‘Either you join ISIL or you challenge them’
Nearly two years after being liberated from ISIL, the Iraqi town of Saadiya is struggling to rebuild.
Saadiya, Iraq – The phone‘s screen is small and pixellated, but the picture is clear enough.
The video, shot from behind a patch of scrub, shows an empty road running across an arid plain. The person holding the camera evidently does not want to be seen. For a few seconds nothing moves; then, in jerky slow motion, a white hatchback enters the frame from the left before disappearing in a blinding flash of white light.
Attacks using improvised explosive devices, such as this one, have been a part of life in the eastern Iraqi town of Saadiya for a decade – and to the man in the passenger seat of the white hatchback, they have become almost routine. His name is Shek Ahmed Thamer Ali, and during his turbulent nine-year tenure as the mayor of Saadiya, he has survived 11 separate assassination attempts by fighters with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). The groups have targeted Ali for his affiliation with the government, and for refusing to join them.
Today – nearly two years after ISIL’s defeat in this part of Iraq, and with Saadiya still struggling to get back on its feet – Ali worries that unemployment, corruption, inadequate services and sectarian rivalries are undermining trust in the government, laying the foundations for a fresh round of violence.
A soft-spoken man with tired, haunted eyes and a slight paunch, Ali has sacrificed a lot in the course of his work. Six of his cars have been written off, his house has been destroyed twice, his brother-in-law has lost a hand, and his son has had his legs broken.
The bombing pictured on the mayor‘s phone was orchestrated by al-Qaeda in the violent years between the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the fall of his town to ISIL in 2014.
“I was on my way to work,” Ali told Al Jazeera, sitting in his minimalist living room about an hour outside of Saadiya, where he is staying until he can rebuild his home, destroyed by ISIL in 2014.
The next thing the mayor remembers, he awoke in a hospital bed in the nearby town of Sulaymaniyah. Although the armoured car weathered most of the blast’s impact, the attack left Ali with spinal damage that prevents him from carrying heavy objects.
Yet he has no intention of stepping down – especially now, as his town struggles to deal with the legacy of its occupation by ISIL.
A town in ruins
Saadiya lies about 100 miles northeast of Baghdad on the banks of the Diyala river. It looks like it might once have been a pleasant place: Orange groves and date palms cast shade over broad, dusty streets lined with low, sand-coloured buildings. Stubby bushes with bright pink flowers, which give the town an oddly suburban feel, now look somewhat out of place.
A mostly working-class town whose residents traditionally depended largely on agriculture to make a living, Saadiya‘s problems began after the 2003 US invasion and the subsequent rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose fighters staged frequent attacks here.
“The US army was only protecting themselves,” Ali said. “They did nothing for civilians“.
An estimated 1,200 of the town‘s residents were killed in attacks by al-Qaeda over the years. Then, in August 2014, ISIL swept through large swaths of Diyala province, laying claim to Saadiya and the neighbouring town of Jalawla. Unlike in other parts of the country, where a slow war of attrition with pro-government forces is still in progress, ISIL’s rule in Diyala lasted just a few months before a coalition of Kurdish Peshmerga troops, Shia militias and the Iraqi army recaptured the area in November 2014.
Nearly two years later, Saadiya is still a wreck. Its once luxuriant fruit groves are dying – trees black and skeletal, stripped of foliage. Some were destroyed by fire, while others fell victim to a broken irrigation system that nobody has got around to fixing.
Parts of the city, including the mayor‘s house, were levelled by ISIL. Other areas were destroyed by coalition air strikes during the battle to recapture the town, while still others were razed or looted during the murky post-liberation era when the town was a military zone, off-limits to civilians.
Nobody has attempted to repair the streets, many of which remain strewn with rubble, potholes and debris. Shops and houses lie in ruins, their concrete walls smashed open to reveal the twisted steel rods inside. Padlocks dangle from bullet-pocked front doors.
Hospitals were looted of their medical equipment, which has yet to be replaced. Secondary schools have not resumed classes, and at the few primary schools that have attempted to reopen, lessons must take place without furniture; schools, the mayor explained, were used as military bases by both sides and suffered extensive damage.
But most noticeably – with the exception of the Shia militiamen manning a roadblock at the town’s entrance, and a few bored-looking young men congregating in a small cafe – the town feels deserted. For months, the government has been ticking people‘s names off a list, attempting to weed out those with ISIL sympathies and allowing others to return. Yet more than half of Saadiya‘s estimated 50,000 residents have still not returned.
