Iraqi cities struggle to recover in ISIL’s aftermath

Widespread destruction, reduced municipal services and renewed social tensions plague cities liberated from ISIL.

Rabia post-ISIL
Ahmad Hussein, 63, says Rabia's hospital was just three months away from completion before it was attacked [Tom Robinson/Al Jazeera]

Rabia, Iraq – More than a year has passed since Rabia was retaken from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and still the twisted skeletons of shops and homes line the main road into town.

The ruins of what was set to become the city’s glitzy new hospital remain untouched – the scattered debris a reminder of the brief but fierce battle that took place in October 2014 to drive ISIL fighters out.

Like other towns and cities in Iraq that were fought for and liberated, Rabia remains in the throes of neglect, as basic services such as education and health are largely non-existent, and water and power substandard.

“The services are not good,” 56-year-old Khalaf Dhiab, a retired resident of Rabia, told Al Jazeera. “There’s flooding and the municipality is not cleaning the streets.”

WATCH: Kurdish forces battle ISIL in northern Iraq

Southeast of Rabia, in the ethnically diverse town of Jalawla, water and electricity are mostly back on after the town was recaptured from ISIL in November 2014, following a joint operation by Shia militias and Peshmerga fighters.

But the city itself remains in bad shape, said Christine van den Toorn, director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS), an independent research centre.

“The bazaar and all the stores were burned and destroyed, the government buildings, hospital – it’s like a tornado went through the town,” van den Toorn told Al Jazeera after a recent visit to Jalawla.

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Last week, Kurdish media reported that some 200 families had returned to their homes in the town, and in the absence of services, had begun clearing the streets of debris themselves. “It took a year and a half to start moving families back, but to the Kurds’ credit, they are Sunni Arab families, Shia Arab families and Kurdish families,” van den Toorn said.

In country engulfed by war and a crippling financial crisis, however, the immediate reconstruction of battle-scarred areas is not a realistic priority for Baghdad or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Long-standing rivalries between Baghdad and the Kurds over disputed territories have also played a role in hindering reconstruction, as both factions seek to lay claim on cities such as Sinjar and Jalawla – but neither side is willing to invest fully in these areas until they can cement their grasp.

Rabia is another classic example of this, according to a recent IRIS report: “The federal government views Rabia sceptically for building alliances with Erbil, and in return the KRG is unable or unwilling to fully commit to a territory outside the constitutionally defined Iraqi Kurdistan.”

When ISIL seized control of Rabia in August 2014, the hospital was the first building to fall, and it became the armed group’s last stronghold before they were defeated. Today, residents are forced to travel two hours east to Dohuk if they need medical facilities.


by ”Ahmad

, we felt like we were coming to life. We dreamed of seeing a hospital in our city, but we had no such luck.When ISIL came, it was a black day for us.”]

Like Jalawla, Rabia has also seen the return of its residents, with around 3,000 families coming back so far, according to a Kurdish security source. Of the 25,000 people who previously lived in Rabia, almost all fled after ISIL invaded.

Some businesses in Rabia, which took a major hit after ISIL’s takeover, have also attempted to get up and running again. “The economy will get better,” 25-year-old pharmacist Fawaz Hamid told Al Jazeera, sounding hopeful. “The area is one of agriculture, and people are coming back.”

Yet Baghdad – which has purchased quantities of wheat, barley and other products – has failed to pay Rabia farmers for their past two harvests, noted Khaled Kanosh, a local community leader. This has exacerbated an already dire financial situation, with some farmers having to sell their cars and gold to make ends meet.

“We’re waiting for the Kurdish government’s economic support, because Baghdad is not giving us any,” Kanosh said. “Baghdad knows Rabia’s tribe is close to the KRG; that’s why they’re not supporting us financially.”

Rabia’s bureaucracy is currently being managed by the Kurds, who have a strong military and security presence in the area, even though the population is divided in its support for the Peshmerga.

READ MORE: Tension mounts between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds

South of Rabia, the recently liberated city of Sinjar has also been struggling to recover.

According to the Engineer Association for Development and Environment, a local NGO, 70 percent of Sinjar’s homes and 30 percent of its schools have been destroyed. The town’s main hospital has also been damaged.

“Water facilities have been destroyed,” added Peshmerga Colonel Jadan Darush Jadan, who is Yazidi. “The KRG and Baghdad don’t have enough resources to bring the city back to normal. We need international help.”


In addition to the physical damage, Sinjar is also suffering on a social level. Mistrust between Yazidis and Sunni Arabs lingers in the aftermath of the attacks carried out by ISIL against Yazidis in August 2014. Sunni Arab residents have been prevented from returning to the area, and their homes have been looted. Peshmerga forces are currently in control of Sinjar, but smooth governance is likely to prove a major challenge.

“No one trusts the Peshmerga. Even those [Yazidis] who are in the Peshmerga don’t trust them,” a 54-year-old Yazidi tribal leader told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity. “We don’t want to be under Kurdish or central control. We want an independent force [comprised of Yazidis].”

Back in Rabia, 63-year-old Ahmad Hussein walks across the rickety hospital rooftop, gesturing towards a concrete crater caused by coalition strikes more than a year ago.

“There were only three months left for the completion of the hospital,” said Hussein, who had been given the task of supervising the workers. “When they began building [the hospital], we felt like we were coming to life. We dreamed of seeing a hospital in our city, but we had no such luck.

“When ISIL came, it was a black day for us.”

Source: Al Jazeera