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4 April 2016

The colonel’s revenge: on the battle against Islamic State in Iraq

Rough justice in Iraq’s killing fields.

By Anthony Loyd

I mean to ask the colonel how many men he has killed but there is too much else going on so I never do. Usually I don’t like the question – it’s more intrusive than probing someone else’s sexual history – but in his case it would have been interesting to know how much retribution shadows justice. The colonel’s own brother and father were killed by Saddam Hussein. His son was murdered by al-Qaeda in 2010, shot 26 times in the street in a targeted assassination. The boy was six years old.

Instead I ask him if he is afraid of death.

“What have I got to lose?” he says.

A taut, vengeful man dressed all in black, his left eyebrow arched upwards in an expression of perpetual suspicion, Colonel Ali al-Sudani is the closest thing to law that exists in Tikrit. He is a Shia, 46 years old, part nemesis, part enforcer, and as the Iraqi government’s most senior military intelligence officer in the city, he has executive powers that exceed those of almost any other individual there. With his gang of black-clad henchmen he arrests, interrogates, frees, cajoles, threatens and fights whoever and however he wants, to keep the city at peace.

Tikrit, the centrepiece of Iraq’s “Sunni triangle”, was captured by Islamic State in June 2014. The group promptly massacred at least 1,000 Iraqi air force cadets, who had been captured as they fled a nearby base, Camp Speicher. Sunni cadets were first filtered off from their Shia colleagues and released. The Shias were slain in pits, or shot from the steps of one of Saddam’s palaces beside the Tigris, their bodies floating downstream in such numbers that the local people describe the river “turning red”. Some of the killers were foreign fighters, others from local Sunni tribes.

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So by the time Shia volunteer militias – al-Hashd al-Shaabi – recaptured Tikrit last April on behalf of the Iraqi government, thousands of Sunnis had fled the city, fearing vengeance on account merely of their sectarian association with the Speicher killers. They have since returned to Tikrit in varying stages, under the watchful scrutiny of Colonel al-Sudani.

Chain-smoking, insomniac, surging with energy, the colonel busts everyone’s balls: his own men’s as well as those of returnees suspected of affiliation with Islamic State.

“I’ll arrest you if there is a problem,” he tells a fat Iraqi army major. “If there is a bomb explosion here I’ll arrest you and I’ll put you in jail!”

We are in his headquarters at that moment, a drab one-storey complex protected by blast walls, lacking any flag or insignia, in the southern suburbs of Tikrit. Colonel al-Sudani speaks quietly and the fat major squirms, his face clouded with shame. The major has made a lazy mistake. The previous day a sudden influx of returning refugees wore out the patience of the major’s soldiers at a checkpoint on the edge of Tikrit. They let scores of the returnees in without first running the men’s IDs through a computer check for terrorist history. Colonel al-Sudani has found out and summoned the major to his base.

“We’ve spent months trying to make Tikrit safe, and with one mistake you might have blown it,” the colonel tells him. “You know what Da’esh [Islamic State] are doing here – putting clean-shaven operatives back in among the refugees to act as sleeper cells. You know that, and you failed to check the returnees. I’m telling you: one bomb and you go to jail.”

The major leaves. Al-Sudani bawls down the phone at someone else. Then, without him offering any expla­nation, we get into his vehicle and drive east over the Tigris. As we cross the bridge, the colonel points to the bankside steps of the palace from where the young Shia cadets were executed.

“There, there,” he shouts, stabbing his finger at the river.

“Ninety per cent of the returnees are OK, no problem,” he adds as we drive on. “But the other 10 per cent? They are waiting to attack us.”

In these dark end-of-days I am never sure what to expect in Iraq’s battlefields. Thirty-six hours before meeting the colonel, I found a freshly severed head at the gates of one militia base less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad. It belonged to a teenage foreign fighter for IS. His face was unmarked but his hair was very dusty. I had seen a lot of blown-off heads before, but never one cut off.

Next we stop in two Sunni enclaves, Albu Ajeel and Hawija, that were once bastions of Islamic State resistance. Now the Sunni sheikhs have allied themselves to the colonel, and in return for weapons and money they have supplied young men to form their own defensive militias against incursions by IS.

“After seeing what Islamic State did, we are happy with Hashd al-Shaabi here,” one Sunni sheikh tells me, shaking the colonel’s hand and smiling fixedly. It sounds a disingenuous claim. A billboard image of Imam Ali, who the Shias believe is the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad, has been erected in the sheik’s garden, flying in the face of the Sunnis’ belief about the hierarchy of succession.

At another house the colonel meets with a former army officer from Saddam Hussein’s tribe, the al-Bu Nasir. He had the man released from jail in return for help against IS. The two men talk cordially for a while, but then break into disagreement over the officer’s missing brother.

“He is with Da’esh,” Colonel al-Sudani says. “We know it.”

“Your government designated him Da’esh, but he is innocent!” the man counters, unafraid and certain. “His sons, yes. But not him.”

The officer turns to me for a second. “It’s not about sectarianism here, it’s about justice. Give us justice and there will be peace.”

They argue for a while longer, as the sun goes down and the colonel’s bodyguards stare out into the fields, twitchy.

Back in the car, heading westward towards Tikrit again, al-Sudani shows me photos and videos that were found stored on phones retrieved from dead Islamic State fighters. I see IS brides in wedding dresses, their faces caked in grotesque, geisha-white foundation, standing unsmiling beside long-haired foreign fighters in tunics; piles of dollars at the feet of wild, bearded gunmen; and a clip of a dying Da’esh fighter and his field interrogation.

The prisoner has taken a bullet in the chest, and there is blood on his mouth as he is questioned while being filmed on his own mobile phone.

“Where’s the safe house?” Colonel al-Sudani’s men ask the man, quietly, because they are in the middle of a dawn pursuit of IS fighters on the east bank of the Tigris, and the enemy is near.

“I don’t know,” the dying fighter gasps.

“We killed six and caught five that day!” the colonel says. He does not smile, though: he lost 11 of his own men in the firefight preceding the prisoner’s capture, in the same fields through which we are driving.

After a while I ask him if he ever got the people who killed his six-year-old son.

He says, “Yeah.” Then he goes quiet.

Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times