the killings that had prompted his second flight from the town. A man who sold canisters of cooking gas was shot by unknown assailants on a motorbike. A neighbor’s mutilated body was found dumped in a nearby village. Then another neighbor went into town and never came back. Finally came the brazen killing of three men, one of them a cousin of Abu Mohammed’s, by armed men who showed up in the village and shot the men as they went out one evening to buy food.
The gunmen “wear black and they wear masks. Nobody knows who they are, where they came from or where they went,” Abu Mohammed said.
“The Sunnis are being targeted, and states are behind this policy,” he added, echoing a view widespread among Sunnis that Shiite Iran is encouraging a deliberate attempt by Iraq’s Shiite majority to ethnically cleanse Sunnis from the areas of eastern Iraq that border Iran. “They are displacing a whole sect in order to bring about demographic change, and that isn’t an easy thing to do.”
It isn’t only killings that drive people away, said Adnan Salem Dawood, 46, who lived in an area that was never seized by the Islamic State. He was driven away by Shiite militia members after they had defeated the militants elsewhere, and he has spent the past year living in a tent in the Qura Tu camp.
“They come to your house at night and ask you silly questions, like, ‘Do you know this man? Do you know that man?’ ” he said. “They beat you in front of your wife and children till the blood pours from your mouth and you are humiliated. They don’t tell you honestly to leave. What they do is make your life miserable so that you are grateful to leave.”
“I don’t like living here, but I can’t go back,” he added. “We don’t have any future in Iraq.”
Kareem Nouri, spokesman for the Badr Organization, the largest Shiite military group in Diyala, which also controls the provincial government, acknowledged the problems. But he denied that there is any deliberate attempt to displace Sunnis from the province or from any other part of Iraq.
If Sunnis are being refused permission to return home, it is because their villages or towns are near battle zones and aren’t safe, or because they or their families are suspected of affiliation with the Islamic State, he said.
If some are being squeezed out again by threats or violence, it is because of tribal problems that are beyond the capacity of the Badr Organization or the central government to solve. “There is revenge taking place between tribes. There are individuals who are seeking revenge, but they only represent themselves,” he said. “There are some Shiite gangs, but they don’t have our support, and we reject them.”
“The Sunnis are the ones who have been harmed most by ISIS, and they will never be deceived again,” Nouri said. “We know we can’t push the Sunnis aside. ISIS has united us all.”
But don’t look at Diyala, he urged. “Look at Tikrit. Tikrit is a success. It is a success because we managed to reach an understanding with the people of the city. We expelled the terrorist elements, and we didn’t allow them back.”
A success; a long way to go
If Tikrit is a success, it is a relative one. Almost all of the residents have returned since the Islamic State was defeated 18 months ago. The home town of the former Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein has come to terms, at least for now, with the Shiite militias that drove ISIS out and now maintain a visible presence.
Shiite flags fly at the checkpoints controlling access to the city and over the compound of palaces built by Hussein. Where once a statue of the dictator greeted visitors as they arrived on the road from Baghdad, there now is a billboard featuring the three most powerful Shiite militia leaders, Hadi al-Ameri, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qais al-Khazali.
“This is an official way of saying thank you to the people who liberated Tikrit,” said Tikrit’s mayor, Omar al Shindakh, explaining why the town’s local Sunni leaders erected the billboard. “They suffered a lot of dead and wounded for us.”
Large swaths of the city are still in ruins, however. Although basic services have been restored, there is no money to rebuild the shattered infrastructure, the shops, the government buildings or the hospital. More than 90 percent of the prewar population has returned, and “by that measure, Tikrit is a success,” said Lisa Grande, the United Nations’ chief humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. “But it does not mean you are looking at an entirely restored or recovered community. You are not. Not by a long shot.”
When that might happen is in question. The ISIS conquests coincided almost exactly with a collapse in the price of oil, Iraq’s chief source of revenue. Overnight, the government lost nearly half its income, just as it had to gear up for a major military campaign. There is no money to rebuild what is being destroyed, in Tikrit or anywhere else in Iraq, said government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi.
“Because of the scale of the destruction, the priority of fighting terrorism and the financial situation, it is impossible to cover these expenses right now,” he said.
On the streets of Tikrit, people say they are glad to be home, but they wonder where their country is heading and whether their lives will ever be as they were.
“Even those who didn’t lose their loved ones lost their life savings and investments. All the work we put in all our lives is gone,” said Hassan Adnan, a merchant in the bazaar who fled the Islamic State, then returned to find that his home and shop had been burned, his merchandise looted and there was no hope of compensation.
“The problem is that the government is spending not even one dinar to help us rebuild. If they can’t solve this simple thing, how can they solve the big problems of the country?” he said.
That is a question many, not just Sunnis, are asking. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has proved to be more conciliatory than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whose starkly sectarian worldview has been widely blamed for the conditions that enabled the Islamic State to thrive. But Abadi is weaker than Maliki was and is beholden to a large extent to the growing power of the Shiite militias that have played a major role in the anti-ISIS fight.
“The challenges facing Iraq are massive, on so many levels, and I don’t think we have seen the kind of historic leadership that rises to this challenge,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and author of the book “ISIS: A History.”
Ahmed al-Kareem, the head of the provincial council in Tikrit, sees hope. There is a realization among most Sunnis that extremist groups will not solve their problems, he said, as well as a recognition by most Shiites that they need to accommodate Sunnis if they are to avoid yet another incarnation of the insurgency that gave rise to the Islamic State.
“But it is hard,” he said. “There is mistrust. The whole policy of the country needs to change. We need to separate religion from politics. We need 10 years or more.”
And in the meantime?
“That is our concern,” he said. “What is coming after Daesh? What is going to be the next chapter?”