In the centre of Tikrit, you can hear music coming from loudspeakers on the streets. They are playing Shiite Muslim religious songs. “We proudly entered Tikrit and Al Ojah and we will arrive in Fallujah soon,” the lyrics of one of the songs goes.
A lot of the music is coming from the market stalls selling music CDs. Still, it’s an odd song to be hearing here, in this Sunni Muslim-majority city, the capital of the province of Salahaddin and birthplace of former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, who ensured predominance for Iraq’s Sunnis during his regime. The lyrics are talking about a Shiite conquest of Sunni areas and this kind of music is not the sort one would expect here. Nor would one expect to see hundreds of green and black flags, which pay tribute to Shiite Muslim’s most important religious figures.
There are also pictures of contemporary Shiite Muslim religious leaders hung at the intersections of streets here and at the entrances to the city, as well as pro-Shiite slogans on posters and in graffiti.
Despite announcements and free food and drinks, a lot of Tikrit locals don’t come near; elderly residents in particular, stay well away from the Shiite mosques.
The music and the graffiti make people scared, says local man, Hussein Mohammed Hussein. The 46-year-old passer-by says he feels paranoid, as though he is a stranger in his own city.
“And to be honest there are many more murders and kidnappings taking place too,” he says. “But nobody knows who’s behind them.”
Other locals fear that, slowly but surely, Tikrit’s demographics are being changed. It's due to the fact that the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group had to be driven out of the province by a combination of the Iraqi ary and Shiite Muslim miiltias, which started off as volunteers but have since become a semi-official force.Some of these have stayed and made their presence felt in the city.
Some of the former presidential palaces and government compounds in the city have been taken over by members of the Shiite Muslim militias, who started off as volunteers fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State but who have since gained more official status. Some members of these forces have written on the city walls. One of slogans on Arabeeen street says: “Abu Jabaal was here”. He is one of the militia leaders.
A palace courtyard once used by Saddam Hussein for special occasions is now being used for religious celebrations. At a recent event, green and black flags were raised in the courtyard. Still, some Sunni Muslims were also present.
After the IS group was pushed out of Tikrit in early 2015, several of the Shiite Muslim militias and Shiite Muslim political parties opened offices in Tikrit, recruiting locals to run them. There are about 13 such offices in the city. This includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the League of the Righteous militia and the Badr organization, which has both a military and a political presence.
That fear of demographic change is more concrete in places further away from Tikrit, like Yathrib, Balad, Salam and Ahbab. In these areas, some of the members of local Sunni Muslim tribes joined the extremists, which bases its ideology on a version of Sunni Islam. After the IS group was pushed out of these areas, the members of the group and sometimes their families were not allowed to return home; their property was confiscated too.
Not everyone is convinced that this fear should be taken so seriously. “Tikrit has been a pan-Arab city throughout its history,” explains Ibrahim Mustafa al-Tikriti, a local historian who specializes in the city’s history. “Over the past four decades there were some Shiite Muslim and some Kurdish families living here, usually due to their work – often this was in military service. But after the sectarian violence of 2006, many of those people returned to their hometowns. By its nature Tikrit is a fairly closed community; any attempts to change its demography will fail,” he argued.
Still, for the first time, Tikrit now has its own Shiite Muslim mosques, with one located in the city centre and another in Alam, a district east of the city. Despite announcements of prayers over the loudspeakers, songs and free food and drinks, a lot of Tikrit locals don’t come near; elderly residents in particular, stay well away from the Shiite mosques.
About 10 kilometres south of Tikrit, near Awjah, the town where Saddam Hussein was born, a local hospital has been renamed after an important Shiite religious figure, Imam Mahdi. It is mostly used for treating injured members of the Shiite Muslim militias.
The changes are not just physical either. The culture here is changing too, locals complain. In the Islamic calendar, the month of Muharram is considered a period of mourning by Shiite Muslims because it marks the death of another major figure, the Imam Hussein.
Often Shiite families will avoid holding any big celebrations during this month – weddings and parties are postponed. Sunni Muslims tend not to observe this month in the same, sombre way. And last Muharram – in October 2016 – some members of the Shiite Muslim militias stopped a wedding being held in Uwainat, a village around three kilometres south of the city. The militia members destroyed musical instruments and told the hosts it was not proper to hold a wedding during this month.
Militia members also told the owners of halls where wedding banquets might normally be held, not to organize any celebrations until after Muharram was over.
“A unit of the militias notified me not to host weddings during Muharram and they told me that anyone who violates these orders will be punished,” one hall owner told NIQASH.
"I heard that weddings are now prohibited during Muharram and that we could be targeted if we held our wedding during this month,” Ahmad al-Dulaimi, a 22-year-old local, said. “Or maybe we wouldn’t be allowed to hold it at all. That’s why I decided to hold the ceremony in my own house and I only invited my relatives and closest friends.”