The man fiddled with a padlock securing a gate outside a convenience store. Once it was open, he gingerly stepped toward the entrance, holding his breath as he walked in.
He surveyed the room, taking in the shards of glass and upturned boxes littering the floor. The counter was pushed haphazardly to the side, its drawers ransacked. But most of the shelves remained stacked with cookies, chips and toothbrushes. Even the juice cartons in the fridge were untouched.
"It's actually fine," he said, a sigh of relief accompanying his tight, anxious smile.
It had been almost four months since Ammar Turki saw his store, nestled in a strip mall with a prime location in Alam, a town about five miles north of the now-besieged Iraqi city of Tikrit. His was a quiet life in a family home, with a wife and two daughters, and with the store as his livelihood. But when Islamic State militants raided his home and asked for him by name, he knew it was time to run.
"I was near my house when they came, so I didn't wait and escaped," he said. He managed to sneak through the fields, hitchhiking his way to Samarra, about 35 miles south, before making his way to Baghdad. He soon sent word to his family that he was alive. A month and a half passed before they could join him. As for his shop, Turki left it in the care of an employee, who left soon after.
Ten days ago, pro-government forces flushed out Islamic State militants bunkering in Alam, a predominantly Sunni town. The offensive was part of a wide-scale campaign to end the Islamic State's presence in Salahuddin province, especially in Tikrit, the provincial capital.
Bolstering the government's soldiers are thousands of mostly Shiite Muslim volunteers with the Popular Mobilization Units who joined the fight against Islamic State, a Sunni faction that broke away from Al Qaeda, after the group's takeover last year of much of Iraq's Sunni heartland to the north and west of Baghdad.
Army and police units, Shiite irregulars, and a limited number of Sunni tribal fighters have stopped at the outskirts of Tikrit. Government officials say the battle is not over, but militiamen grumble about a costly fight that felled many in their ranks, their progress hampered by bombs peppering the city's roads, as well as a steady supply of suicide attackers.
Alam, meanwhile, has been declared free of roadside bombs, paving the way for residents to return home.
"We're seeing 40 to 50 families returning every day for the last three days," said a soldier stationed at the town's entrance on the main highway.
Salaah Samaawah, a 31-year-old policeman keeping guard in front of a shuttered barbecue restaurant, said civilians were uniformly jubilant and welcoming.
"They come to us crying with joy, saying, 'You are the crown upon our heads,' they shower us with food and candy," Samaawah said.
He struggled to be heard above a steady stream of cheering and honking from passing cars, the cacophony soon joined by the high-pitched warble of a traditional ululation delivered by an elderly woman, as well as machine-gun fire.
"You should see the chocolate they throw [to us] from the car windows!" Samaawah said.
Many Sunnis fear the Shiite militias after the vicious sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Now, the government's reliance on the militiamen has raised the specter of reprisals against the province's Sunni population.
A nearby militia member dismissed those concerns as he spoke into the camera of a local news channel.
"We are from Alam and I am a Sunni," he roared, his uniform straining against his stout frame. "Whoever says the Popular Mobilization are killing this and that are lying."
Returning civilians, their vehicles loaded with teetering piles of boxes and clothes, seemed happy to be rid of the militants, even though Islamic State fighters, like most of Alam's inhabitants, are Sunnis.
Some residents said Islamic State never had a following in the town, unlike other Sunni villages whose residents eagerly pledged allegiance to the militant group's leadership and joined its ranks.
Aside from having to rebuild their shattered lives, those returning will also be expected to assist security personnel in determining who played a role in the town's fall into the hands of Islamic State.
"We have sources on the ground so we know who is with Daesh and who is not," said Ahmad Hussein, an officer with the intelligence department of the federal police, referring to Islamic State by an Arabic acronym. "We'll also question those who return and ask them to cooperate with us in our investigations."
Back in the shop, Turki was defiant, undaunted by the challenges ahead.
"I came back three days ago, and I'll never leave again," he vowed. "There is no humiliation like leaving your house. I'll die here."
Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.