The Carcass of a City ISIS Left Behind

When ISIS finally was defeated in Ramadi, there was almost nothing left of the city. The support of the people will be harder to rebuild than the houses and offices.

01.12.16 5:01 AM ET

In the last days of December, I got a message on WhatsApp from Jaber al-Jaberi, a former member of the Iraqi parliament for Anbar province: “I’m in Ramadi,” he said. That was how I learned that the provincial capital, a key to the west of the country, had been liberated from the so-called Islamic State, or, as the Arabs say, Daesh.

It had been over one and a half years since Jaber had last seen his native city. It was a bittersweet moment. “I am happy because we liberated the city from these criminals,” he told me. But he was heartbroken to see Ramadi reduced to rubble.

Jaber had driven from Baghdad, accompanying Governor Suhaib al-Rawi, the chief of the police, and local security forces.

He found Ramadi deserted. Only the counter-terrorism forces—who had conducted most of the fighting to liberate the city—were visible in the streets. Before Daesh had taken over, around 600,000 people had lived there. Now only a few thousand remained, and some of those were trapped in enclaves still controlled by Daesh. And while the so-called Islamic State is losing territory it remains able to conduct deadly operations like those carried out Monday at a shopping mall in Baghdad and in Muqdadiyah.

Airstrikes, and bombs planted in houses and alongside roads, had left Ramadi in ruins. Whole neighborhoods had been leveled. Power lines were down. Infrastructure was destroyed. And the bridges across the Euphrates—one of which dated back to the British time in Iraq in the first half of the last century—were no more.

As Jaber walked through the carcass of what had once been Anbar University, he told me, he broke down in tears. On graduating from Baghdad medical college in the 1980s, Jaber had helped one of his professors, Tareq al-Hadithi, set up the college of medicine in Anbar University.

After 2003, Jaber had poured his energies into renovating the university and establishing student dormitories. He had shown the French ambassador around the university and they had discussed establishing a French language institute. Now all those dreams of investing in future generations had disintegrated. He could not even make out where the medical laboratories had once been.

“I have so many good memories from this city….” his voice trailed off. Jaber had built a new house there a few years ago. “Last time I was here, everything looked fine.” Now all his possessions were stolen, and his house mere debris.

When Daesh had moved into Ramadi, Jaber and two of his sisters had moved to Baghdad. Two of his brothers left to Amman. Another sister had gone to Iraqi Kurdistan, joining the majority of Ramadi’s residents. While those with money rented places, many lived in tents in camps, relying on family and friends to make ends meet. They had sold their gold and whatever they could take with them before they fled. Jaber estimated that over 80 percent of Iraq’s Sunnis were displaced from their homes.

Daesh had murdered Jaber’s brother-in-law and a niece, who died when they were trying to kill her husband, a military officer.

Like many of Anbar’s tribes, loyalties in his family were mixed. Jaber remained supportive of the government and with the political process, whereas one of his brothers was opposed to both the government and Daesh, and a small portion of his tribe were with Daesh.

I peppered Jaber with questions: How had everything gone so badly wrong in Ramadi? How had Daesh been able to take over? Who were these people?

Jaber described a subculture in Ramadi of uneducated men in their twenties and thirties. Some were thieves and petty criminals. Others had developed fundamentalist thinking. And when al-Qaeda in Iraq came into existence after the fall of the former regime, it was within that organization that they found a sense of power and identity.

However, when the Sahwa, the Anbar Awakening, turned against al-Qaeda, and aligned with U.S. forces during the Surge in 2007, many of these same young men were drawn away from the insurgency and swapped sides, turning themselves into local police. And that was why the violence in Anbar had dramatically declined from 2007 onwards and stability had returned to the province.

The agreement that my former boss, Gen. Raymond Odierno, the then-commander of U.S. forces in Iraq had negotiated with former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was that 20 percent of the Sahwa would be integrated into the security forces and 80 percent into civilian jobs. But the deal was never implemented.

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Rather, as U.S. forces withdrew, Maliki reneged on his promises to the Sahwa and arrested its leaders. He accused Sunni politicians of terrorism, driving them out of the political process. In response, Sunnis set up protest camps. But Maliki refused to meet their demands and sent in security forces to violently crush the demonstrations.

With the citizens of Ramadi so at odds with the central government once again, it had been easy for Daesh to rise up out of the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq and proclaim itself as the defender of the Sunnis. Daesh had taken over Anbar University and converted it into a prison.

Jaber explained that the tribes in Anbar had lost trust in the government and refused to fight Daesh. They remembered only too clearly how the Sahwa had been betrayed. “We could not convince them that the experience would be different from before.”

Finally, 9,000 tribesmen were persuaded to join the tribal al-Hashd, the popular mobilization force, and received training from U.S. troops in bases at Taqqadum and al-Asad. And it was these tribesman who had supported the counter-terrorism forces in their efforts to liberate Ramadi from Daesh at the end of 2015.

Governor al-Rawi has been nominated as the head of the Crisis Committee, which includes representatives of ministries, and is tasked with cleaning up the city, removing explosives, and restoring basic services to make Ramadi habitable once more so that its displaced citizens will return.

But difficult times remain ahead. There are huge challenges to rebuilding Ramadi, particularly with scarce resources available from the government due to the steep drop in oil prices to under $35 a barrel.

And looming large is the question of how to break the corrosive cycle of revenge and retribution that has led to so many deaths and displacement.

Jaber was recently appointed to the new Higher Committee for National Reconciliation established under the auspices of Iraq’s prime minister, the president, and the speaker of parliament, and with the mandate to promote “historic national reconciliation.”

Reconciliation has been talked about continually in Iraq over the last decade—but little has been done to address the structural challenges facing the country, to agree on a workable system of government and to reinvent an inclusive national identity to which Iraqi’s diverse peoples can relate.

Many observers believe that Iraq is finished: the Kurds are moving increasingly towards independence; Shia militias dominate the Iraqi government; Iranian influence is pervasive; and Sunni leadership is weak and fragmented.

Jaber knows the challenges facing Iraq only too well. But he still clings to hope. Prime Minister Hayder Abadi is working hard to keep Iraq unified. Salim Jabouri, the Speaker of Parliament, is supportive of him, as is President Fuad Masoum. Although they are weak, the current incumbents of these key positions appear to be working together for the good of the country—a stark contrast with the Maliki era.

“This is the last chance to hold Iraq together,” Jaber said, “to make everyone think of themselves first as Iraqis before Sunni, Shia, or Kurd.”