Iraq’s Sunni heartland bleeds despite ISIL exit

Anbar has witnessed the most successful military phase of the ground fight against ISIL so far. But rather than restore government order liberation at the hands of Iraqi forces has merely moved many Anbaris from one waiting room into another.

Displaced Iraqi people, who fled ISIL violence, wait for security checks on the outskirt of Al Qayyarah in Mosul district. Reuters
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AMIRIYAH AL FALLUJAH, Iraq // As Iraqi political and military attention shifts north in the fight against ISIL, the military victories that have put Iraqi forces on Mosul’s doorstep have left behind shattered cities, towns and communities in the country’s Sunni heartland.

Anbar has witnessed the most successful military phase of the ground fight against ISIL so far. But rather than restore government order, services and security, liberation at the hands of Iraqi forces closely backed by the US-led coalition has merely moved many Anbaris from one waiting room into another. Ali Athab’s most painful memory of ISIL rule in Fallujah was watching his daughter Zeina’s health deteriorate. Born with a rare neurological disorder, she had been receiving treatment at a Fallujah hospital that helped control her seizures, but once ISIL solidified its grip on the city less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad, almost all the doctors fled.

“She was starting to get better, but now she’s stopped speaking,” he said, explaining that the few doctors who stayed behind were only allowed to treat ISIL fighters.

First the cost of medicine skyrocketed, then specialised medicine wasn’t available in Fallujah at all.

Mr Athab, 34 said he prayed for liberation, hoping his daughter would then be able to see a doctor again. But more than a month after ISIL was pushed out of Fallujah, the city remains a ghost town and Mr Athab and his family are stuck in a camp on the edge of Anbar province.

This year, they joined the more than one million other Anbaris who have been forced from their homes since 2014.

Zeina, 8, sits politely in a corner of the family’s tent, occasionally fidgeting and making sounds.

In the small, hurriedly constructed camp on the outskirts of Amiriyah Al Fallujah, a single mobile clinic had only antibiotics and mild painkillers. Zeina could get the care she needs in Baghdad, just 40 kilometres away, but her family – as Anbar residents – lack the paperwork required to enter Baghdad province.

“There’s an assumption that after Daesh is defeated you can put the nation back together and in essence create a new nation, but that’s not what we’re seeing in Anbar,” said a western diplomat based in Baghdad.

Instead, industry and agriculture have ground to a halt, schools are closed, electrical grids are down and many roads remain unusable. In that vacuum, tribal politics are becoming more powerful and families are adopting more conservative habits, the diplomat said.

Government security forces administer databases of information to identify ISIL fighters among civilians, but much of the screening process is handled by local Anbari officials and communities.

At one of the larger camps in Amiriyah Al Fallujah, a crowd of women gathered around a humanitarian convoy calling for help. They all had sons who were detained while fleeing Fallujah. Two weeks later, the women still did not know where they were or who was holding them.

Detainees say that tribes and powerful families are accusing rivals of being ISIL sympathisers to settle blood feuds, unpaid debts and grievances that go back generations.

“Anyone who has a problem with someone can just accuse him of being with Daesh,” said Hussein, a middle-aged man just released from a detention centre, who asked that only his first name be used.

Anbar’s residents describe feeling increasingly alienated from the central government, adrift in camps for the displaced or sharing quarters with extended family. The most of the assistance that they are growing increasingly dependent on comes not from the central government but from local political, tribal and religious leaders.

For Ahmed Fahel, 30, the fight against ISIL in Hit plunged his family into poverty. Living in a desolate camp further west in Anbar in the desert that lies between Hit and Ramadi, Mr Fahel is now his extended family’s only breadwinner. His brother was executed by ISIL fighters just days before the town was retaken by Iraqi forces and his body was dumped in the street. Mr Fahel only had time to quickly bury his brother in the garden before they fled.

“I have nothing and I also need to provide for my sister-in-law and her children,” he said

He has since heard that his house in Hit was completely destroyed.

Nearly 1.3 million Anbaris have been forced from their homes since early 2014 when ISIL first began to grow in power in the province, ferrying fighters and munitions through the lawless desserts along the border with neighbouring Syria.

A decade ago, when the predecessor to ISIL had torn Anbar apart, a US-led effort to stabilise the province built support against Al Qaeda by pouring enormous amounts of resources into existing tribal leadership networks. Today, Iraq’s government – due in part to budget shortfalls sparked by the plunge in the price of oil – does not have the resources and the US-led coalition does not have the appetite for such an ambitious undertaking.

Without similarly large amounts of money, putting Anbar back together again will be impossible, said Ahmed Al Dara, a religious sheikh from Fallujah. And beyond the issue of resources, he said, the fight against ISIL in Anbar is fundamentally different from the fight against Al Qaeda after the overthrow of Saddam in 2003.

“This idea of reconciliation is not possible with Iraqis who joined Daesh,” said Mr Al Dara, explaining that recovering from this insurgency would not only drive a greater wedge between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiites, but has also begun to fracture the Sunni community.

“I know the people of Fallujah and Ramadi, they will never let a single Daesh supporter return to their cities,” he said. “This conflict has taken Iraq’s Sunnis back 50 years.”

Mr Athab, the Fallujah resident stuck in the tented camp on Anbar’s edge, described the past 13 years of violence as exhausting.

“This is the third time this has happened to Fallujah,” he said referring to the two US-led offensives against Al Qaeda in the mid-2000s. The battle against ISIL this year was the first to force him to flee his home and he vows it will be the last.

“I don’t want to live in Anbar anymore,” he said. “Fallujah is finished, you can take it.”

* Associated Press