Locals Criticise Uncoordinated, Propaganda-Happy Reconstruction Efforts

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

By Kamal al-Ayash.

The authorities are spending a lot of money on reconstruction in the Anbar province. But locals are complaining, saying basic needs are not being fulfilled and the rest is just window dressing.

When you arrive in the major Anbar cities of Fallujah or Ramadi, you would be forgiven for thinking that reconstruction is well under way. But if you head out of the city centres and check the residential neighbourhoods you will see disconnected power lines and broken water pipes, as well as those who live here working outdoors, trying to fix such things.

Many Anbar locals, who were displaced by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, have now returned to their homes.

“In January 2018, for the first time in more than three years, there were more returnees than internally displaced people,” the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration reported recently. Thanks to improving conditions, Anbar province has seen the largest number of returnees in Iraq, the organization noted.

Many of those who returned say they came back because the Iraqi government told them there would be a swift return to normality and reconstruction. However many of the locals who have come back have found that although there is reconstruction, the authorities undertaking it seem to have some misplaced priorities and that they must provide for themselves, rather than wait for the government to fix things.

Ahmad Abdul-Hamid, 43, has just finished fixing up his barber shop in Fallujah. He was ready to open again but found he could not get to his premises because the municipal authorities were removing and replacing the sidewalks. This kind of work is impressive and shows that the authorities care about the citizens, Abdul-Hamid says, but their timing was off. They should ask the people here what they need and want, and prioritize that, he argues.

“The sidewalks that are being removed and replaced have no real impact on our lives. It wouldn’t have mattered if they had not been reconstructed for years,” Abdul-Hamid said, adding that he would have preferred to see the water and sewage networks fixed first, because these are things that actually endanger people’s lives.

“The money seems to be being spent in an unplanned, uncoordinated way,” Abdul-Hamid complains. “It should be used to compensate those who are still living in tents, in the middle of the rubble that was once their home.”

Locals say it is true that dozens of reconstruction projects have been completed. But they believe that at least some of these have been finished at the expense of their own basic needs.

Another Fallujah local, Jihad al-Dulaimi, 44, tells NIQASH that when he asked the city council for new wiring for power cables so he could fix his own electricity supply, he was told that there was no budget for this. Al-Dulaimi was angry and replied that they had somehow got enough funds to renovate their own council offices.

“Working in this way, the government is disregarding the real needs of the people here,” he says. “We don’t want to see huge sums spent on projects that are clearly not urgent and which could be postponed.”

Al-Dulaimi also questioned why efforts were being made to build a new park when bridges were still damaged and new sidewalks painted, when the streets were impassable.

Many Fallujah residents share that opinion. They believe that officials are embarking on easy-to-complete projects that make them look good, just in time for federal elections in May.

It’s not that we are not appreciative, says Mahdi al-Halbusi, a 51-year-old living in Ramadi, but “it feels like the authorities are decorating the outside of a house, in which nobody can live because the insides are so damaged”.

He and his family returned to Ramadi over a year ago and he feels as though a lot of the completed projects have just been attempts at image making. “Nothing has really changed, the situation is still tragic, since we returned,” he says.

Al-Halbusi says he likes walking around some areas, where there are new, coloured pavements and where the government offices and other nearby buildings look so nice. But that feeling gives way to dismay as soon as he enters any of the residential areas.

“I used to think my mother was the only person who would prepare the house for visitors by putting away our everyday things and bringing out the best,” he jokes. “After the visitors left, we would go back to normal, with everything back in its usual place. That is exactly what it feels like in this city now.”

UXO Clearance leads way to Normal Future

UNMAS Iraq ‘Clearance Mission’ Seen as ‘Tipping Point’ Between Past Conflict and a Normal Future

Lives and livelihoods in Iraq’s liberated areas are being restored at long last.

In Fallujah, as many as 1,800 vehicles and 100 pedestrians per hour can cross the re-opened ‘new bridge’ linking Baghdad with Al-Anbar Province. The fibre optic cable connecting more than 3,000 customers with Baghdad has been restored. The Jadidah fuel station, which had been closed for three years, now pumps an average of more than 31,000 litres for 300 vehicles per day.

In Mosul, the Al Qaysoor Water Treatment Plant has resumed providing clean and safe water to more than 300,000 customers across 34 service areas. The High Court can access deeds to validate land claims of residents returning to Ninewa Province. Valuable medical equipment, removed for safekeeping, awaits rehabilitation of a hospital in Mosul.

None of this progress would have been possible without infrastructure first being cleared of the explosive threats posed by debris of past conflicts and devices left by retreating ISIL forces, thus allowing the Government of Iraq, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the International Community to carry out the necessary rehabilitation work.

