Victories against ISIS leave Iraq’s Sunni heartland shattered
Anbar has witnessed the most successful military phase of the ground fight against ISIS to date
As Iraqi political and military attention shifts north in the fight against ISIS, the military victories that have put Iraqi forces on Mosul’s doorstep have left behind shattered cities, towns and communities in Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
Anbar has witnessed the most successful military phase of the ground fight against ISIS to date. 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.
For Ali Athab, his most painful memory of ISIS rule in Fallujah was watching his daughter’s health deteriorate. Born with a rare neurological disorder, his daughter Zeina had been receiving treatment at a Fallujah hospital that helped control her seizures, but once ISIS 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 ISIS fighters.
First the cost of medicine skyrocketed, then specialized medicine wasn’t available in Fallujah at all.
Athab, 34 said he prayed for liberation, hoping once his city was retaken by Iraqi government forces his daughter would again be able to see a doctor. But more than a month after ISIS was pushed out of Fallujah, the city remains a ghost town and Athab and his family are stuck in a camp on the edge of Anbar province.
This year, Athab’s family joined the more than 1 million other Anbaris who have been forced from their homes since 2014.
Zeina, age 8, sits politely in a corner of the family’s tent, occasionally fidgeting and making sounds that don’t form words.
In the small, hurriedly constructed camp on the outskirts of Amiriyah al-Fallujah, a single mobile clinic only had antibiotics and mild painkillers on hand. In Baghdad - just over 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, Zeina could have access to the care she needs, but her family - as Anbar residents - lack the legal paperwork required to cross over into 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, referring to ISIS by its Arabic acronym.
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, said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity due to a lack of authorization to release information to the media.
While Iraqi government security forces administer databases of information to identify possible ISIS fighters among civilians, much of the screening process is handed over to local Anbari officials and communities.
At one of the larger displacement 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 after they were taken, the women didn’t know where they were or who was holding them.
Detainees say that tribes and powerful families are accusing rivals of being ISIS sympathizers 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 center, speaking on condition that only his first name is used for fear of his own security.
Anbar’s residents describe feeling increasingly alienated from the central government, adrift in camps for the displaced or sharing close quarters with extended family. The vast majority of 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 ISIS 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, Fahel is now his extended family’s only breadwinner. His brother was executed by ISIS fighters just days before the town was retaken by Iraqi forces and his body was dumped in the street. 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, explaining he has since heard his house back in Hit was completely destroyed.
Nearly 1.3 million Anbaris are estimated to have been forced from their homes since early 2014 when IS first began to grow in power in the province, ferrying fighters and munitions through the lawless desserts along the border with neighboring Syria.
A decade ago, when the predecessor to ISIS had torn Anbar apart, a US-led effort to stabilize the province built support against al-Qaeda by pouring enormous amounts of resources into existing local tribal leadership networks. Today, Iraq’s central government - due in part to budget shortfalls sparked by the plunge in the price of oil - doesn’t have the resources and the US-led coalition doesn’t 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 ISIS in his home province 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 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 Iraq’s 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.”
Athab, the Fallujah resident stuck in the tented camp on Anbar’s edge, describes the past 13 years of cyclical violence as exhausting.
“This is the third time this has happened to Fallujah,” he said referencing the two US-led offensives against al-Qaeda insurgents in his home town in the mid-2000s. The battle against ISIS this year was the first to force him to flee his home and Athab vows it will be the last.
“I don’t want to live in Anbar anymore,” he said sucking at his front teeth. “Fallujah is finished, you can take it.”