Fear is a factor. The assassination of the town‘s mukhtar, or community leader, in late May – an attack the mayor attributes to ISIL – has raised tensions in recent weeks, and Ali is acutely aware that the military defeat of ISIL here cannot prevent future attacks. He says there are ISIL sleeper cells inside the town, and he has requested extra security. But if Europe cannot stop the group from committing atrocities in Brussels or Paris, he pointed out, what hope does Saadiya have?
Failure to rebuild
Overall, the security situation in Saadiya is better than it was during the al-Qaeda days. Bombings and attacks have decreased. The larger problem, Ali said, is that the government is broke and unable to repair the damage to the town. The twin crises of a crash in oil prices and an expensive war against ISIL in the country’s west have sent the Iraqi economy into a nosedive, leaving few resources available for reconstruction. According to the International Monetary Fund, the country‘s budget deficit for 2016 will be as high as $17bn.
“The Iraqi government has been so busy fighting ISIL, they spent all the money on liberating territory … not for public services,” Ali said, suggesting that governmental neglect has been a factor prompting some young men to join ISIL. “The government is like a father. If a father doesn’t care about his children, his children will look to something else.”
Dylan O‘Driscoll, a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute, cited a lack of forward planning in anti-ISIL operations.
“Unfortunately, the military advances [against ISIL] are, to an extent, happening at the cost of post-[ISIL] planning,“ O‘Driscoll told Al Jazeera.
“There are deep political and structural issues that need to be addressed in the Sunni-majority areas,” he said, referring to the discontent among many Sunni Iraqis who feel they have been marginalised by the post-invasion Shia-led government. “Without addressing these issues and providing a detailed plan for post-conflict reconstruction and employment, I fear that [ISIL] will either return or another radical entity will take its place, continuing the cycle of ethnosectarian violence in Iraq“.
To date, much of the work to rebuild Saadiya has been done by aid agencies. The International Organization for Migration has started repairing some of the damaged homes, while the British charity Oxfam has helped to resurrect the damaged water plant. The United Nations Development Programme has also expressed its intention to begin rebuilding public services in Saadiya.
“Our priority is to assist with crucial aid to help families rebuild, restart livelihoods and recover in the wake of ISIS,” Oxfam’s country director in Iraq, Andres Gonzalez Rodriguez, told Al Jazeera. “Most families have lost everything and are struggling to repair their homes and get their businesses up and running again.”
For those who have returned, making a living is a serious obstacle, said Saad Qader Hussein, a taxi driver who returned to Saadiya a year after the defeat of ISIL to find his home looted and the city nearly empty. He is proud of his taxi – a bottle-green, Cold War-era Soviet army truck adapted to carry civilians – but says that these days, he sometimes goes for more than a week without a passenger.
Speaking outside of a small, nearly empty cafe in the centre of town, Hussein told Al Jazeera that he rues the day the Americans invaded Iraq, toppling the leadership and creating a power vacuum that thrust the country into into chaos.
“[They] came here and removed our leader, destroyed our country and then left us to face ISIS alone,” Hussein said, as his friends nodded in assent behind him.
The owner of the cafe, who also had his house looted, said business had crashed since the occupation of the town by ISIL. What keeps the place going are the unemployed young men who come here to while away their time, he added.
Yet those with government connections have no problem finding work, rankling average residents further, the mayor said, noting corruption is endemic.
“There is no equal opportunity,” Ali said. “The sons of the officials can get a job without even graduating from the university, while the normal people and those who have fought against injustice will remain without a job.”
Saadiya‘s problems are exacerbated by its location in what is known as the disputed zone, between Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and government-controlled areas.
“Kurdistan is saying that Saadiya is theirs, and the central government is claiming that Saadiya is theirs, and the Sunnis are claiming the same as well,” Ali said. “Nobody is supporting it, because they know it‘s in a disputed area.”
A 2016 report by Amnesty International accused the Peshmerga of using the war with ISIL to consolidate their power and redraw territorial boundaries. The most visible manifestation of this can be seen just a few miles north of Saadiya, where the main road crosses a three-metre-deep trench that runs a full 1,000km around Kurdish-controlled territory, separating Saadiya from the Kurdish-controlled town of Jalawla just a few minutes to the north.
The Kurds say this is a measure to protect themselves against ISIL, but the government and Shia groups worry that it is an attempt to annex large parts of the disputed zone. In the 1990s, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein implemented a policy of “Arabisation” that forced many Kurds out of the disputed territories and encouraged Arabs to settle there. Human Rights Watch estimated that by the end of the 1970s, more than a quarter of a million people had been displaced. Many Kurds now see the current conflict as an opportunity to regain control of what they view as their rightful land.
The Amnesty report further concluded that Kurdish government officials have “implicitly or explicitly justified the displacement of Arab residents as a way to reverse the forcible mass displacement of Kurds in previous decades“.