“We had almost lost all hope,” said Mr. Ali, manager of the Jadidah fuel station, speaking for its 20 employees. “We expected that the station would be blown up,” and it might well have been. United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS)-directed teams safely removed 34 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) weighing a total of 435 kg from the station premises. “You (UNMAS) gave us our jobs back,” he said.

“We eliminate threats along roads, under bridges, from power and water plants, from schools, from critical infrastructure, so that those displaced by conflict can return to their homes, begin again to work, to educate their children, to contribute to society, to live a normal life,” said Pehr Lodhammar, UNMAS Senior Programme Manager, prior to the Kuwait International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq.

Lodhammar says conference outcomes will help UNMAS to set priorities working in collaboration with the Government and other agencies supporting Iraq’s reconstruction. All infrastructure is important, but the sequencing of clearance missions itself is complex and the UNMAS top priority, Lodhammar says. “What comes first on our list in turn affects all other rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts ‘downstream’,” he says. “So, we always begin with a joint-assessment to establish our priorities.”

He cites the current UNMAS work to clear Fallujah’s power grid serving two areas outside of the city. As of December 2017, UNMAS-directed teams had searched nearly 34 km² along power lines and cleared 580 explosive devices. When the UNMAS work finishes, repair crews can begin restoring power to as many as 60,000 people and seven schools.

UNMAS-directed partners working at the community level, village level, even the ‘well level’ make a difference on a daily basis, Lodhammar says.

In Al Bokald, villagers spoke of the ground as their enemy. “We could not walk for fear that something would explode in our faces,” said one. Today, with explosive devices cleared, 20 families again have access to a well and water for their own needs and to grow their crops.

The story confirms for Lodhammar the need, primacy and urgency of the clearance mission as shared by all agencies engaged in Iraq’s reconstruction. “We have to do our job, safely, quickly and well so others can do theirs.”

In 2018, the mine action sector requires 216 million USD to respond to the rehabilitation efforts of retaken areas and critical needs in access to basic and municipal services, education and health of returning civilians. In the Reconstruction and Development Framework (RDF) presented at the Kuwait Conference, the Government of Iraq will prioritize the clearance of explosive hazards to enable the reconstruction of Iraq and support of accountable governance, reconciliation and peace building, social and human development and economic development.

(Source: UNAMI)

Security Forces hang on to Homes they Requisitioned

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

By Kamal al-Ayash.

In Anbar, Security Forces Hang Onto Private Homes They Requisitioned

During fighting against the Islamic State group, it was necessary for security forces to occupy private property in Anbar’s cities. But now the security forces appear reluctant to give back the homes they took over.

The argument went like this: Without establishing checkpoints and headquarters for security staff in residential areas, security cannot be guaranteed in the cities once controlled by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.

And so fortified houses and other suburban buildings became a common sight in cities of the Anbar province, a Sunni-Muslim-majority area where the extremists had controlled many of the major cities. The argument that these bases were necessary was also one advanced by less-official military groups, such as the formerly-volunteer Shiite Muslim militias and the anti-extremist forces set up by local often-Sunni Muslim tribes.

The homes and offices had security gates installed, were surrounded by barbed wire and roads leading toward them were blocked off. The security forces based in Anbar say converting the residences gives them an opportunity to protect the city without having to build whole new premises and it also means they can be in the best possible position in each city.

At first the bases in ordinary neighbourhoods were considered temporary. But now, even after the Islamic State, or IS, group, has been driven out of the province, the bases appear to have become more permanent. Even though Anbar’s local councils say that there’s an agreement with the various security forces that they will vacate the private property over the next few months, it doesn’t seem to be happening the way it is supposed to.

Senior security staff at Fallujah’s police department say that the houses security forces are still occupying now are those that were used by the IS group for their headquarters, or were also property belonging to the leaders of the IS group. Any other houses used by security forces were returned to the owners once the IS group was banished.

“When we get requests from citizens who want to return to their houses we vacate the property and that usually takes between one and two weeks,” says Jamal al-Jumaili, the chief of police in Fallujah. “But we do check whether the security records of the citizens are clean.”

And this is where problems arise. Proving a “clean” security record can be difficult. Some locals even suspect that local militia groups occupying their houses are promulgating suspicions against them, so they don’t have to give up the property.

Anbar local, Mathar al-Halbusi, says he has tried several times to return to his home in Fallujah. The last time the 65-year-old, who lives with his family in camp for displaced people south of the city, tried to return he was surprised to find that his house was guarded and encircled with barbed wire: It had become one of the new bases.

“I tried to go in, but I was not allowed to,” he told NIQASH. “Later I was told that the house was being used by tribal militias and they had taken it over because it belongs to a criminal family.”

