In shattered Ramadi, a test of future Iraqi unity
By Erin Cunningham | The Washington Post | Published: January 16, 2016
RAMADI, Iraq - This once-teeming capital of Iraq's Anbar province is now little more than a field of debris.
Iraqi troops last month pushed Islamic State fighters out of the city that the extremists had held for seven months and declared Ramadi liberated. It was an important victory for the Iraqi forces. But the scale of the destruction in Ramadi has many here worried about when and if the city will be rebuilt.
What happens next in Ramadi, about 80 miles west of Baghdad, will be a test of whether Iraq can remain a united country and whether heavily Sunni areas can exist peacefully in a Shiite-majority country. Many of Iraq's Sunnis distrust the Shiite-led government and feel neglected by the state. But Ramadi's reconstruction is likely to cost billions of dollars, Iraqi officials say, at a time when the revenue of the national government has plummeted because of falling oil prices. Meanwhile, plans to secure the city with thousands of Sunni tribal fighters have stalled.
The early disputes over security could threaten the city's recovery, keeping residents from returning as homes are rebuilt. The security problems also could revive old tensions between Shiite and Sunni leaders here.
"Ramadi is totally destroyed, there are no forces to secure the city, and there is no trust between the government and the people," said Raed al-Dahlaki, a Sunni lawmaker and chairman of Iraq's parliamentary committee on displaced persons.
More than half a million people have fled Anbar since fighting escalated in Ramadi last spring, according to the International Organization for Migration. About 3 million people are displaced across Iraq.
"Ramadi is the center of the Sunni community in Iraq," Dahlaki said.
"If the government is slow or unable to rebuild," he said, "then there is no future for Sunnis in this country."
Once home to a population of more than 400,000, Ramadi was a vibrant but troubled city and one of the first centers of Sunni insurgency after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The city enjoyed a brief period of stability after local sheiks armed by the United States ousted jihadists, but as relations between Sunni leaders and Baghdad's Shiite government began to deteriorate, jihadists again gained a foothold. The Islamic State seized the city last May.
Since then, a U.S.-led coalition has launched nearly 800 airstrikes in or near Ramadi in a bid to root out Islamic State fighters, according to official statements. Fighting has damaged nearly every structure in the city. Homes, schools, factories and mosques have been flattened or blown apart.
"It was a costly victory," said Brig. Gen. Ali Jamil, a member of the elite counterterrorism unit that has led the battle in Ramadi.
On a recent day, Jamil surveyed the ruins in the city center, where Islamic State fighters had hunkered down in places such as hospitals and government buildings.
When asked about the thousands of Sunni fighters that U.S. and Iraqi officials said would immediately deploy to secure liberated neighborhoods, Jamil scoffed.
"It's only us here now. There are no tribal fighters whatsoever," he said. "They said they would deploy when they got their weapons, but they haven't. We don't believe them. Their leaders just want to make money from the government."
According to several Iraqi officials and commanders, about 500 tribal fighters are scattered across the front lines in the Ramadi suburbs, where security forces are battling jihadists amid booby-trapped buildings and towering palm trees. But on a visit to central Ramadi, reporters found the streets deserted. Even local Sunni leaders concede that the thousands of Sunni fighters slated to patrol the city have not arrived.
The fighters are delayed, they say, because the central government has failed to approve salaries and weapons for the thousands of men who have volunteered. The government says it is worried that the weapons could fall into jihadists' hands and wants the fighters to be properly vetted for ties to the Islamic State, whose members also are Sunni.
"These delays are essentially all attributable to the near-total absence of any meaningful process of . . . reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite leaders," Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst and now a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, wrote after Ramadi's liberation last month.
In the years before the Islamic State takeover, Sunni leaders accused the Shiite-led government and security forces of sectarian repression in their communities. Tribal sheiks such as Rafi al-Fahdawi, one of the leaders of Anbar's Albu Fahd tribe, worry that tensions will resurface if efforts to rebuild are postponed.
"We need something like the Marshall Plan to rebuild Ramadi. It will take years," Fahdawi said, referring to the mammoth U.S. initiative to aid Western Europe after World War II.
"But we don't believe the government will help us. When it comes to the government, the people of Anbar have anger in their hearts," he said.
Fahdawi and others want more local control over government affairs but say they still want to be part of the Iraqi state.
"The more authority the central government gives to local government . . . the easier it will be to maintain security" in Ramadi, said Anbar's governor, Suhaib al-Rawi.
When security was directed from Baghdad, "it caused a lot of problems," Rawi said. Now, he said, the government "needs to spread a message of citizenship . . . and create an atmosphere of security and safety."
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Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.