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IN THE evening Adil Jumaili and his daughter stand beside the Tigris river in Mosul and stare at the wreckage on the opposite bank. Two twisted cars lie where their home once stood. It was destroyed, along with 8,000 other buildings, when Iraqi forces recaptured the city from the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) in July. The hospital at Mosul’s edge, once amongst Iraq’s finest, has been flattened. So, too, has the government complex, all the schools and the medieval alleyways lined with madrassas and monasteries.
Precision bombing by Western aircraft spared much of eastern Mosul, which is recovering fast. But western Mosul proved harder to retake. Block-by-block fighting and so-called “annihilation tactics” (a decision to wipe out IS fighters rather than let them flee) destroyed much of the area. Bodies are still being pulled from the ruins and the smell of putrefaction hangs in the air. Nearly 6,000 civilians died in the fighting, says Amnesty International, a human-rights group.
Mosul may be the best known of the cities recaptured from IS. But the sense of neglect is palpable across the areas populated by Sunni Arabs. Fallujah, some 400km to the south, was not as badly damaged in the month-long battle to liberate it. But a year later its residents still complain of mistreatment by the central government. “We are living in a big prison,” says one.
The IS “caliphate” has proved a disaster for Iraq’s Sunnis. The jihadists will soon be defeated in Iraq. On October 5th the army declared victory in Hawija, leaving IS in control of only a sliver of land along the border with Syria. But beyond providing basic services, the Shia-led government is failing to rebuild the liberated zones, or to reintegrate their populations into its political system. With an election scheduled for April, it is focused on the mainly Shia south, from where it draws support.
Foreign donors have done some patching up. The water is running and the lights are on in Fallujah (most of the time). Kuwait plans to host a conference on reconstruction in Iraq early next year, and the UN has budgeted $1bn for the “stabilisation” of Mosul. Vastly more will be needed. But low oil prices mean that Iraq and the Gulf states have scant funds. As of late September the UN had spent just $24m in western Mosul, which suffered most of the damage. “We’re probably best off just levelling the old city,” says an aid official.
In Mosul and Fallujah, Sunnis tell similar stories. Unemployment is sky high. Men with university degrees sweep streets or shovel debris for $20 a day. There are echoes of the de-Baathification policies that alienated Sunnis during the American occupation. In Mosul doctors and teachers go unpaid as they wait for the authorities in Baghdad to clear them of ties to IS. In Fallujah some 4,600 policemen were fired when they returned to the city.
To dispel any notion of an occupation, soldiers and militiamen in Mosul have decorated their checkpoints with plastic flowers. Local Sunni soldiers patrol the centre of Fallujah, while Shia militias stay on the city’s outskirts. Still, the restrictions at the Suqoor checkpoint, on the road from Fallujah to Baghdad, are so arduous, arbitrary and time-consuming that many avoid attempting the journey. Complaints of government extortion are common. “If I want to bring more than three sheep in I have to pay $10 for each,” says Ibrahim Assad, a butcher in Fallujah’s bazaar. “They’re strangling the city.”
The unemployed in Mosul reminisce about better times under IS. “Their administration was more honest and organised,” says a displaced mother of five. Similarly, an elderly Sunni colonel in Fallujah recalls the “golden age” of the late dictator, Saddam Hussein. Still, Iraqi officials dismiss any notion that Sunni alienation might again lead to trouble. “Like Grozny after Russia’s destruction, the Sunni population is psychologically broken,” says one. “With or without reconstruction they are not going to rise again.” They should beware of hubris. The fall of Mosul and Fallujah to IS in 2014 is a clear warning of how resentment can quickly turn to insurrection.