Al-Halbusi told NIQASH that his son had disappeared several years ago and that gossip in the neighbourhood had it that the man had joined the extremists. Al-Halbusi said his son was dead although he had no idea where.

In Ramadi, it seems that some of the militias have taken over property even though the families to whom the buildings belonged had no blemish on their records.

Local man Firas al-Dulaimi says he has tried to return to his house in the Soufiyah neighbourhood in the suburbs of Ramadi but that the residence is occupied by security personnel. Al-Dulaimi says he’s tried and failed several times to get a security clearance, that would show that he has no connections with any extremist groups and would allow him to get his house back.

“I’ve tried so hard to prove my innocence but every time I do, I am newly accused of treachery,” he says. “My latest attempt to return home also failed and in fact I was threatened by members of the militias. Now I have to stay in a camp and wait for the government to do something, to help those of us who are oppressed and who are helpless.”

Anbar eyes Political Battle as Displaced Return

By Shelly Kittleson for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

Two months after government forces retook Iraq’s last major city from the Islamic State (IS), the country is preparing for parliamentary elections slated for May.

Anbar, its largest and westernmost region, is where IS took control of its first Iraqi city in January 2014. Fighters from the international terrorist group are reportedly still hiding in parts of its vast desert.

How the shift from fighting a terrorist group with roots in the area to competition at the political level plays out will affect the years to come.

Provincial Gov. Mohamed al-Halbusi, who took office in the fall, told Al-Monitor that voter turnout had been very low in the province for many years due to the fear of insurgents but that he expected this to change in the upcoming elections.

Local officials, security forces and a tribal leader echoed that sentiment to Al-Monitor over a number of days in the province in early January. “About 85%” of the province’s inhabitants are home, Halbusi said, and “I think about 60% of them will vote.”

However, with many of the displaced still not back in their homes, some have called for the elections to be postponed.

Recent reports of forced returns from internally displaced person (IDP) camps scattered around the Sunni-dominant Anbar region and elsewhere in the country have also raised concern.

In an interview in Ramadi, provincial police chief Gen. Hadi Rizej Kessar told Al-Monitor, “We decided to close all IDP camps and send families back to their homes because the security is now good. But if we have some families that remain in the camps, we can arrange for them to vote inside the camps.”

The Islamic State Group Lives On – in Iraq’s Deserts

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Anbar’s western desert is a hiding place for the Islamic State group, locals say. And they fear the extremists will be back as soon as an opportunity presents itself.

Last week the Iraqi government declared victory over the extremist group known as the Islamic State. But, according to locals and military personnel living in the Anbar province, that declaration was premature.

“I have seen no genuine indications that this province is rid of the Islamic State group,” says Ayad al-Nimrawi, a 43-year-old who runs a restaurant in the Kilo area, about 160 kilometres along the road between Baghdad and the Syrian-Jordanian border. “I still see commercial trucks accompanied by security details when they come along here. Even the security forces cannot travel down here alone, they require extra protection.”

“I will only feel that we have won the final victory when I see life returning to this road as it was before the Islamic State came. We used to travel here at night without any fear of armed groups but today this international road is almost completely closed. As soon as dusk falls, this road is a death trap.”

The victory celebrations were not about the complete eradication of the IS group, rather they were meant to be a signal about the end of military operations, suggests Tariq Yusef al-Asal, a police chief and one of the leaders of Anbar’s tribal militias fighting the Islamic State. “We have the right to be proud of the victories achieved by our security forces in the fighting that’s gone on over three years,” he told NIQASH. “We have sovereignty over our land again.”

However, he adds, “it would be stupid to say that Iraq is now completely clean of extremist groups like the Islamic State. There are still sleeper cells and incubators inside and outside our cities.”

“No country – not even European nations – can claim they are completely clean of Islamic State members,” he continued. “Those sleeper cells will keep the organisation alive and sustain it. These groups make good use of any security vacuum in any country to try and achieve their aims.”

What next for PMU in Anbar Province?

By Shelly Kittleson for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

Flags of Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) — with their distinctive arm thrusting a gun upward over a green Iraq against a white background, a strip of red and a Quran below — fluttered at the checkpoint into Qaim, above a dusty, barren wadi below.

When Al-Monitor visited the area Nov. 6, the checkpoint was manned by Asaib Ahl al-Haq fighters and members of the fellow Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militia Kataib Hezbollah, also long backed by Iran and a part of which continues to fight on the Syrian side of the border alongside the Syrian regime.

Referring to the capture of the Karableh and Saada areas of Qaim from the Islamic State (IS), Col. Moussa Hamad al-Karbouly told Al-Monitor in Karableh, “PMU fighters from the south were the first to enter.”

