Fal­lu­jah strug­gles to re­build af­ter lib­er­a­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY SU­SAN­NAH GE­ORGE AND KHALID MO­HAMMED

FAL­LU­JAH, IRAQ | Even as Iraqi forces in Mo­sul close in on the last pock­ets of ur­ban ter­ri­tory still held by the Is­lamic State, res­i­dents of Fal­lu­jah in Iraq’s Sunni heart­land are still strug­gling to re­build nearly a year af­ter their neigh­bor­hoods were de­clared lib­er­ated from the ex­trem­ists.

Af­ter declar­ing the city lib­er­ated last June, Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi called the vic­tory a ma­jor step to­ward uni­fy­ing Iraq more than two years af­ter nearly a third of the coun­try fell to IS.

“Fal­lu­jah has re­turned to the na­tion,” he de­clared in a speech broad­cast na­tion­wide.

But in the months that fol­lowed, while the Iraqi gov­ern­ment com­piled data­bases and set up tight check­points on the main roads in and out of Fal­lu­jah to screen res­i­dents for sus­pected ties with IS, it pro­vided lit­tle in the way of re­con­struc­tion money, lo­cal of­fi­cials say.

Sheikh Talib Al-Has­nawi, the head of Fal­lu­jah’s mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil, said in­ter­na­tional aid is what has pro­vided elec­tric­ity, re­paired wa­ter pumps and built fil­tra­tion sys­tems.

“We have a real prob­lem with [IS] sleeper cells,” he said, adding that what Fal­lu­jah needs most is a strong se­cu­rity force to pre­vent the ex­trem­ists from reestab­lish­ing a foothold in the city some 40 miles west of Baghdad.

“Hon­estly the sup­port from Baghdad has been very weak,” Mr. Al-Has­nawi added, not­ing that his re­peated re­quests for more equip­ment and arms for the city’s lo­cal po­lice have gone un­heeded.

“So mostly we are re­ly­ing on the civil­ians to alert us to threats,” he said. “All we can pro­vide are the very ba­sics.”

Mahdi al-Alak, the sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the Iraqi Cab­i­net, said the gov­ern­ment has bud­geted about $19.5 bil­lion for sta­bi­liza­tion-re­lated projects in Anbar Prov­ince, where Fal­lu­jah is lo­cated.

Mr. al-Alak said two new wa­ter plants in the al-Bagh­dadi and Fal­lu­jah area have been built, with seven oth­ers “re­ha­bil­i­tated.” He also said some roads and bridges have been re­con­structed, with­out elab­o­rat­ing.

Mr. al-Alak ac­knowl­edged the bud­get does not cover health care in­fra­struc­ture, for which about $39.8 mil­lion is needed to re­pair 22 dam­aged health cen­ters in the area.

Lo­cated in the heart of the prov­ince, Fal­lu­jah has a long his­tory of anti-gov­ern­ment sen­ti­ment. Af­ter the U.S.-led in­va­sion in 2003 top­pled Sad­dam Hus­sein, many of the city’s res­i­dents sup­ported a Sunni in­sur­gency that rose up against U.S. forces and the Shi­ite-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment in Baghdad.

In 2014, many in Fal­lu­jah wel­comed IS when the mil­i­tants took over fol­low­ing a bloody gov­ern­ment crack­down on thou­sands of pro­test­ers camped out on the city’s out­skirts to chal­lenge the in­creas­ingly sec­tar­ian rule of then-Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki.

Af­ter the fight to re­take Fal­lu­jah from IS, the city was left a ghost town. It had been en­tirely emp­tied of its civil­ian pop­u­la­tion by Iraqi se­cu­rity forces and IS fighters had left be­hind hun­dreds of ex­plo­sives rigged to kill those who tried to re­turn.

“I had never seen any­thing like it and I can as­sure you no one else has,” said Pehr Lod­ham­mer, a dem­i­ning ex­pert with the U.N.’s Mine Ac­tion Ser­vice who has worked in the field for decades.

In Fal­lu­jah he said his team cleared 289 ex­plo­sive rem­nants and 333 so-called im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices, bombs that IS now pro­duces on an in­dus­trial scale.

In Mo­sul — a city more than eight times the size of Fal­lu­jah — he said he ex­pects neigh­bor­hoods will be lit­tered with far more ex­plo­sives.

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