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This is what it's like when ISIS takes over your city

John Moore/Getty Images

In early April, Iraqi forces retook the city of Tikrit from ISIS's control. While that was a major victory over ISIS, the operation came too late for many of Tikrit's residents. The militant group's rule had already devastated civilian life in the city — as this stunning piece by Zaid Al-Ali in the New York Review of Books shows.

By the time Iraqi forces liberated Tikrit, Al-Ali reports, the city's prewar population of 200,000 had been reduced to "a few hundred locals in the city, and few thousand in the surrounding countryside." It's easy to see why. Al-Ali's account of life in ISIS-occupied Tikrit depicts a parable of horrors, ranging from the total collapse of basic social services to brutal summary executions.

One story — about a man named Basil Ramadan, who killed seven ISIS fighters after they murdered all four of his sons — really captures just how terrible life in Tikrit became:

All Tikritis who had worked for the Iraqi army or police were told they would be executed unless they surrendered their rifles and paid a 2,500 dollar penalty. But even those who agreed to pay found that they were still subjected to severe punishment. One of the most egregious cases involved Basil Ramadan, a former officer in the Republican Guard before 2003 who had four sons in the Iraqi military. His family remained in the city after ISIS's invasion and paid the tribute demanded by ISIS.

But the militants suspected Ramadan's sons of providing information to Baghdad and executed all four. A few days after the fourth was killed, Ramadan called each of his close friends to tell them that he was leaving Iraq definitively. Too much of his family's blood had been shed, he said, and it was the only way to preserve his dignity. As soon as he finished speaking to the last of his closest friends, he picked up his rifle, entered an ISIS safe house, and killed seven militants, before being gunned down himself.

This kind of brutality exposes one of ISIS's major flaws: it's terrible at governing. ISIS is obsessed with taking over territory in which to establish a caliphate, but conquering territory isn't enough — holding it requires the group to govern the civilians who live there. And ISIS, as Ramadan's sad story illustrates, is quite terrible at working with the people whose support it would need in order to actually govern its Iraqi territory. The group's brutal interpretation of Sharia law and murderous approach to dealing with dissent has alienated local Sunnis who might otherwise have thought about cooperating with the group.

But while ISIS's terrible approach to governance may be a strategic liability, it's much worse for the people of Iraq. ISIS's rule is so destructive — both to infrastructure and basic communal trust among victimized Iraqis — that rebuilding stability and reestablishing control will be a monumental task for Iraq's government.

"Since the liberation, hundreds of criminals have been operating freely, looting and destroying property. In one district, more than a quarter of the homes were destroyed after its liberation, and reports of property destruction are still coming in," Al-Ali writes. "The elected provincial council and the governor have not been able to return to the city. Municipal services have yet to be restored and few businesses have reopened. Many Tikritis are furious at the army and the police's failure to restore order, and the government's refusal to acknowledge the problem."

The military defeat in Tikrit shows that ISIS is losing its war for Iraq. But merely defeating ISIS on the battlefield won't be enough to heal the scars of its occupation — as Al-Ali's story proves.