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Patience wears thin in Fallujah, 6 months after Daesh ouster

By AFP - Jan 18,2017 - Last updated at Jan 18,2017

Iraqi children walk on December 29, 2016, in a street in the city of Fallujah, that was recaptured from the Daesh terror group about six months ago, as life starts to slowly return to the city (AFP photo)

FALLUJAH, Iraq —  months after Iraqi forces retook Fallujah from the Daesh terror 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.

“Fallujah is a safe city,” he insisted.

Iraqi forces retook Fallujah, an emblematic extremist bastion just 50 kilometres 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 Daesh in their retreat.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said last month that only about 10 per cent 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 Daesh 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”.

 

Lack of funds 

 

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 Shiite 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 jihadists from what became known as the Daesh group.

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

Hashed presence 

 

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 Raad Al Hussein said in July that there was strong evidence that Ketaeb Hizbollah, 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, Daesh’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 Daesh control.

 

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

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