June 15, 2015 / 1:08 PM / 2 years ago

First families return to Tikrit since city retaken from IS

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Hundreds of people displaced from the Iraqi city of Tikrit started to return home on Monday, three months after pro-government forces recaptured former president Saddam Hussein's hometown from Islamic State militants.

Supported by Shi'ite militiamen and U.S.-led air strikes, government forces dislodged the insurgents from Tikrit in April after a month-long battle. The city has been largely deserted since then.

A local official and a source in the operations command for Salahuddin province said the government had chartered buses to transport more than 300 families back to Tikrit from the tented encampments where they have been staying.

Convoys of 50 families, escorted by police for protection, were heading towards Tikrit from the city of Samarra to the south and Kirkuk in the north.

The militants captured Tikrit, about 140 km (90 miles) north of Baghdad, last June as they swept through most of Iraq's Sunni Muslim territories, swatting aside a demoralized and disorganized army that has now required an uneasy combination of Iranian and American support to get back on its feet.

Most of Tikrit's residents had fled by the time Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militiamen began their offensive to retake the city. Unable to return until now, they have grown frustrated.

"We are very happy to return. It's almost hard to believe that we are seeing Tikrit again," said resident Adnan al-Tikriti.

"The city is dead. There are no markets, no services. Power and water are not available, they are working on it and we will wait and see how fast they can provide us with these services."

Iraqi officials say they are concerned Islamic State militants could re-establish a presence in places from which they have been driven out by infiltrating the returning population.

But failure to resettle strengthens Islamic State's narrative that Iraq's Sunnis are better off under their rule than that of the Shi'ite-led government or Kurdish forces.

Other towns in eastern Iraq remain empty, months after they were recaptured by Iraqi forces from Islamic State, due to political disputes and damaged infrastructure.

More than 3 million people have been displaced within Iraq since beginning of 2014.

Reporting by Baghdad newsroom; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Michael Georgy and Janet Lawrence

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