Karbouly leads the local Sunni PMU force, Liwa Aaly al-Furat (Upper Euphrates Regiment). Many local forces in the area have taken to using the terms “main PMU,” “southern PMU” and “Shiite PMU” to distinguish among outside paramilitary groups and local fighters, who are often somewhat inappropriately referred to as “tribal forces.”

Aaly al-Furat has members from several different tribes and receives monthly salaries from the Baghdad government, as do other PMU factions. It does not answer to any tribal leader, although it does maintain good relations with the various sheikhs in the area. Anbar province is a predominantly Sunni region, and tribal traditions and links are strong.

Aaly al-Furat has 500 men, who were trained by Danish Special Forces at the al-Asad air base farther east, also in Anbar, and equipped by the United States, Karbouly said. Other local forces have received training from the international coalition as well, while many non-local PMU forces have received support from Iran and Iranian advisers.

In Anbar, Liquor Shops are an Unlikely New Sign of Hope

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Even before the extremists were in control in Anbar, selling alcohol was banned. During extremist control, selling liquor was punishable by death. But now liquor stores have become a sign of freedom.

These days as you head into Karmah, one of the smaller cities in the central Anbar province, you may notice a small store on the way into town.

It’s not a big shop but its doors are wide open and it is selling alcohol. It is an unusual sight in this province, where conservative traditions and religious customs prevent the open sale and consumption of alcohol. But things have changed since the extremist group known as the Islamic State was in charge here.

“While we were displaced we lived in both Baghdad and in northern Iraq,” says Ahmad Abu Ali, a 44-year-old local; Karmah was part of the territory controlled by the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group and Abu Ali and his family fled their hometown. “And we used to see a lot of these shops there, close to where we lived. To us, it was an indication that these cities were safe and secure.”

“Although the drinking of alcohol is against our religion, the shop is a good sign. It is proof that the militants who once had such a big role in this city, and those who supported the militants, no longer play a part here,” Abu Ali explains. “Each person can practice their own religion. And when we saw this [the alcohol store] it gave us hope.”

Although Abu Ali doesn’t drink, his fellow townspeople who do are happy about the alcohol store for other, more obvious reasons.

“In the past we used to have to go to Baghdad to buy spirits,” Ibrahim Abdo, a 38-year-old local of Fallujah, told NIQASH. Abdo used to travel to the capital to buy enough alcohol to last a couple of weeks but he no longer has to do this. “We used to hide the bottles in the car so that the police and people at checkpoints wouldn’t harass us. They would destroy the drinks if they found them. Today I can just buy what I want even while the security forces are watching,” he says, somewhat incredulous.

$400m for Reconstruction of Mosul and Newly Liberated Areas

The World Bank has approved a US$400 million financial assistance package today to support the recovery, reconstruction and rehabilitation of priority infrastructure to restore delivery of public services in areas of Iraq newly liberated from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The package represents an additional financing to the Iraq Emergency Operation for Development Project (US$350 million), approved back in July 2015 and already underway in seven cities in Diyala and Salah Ad-Din governorates.

The additional financing will allow the geographic scale-up of existing project activities to additional cities liberated from ISIS in the Salah Ad-Din and Diyala governorates, as well as in the governorates of Anbar (including Ramadi), Kirkuk, Ninawah (including Mosul) and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG’s) governorate of Dohuk.

Similarly, implementation responsibilities will also expand to subnational governments in addition to the central government institutions.

Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq Regional Director, said:

“The international community has expressed its commitment to support the urgent need for the Government-led reconstruction of Mosul and other recently liberated cities. The World Bank is committed to working with Iraqi authorities to ensure that this much-needed reconstruction takes place in a sustainable, inclusive and equitable manner to foster long term development and create opportunities for everyone.”

The current project activities span over five primary sectors: water and sanitation, electricity, health, transport and municipal services. The additional financing will continue to support these sectors, as well as address pressing education, agriculture/irrigation and urban service delivery needs of communities in liberated areas.

It will also support the restoration and preservation of key cultural heritage assets especially in the Old City of Mosul. But beyond the physical repair, emphasis will be given to improving the quality of education for boys and girls, and increasing the employment of women, youth as well as the poor in both urban and rural areas.

The additional financing will also support the Government of Iraq in attracting private sector participation in reconstruction efforts. To this effect, studies will be carried out to assess the feasibility of public private partnerships in the reconstruction, operation and maintenance of Mosul airport, which was severely damaged during the liberation of Mosul.

Video: Families Flee Fighting in Anbar

From AFP. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Members of the governmental forces assist families fleeing combats in the Iraq’s western desert bordering Syria, as Iraqi forces fight against remnant pockets of Islamic State group jihadists.