In Jalawla, where Kurdish forces have been accused of destroying many buildings belonging to Sunni Arabs, some residents have spray-painted the words “Kurdish house” on to their front doors, in an effort to protect themselves from potential attacks.
Soon after ISIL was pushed out of Saadiya, the Peshmerga requested that the town be handed over to them. Clashes between Kurds and Shia forces ensued in the subsequent months.
Though the situation has since calmed down, the mayor knows that Saadiya could soon be sitting on the frontline of a new conflict, acknowledging that this may be a factor in some people‘s reluctance to return to the town.
However, rising sectarian friction between Iraq‘s Sunni and Shia Arab populations could pose an even greater threat.
As ISIL loses territory, it leaves behind a culture of paranoia and suspicion. Even though some Sunni groups are actively fighting against ISIL, many find themselves under suspicion of supporting the group, which is vehemently anti-Shia. A recent spate of bombings in Baghdad has exacerbated these tensions.
On the main road into Saadiya, the remains of a Sunni mosque allegedly destroyed by the Shia militia that recaptured the town – a United Nations report documented four Sunni mosques allegedly destroyed by the militia in Saadiya – is a reminder of the tensions at play. Only the doorway and the warped and crooked remnants of the minaret still stand.
It is difficult to verify accounts of the destruction that occurred in the town during the period after its recapture, when civilians were banned by the militia from returning. Local news reports cited in a US State Department publication noted that “Shia militias razed homes, agricultural fields and orchards“ in Saadiya and surrounding areas. Human Rights Watch has documented this type of behaviour elsewhere in Diyala province.
Across Diyala, Sunni Arabs, many of them still displaced, say that they feel persecuted by Kurdish and Shia forces who suspect them of supporting ISIL. Many told Al Jazeera that their fighting-age male relatives had been rounded up for questioning, locked up or even killed.
In a small, mud-brick building around 40km northeast of Saadiya, Abu Bakr Hamed explained how his entire village was destroyed by the Shia militia that recaptured it from ISIL.
“They accused us of supporting ISIL,” he told Al Jazeera, in between puffs from an elegant, cobalt-blue shisha pipe that filled the room with lemon-scented smoke. “But it‘s not true. We want to live free … We don‘t want to pick any side.”
For years, the neighbouring Sunni and Shia communities of Lower and Upper Ali Sarayah had enjoyed a friendly relationship, as young men worked and socialised together, and intermarriage was common. That all ended after ISIL invaded in 2014, Hamed said.
Today, few buildings are still standing in his village of Lower Ali Sarayah. The destroyed village remains off-limits to civilians, in contrast to the neighbouring Shia village, whose residents have been allowed to return home, their houses left untouched. A Shia commander stationed in the area said that Lower Ali Sarayah had been a breeding ground for ISIL fighters.
Shortly after the destruction of his village, Hamed said, Shia militiamen arrested his brother, nephew and uncle to “ask them some questions”. He has not seen them since.
Similar stories have emerged from Anbar province in the west of the country, where Iraqi forces recently retook Fallujah from ISIL.
“I think it will be difficult now to make things better again,” Hamed said.
Ali, meanwhile, is trying to rebuild trust. Hailing from a Kurdish Shia clan, he sees himself as a bulwark against his town‘s sectarian divisions. He has called for an ethnically mixed force to take control of security in Saadiya, and has endeavoured to persuade his town‘s majority-Sunni population that as long as they do not support ISIL, they have nothing to fear.
But it is a tough message to sell. When ISIL fighters took the town, they uploaded videos to Facebook of cheering residents celebrating their arrival, according to the mayor. For some, this might simply have been the only way to survive the town‘s occupation, but Ali believes many of these people feel alienated and are still too afraid of retribution to return. Many displaced Sunnis in Kirkuk and Diyala provinces told Al Jazeera that they had little faith in receiving fair treatment from the government and militias.
The upshot is a massive internal displacement crisis. According to Oxfam, more than three million Iraqis have been displaced – mostly from the predominantly Sunni areas that comprise the bulk of the territory taken by ISIL since 2014. In Iraq’s Kurdish region alone, there are more than one million displaced people.
Back in the mayor‘s temporary home outside of Saadiya, the scale of the task ahead appears daunting. Three months of ISIL occupation turned his town upside down, and he feels that fixing it is not a priority for the Iraqi government.
“I haven‘t seen anyone who is heartbroken for Saadiya,” Ali said sadly.
Asked why he is so determined to carry on despite the lack of support, the death threats and the ongoing fear of new attacks, he paused for a long time.
“It‘s a good question,” he replied eventually. “There are two ways to serve here. Either you join ISIL or you challenge them. So I have chosen to stand against them.”