War on ISIL leaves Iraqi town deserted

All that is left after battles for control of Rabia are empty shells of bullet-ridden buildings and demolished houses.

The Iraqi frontline border town of Rabia has changed hands multiple times in fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Kurdish Peshmerga since June.

The town has also been at the forefront of fierce fighting due to its strategic importance. Not only is it only half a kilometre away from the main crossing into Syria – it is also ISIL’s main lifeline from Syria to their stronghold of Mosul.

Al Jazeera was the first international news channel to gain access to Rabia since ISIL retreated and the Peshmerga regained more than 50 percent of the town last month.

The mood in the Peshmerga barracks was one of confidence as General Hashim Setay, the field commander who led the Peshmerga in their victories against ISIL, told Al Jazeera about their latest progress

“The Peshmerga have made significant gains and the coalition air strikes on ISIL positions have been a great help to us,” said Setay as he pointed to ISIL positions just over one kilometre away from his men, dug into high defensive mud banks.

“ISIL are now changing their tactics. In the past they used trucks laden with explosives to destroy frontline positions and checkpoints,” he said.

“Now they are deploying groups of fighters on foot to infiltrate Peshmerga camps, mainly attacking at night.”

Night vision capability has been vital to the Peshmerga in recent months, as have anti-tank weapons systems. New weapons supplied by the international community have also reinforced Peshmerga gains.

“Our men are regularly being trained on the new weapons that we are receiving,” Setay told Al Jazeera.

Human cost of war

Almost a month since the fighting, the once-bustling Rabia, with a population of 70,000, is now a ghost town and has been completely deserted. All that is left are the empty shells of bullet-ridden buildings and demolished houses.

The most prominent remnant of the battle between ISIL and the Peshmerga in the town is the hospital. The unfinished building became the focal point of fighting last month.

ISIL fighters held out for three days, and it was only with the help of British air strikes that the Peshmerga managed to retake control of the vital border town.

The cost of the war has not been cheap. Many lives have been lost on both sides and many more are expected to be lost. And as the fighting continues, innocent men, women and children are being displaced, uprooted and scattered across northern Iraq.

According to the UN mission in Iraq, there are more than 1.8 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and refugees now in northern Iraq. More than 60 percent of them are in Dohuk governorate alone.

The local authorities here are doing what they can with the humanitarian crisis but it has not been an easy task. In Dohuk there are 16 IDP camps and four refugee camps, but resources are running thin due to the sheer influx of displaced people.

Dohuk Governor Farhad Atroshi told Al Jazeera that the international community needs to do more for the refugees. Resources in Dohuk have been drained and this has affected the refugees and the locals living there.

But it’s not just about humanitarian aid, the former MP told Al Jazeera. “The Peshmerga don’t have enough weapons,” he said, adding that “ISIL are evil and should be defeated”.

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