Patience wears thin in Fallujah, 6 months after IS ouster

AFP , Wednesday 18 Jan 2017

An Iraqi man walks on December 29, 2016 in a street in the city of Fallujah, that was recaptured from the Islamic State (IS) group about six months ago, as life starts to slowly return to the city (Photo: AFP)

More than six months after Iraqi forces retook Fallujah from the Islamic State (IS) militant group, reconstruction is slow and the government risks alienating those residents who have returned to the city.

"There are no members of the Daesh terrorist organisation left in Fallujah," the police chief, Colonel Jamal al-Jumaili, told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

"Fallujah is a safe city," he insisted.

Iraqi forces retook Fallujah, an emblematic Islamist militant bastion just 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad, in June 2016 with relative ease but that victory came at a hefty price.

A large number of homes were destroyed by the fighting and several neighbourhoods are still off-limits to civilians due to the possible presence of booby-traps planted by IS in their retreat.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said last month that only about 10 percent of homes in Fallujah were inhabitable.

"Nothing works here, there's no water, no electricity and houses have been destroyed," said Firas Mahmud, a 25-year-old who returned to Fallujah after IS was defeated and is currently unemployed.

Another man met on the street in Fallujah had the same grievances and complained of the lack of services and jobs.

"The authorities must do something," said the young man, who gave his name as Mustafa.

The Fallujah municipality defended its record but Mayor Issa al-Sayer mostly called for "the help of the international community to allow Fallujah residents to live in stability.

Baghdad has promised to enable the speedy return of Fallujah residents, who were all displaced during the reconquest of their city, but the government is cash-strapped.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government "lacks or may lack the focus and resources to adequately budget for an adequate reconstruction effort," said Omar Lamrani, an analyst with the Stratfor think tank.

"Baghdad's finances are already stretched with low energy prices and the costly demands of war, and corruption and cronyism affect the direction of the limited funds available," he said.

The risk that observers were warning against before the operation to retake Fallujah even started is that unkept promises will fuel a sense among its Sunni residents that they are being marginalised by the government, which is dominated by Shia parties.

Fallujah has long been known as a rebel city and over the past decade and a half been a hub of opposition, first to occupying US-led forces and then to the Iraqi government.

In the winter of 2012-2013, protests spread across Anbar province, in which Fallujah lies, complaining that Iraq's Sunni minority was being stigmatised by then prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

In January 2014, rebels took control of the city, which was eventually overrun by Islamist militants from what became known as the IS militant group.

To retake Fallujah, Baghdad relied on its regular forces but also on the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), a paramilitary organisation dominated by Shia militia groups with close ties to Iran.

The police chief insisted that "only the army and the police are present" inside the city. Hashed al-Shaabi forces hold positions in towns and rural areas around the city, he said.

Some residents of the overwhelmingly Sunni area continue to be afraid of the Hashed al-Shaabi, some of whose components have been accused of sectarian-motivated abuses against civilians.

United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in July that there was strong evidence that Ketaeb Hezbollah, one of the main militias that fought alongside security forces in the operation, carried out atrocities.

Such allegations complicate the government's efforts to win over the population, "a critical step if it wishes to maintain a secure control over the city in the long run," Lamrani said.

Hashed "leadership has increasingly exerted efforts recently to crack down on negative sectarianism, though such behaviour unfortunately continues to exist at some level in the lower ranks," he said.

The analyst warned the same concern applied to Mosul, IS's last major stronghold in Iraq.

Three months into a huge operation, the head of Iraq's special forces announced that the eastern side of the city had been "liberated" but the other half is still fully under IS control.

Hashed forces have cleared vast, mostly desert areas southwest of Mosul but not entered the city.

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