Daesh long gone, but former Iraqi oil hub still dead

A member of the Iraqi forces guards a checkpoint in the northern Iraqi city of Baiji on Nov. 27, 2017. Two years after the jihadists of Daesh were forced from this one-time industrial hub, Baiji remains a devastated ghost city as pledges of funds to help rebuild life have failed to materialize. (AFP/Mahmud Saleh)
Updated 11 December 2017
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Daesh long gone, but former Iraqi oil hub still dead

BAIJI, Iraq: A white rocking horse and a child’s toy car lie abandoned on a dusty lane in the Iraqi city of Baiji, a small sign of the ruin that can be seen all around.
Two years after the jihadists of Daesh were forced from this one-time industrial hub, Baiji remains a devastated ghost city as pledges of funds to help rebuild life have failed to materialize.
Home to what was once Iraq’s biggest oil refinery, its rubble-strewn streets are lined by the twisted carcasses of buildings, and in 2016 it was declared a disaster zone by the national parliament.
“Up until now there has been no money to reconstruct the town despite the promises made by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi,” Khaled Hassan Mahdi, a member of the regional council, told AFP.
Instead, Mahdi said, all available funds have gone into financing Iraq’s military campaign against Daesh, which Hadi declared defeated after three years of brutal fighting.
“And even if the ministries unblock the money, it will only go to restoring infrastructure, water, roads, electricity, but not pay benefits to people or give them aid to rebuild their homes.”


For Baiji, 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Baghdad, its role as a major industrial center boasting sprawling oil and chemical plants seems like a distant memory.
“It will be very difficult to rehabilitate the Baiji refinery, which was built in 1975 and used to produce 250,000 barrels a day, as so much equipment has been pillaged,” a high-ranking official in Iraq’s North Oil Company told AFP.
Even if the facility does get up and running again, the official said, then “it won’t have the same capacity as before.”
The level of devastation in Baiji is among the worst left behind after Baghdad’s punishing campaign to reclaim its towns and cities from the grip the jihadists, who fought fierce house-to-house battles to cling on to the city.
“Baiji is the most destroyed place in Iraq after western Mosul,” said council member Khazal Hammadi, referring to the obliterated old heart of the country’s second city.
Before the jihadist’s seized control in 2014 the city had a population of some 180,000 people.
“Now 90 percent of Baiji is destroyed and the people have still not returned,” city councillor Sheikh Hatef Bassam said.
Wearing a black and white checked keffiyeh headscarf, he insists that “the destruction was the work of the IS terrorists after local Arab tribes rejected their presence,” using a different acronym for Daesh.
But the full story of Baiji’s downfall is far more protracted and complex.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baiji found itself at the heart of the so-called “Sunni triangle” where those loyal to ousted leader Saddam Hussein continued to wage a ferocious insurgency — and the oil infrastructure was attacked repeatedly.
Daesh swept into the city in June 2014 as the Iraqi forces collapsed and after more than a year in control were forced out by government troops and allied militias with the help of air power from a US-led coalition in October 2015.


Traffic has long ceased along Baiji’s wrecked main highway and, apart from a few military checkpoints, life is nowhere to be seen.
“The city is destroyed and the houses are uninhabitable,” said local militia commander Hajj Ibrahim Taha.
“The roads are destroyed, the water system is damaged, electricity is non-existent and all the people have left.”
Local police chief Saad Nafus said that some families come back from time to time to check their houses, but they have to get “authorization” from security officials who still worry about jihadists returning.
In a camp for displaced people run by charities in the region, three kilometers north of the city of Tikrit, former Baiji resident Amer Abbas has no idea if his home is still standing or not.
“We are afraid that we will find nothing if we go back,” he said.
Nearby, Said Imad Ahmed said he already knows full well that his house has been destroyed and that for the foreseeable future he will remain trapped in the camp.
“I don’t have any money to rebuild and the government has given us nothing,” he said.
“We have no choice but to remain here.”


A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

Updated 37 min 44 sec ago
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A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

  • Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition
  • The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government

BAGHDAD: A year since Iraq announced “victory” over the Daesh group, the country finds itself in the throes of political and economic crises left unresolved during the long battle against militants.
Unified against the common menace of Daesh, Iraq’s political elites are now at loggerheads over the drawn-out formation of a cabinet as the threat of renewed popular protests looms.
Iraq is no stranger to instability. It fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, then a conflict over Kuwait followed by a crippling international embargo and the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A sectarian war ensued, capped in 2014 by Daesh’s devastating sweep across a third of the country.
Backed by a US-led international coalition, Iraqi troops and paramilitary forces battled the militants for three years, until Baghdad finally declared it had won in December 2017.
After decades of nearly back-to-back wars, Iraq’s decision-makers are now forced to face deep-rooted dilemmas left festering for years.
“In Iraq you’ve seen many ‘missions accomplished’,” said Renad Mansour, senior fellow at Chatham House in London.
“But as usual, the much more challenging victory is the political victory — which has always been left for another day.”
Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition.
Then-prime minister Haider Al-Abadi failed to hold on to his position despite claiming credit for victory, as people turned to populist parties who tapped anger over corruption.
The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government.

In October, Abdel Mahdi managed to fill 14 of the cabinet’s 22 posts, but repeated efforts to hold a parliamentary vote on the remaining eight, including the key interior and defense ministries, have failed.
“The distribution of power, the race to acquire as many government positions as possible under the guise of real competition between parties — that is at the root of the problem,” Iraqi political analyst Jassem Hanoun told AFP.
“Iraq is still living in a transition period, without political stability or a clear administrative vision for the country.”
As the process drags on, observers have wondered whether Abdel Mahdi could step down, further destabilising a country just getting back on its feet.
“Withdrawal is an option,” a source close to the government said, adding that Abdel Mahdi “has his resignation letter in his back pocket.”
“Only if the political situation gets significantly worse can I see him taking it out of his pocket and using it,” the source said.
But the thorny issues facing Iraq extend beyond the capital.
Much of the country remains in ruins after three years of ferocious fighting, including large swathes of one-time Daesh capital Mosul and the northern Sinjar region.
An international summit in Kuwait in February gathered around $30 billion in pledges for Iraq’s reconstruction — less than a third of what Baghdad hoped to receive.
More than 1.8 million Iraqis are still displaced, many languishing in camps, and 8 million require humanitarian aid, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“If this is what ‘victory’ looks like, then there is little to celebrate for millions of Iraqis still haunted by the crimes of the IS and the long war to eliminate it,” said NRC’s head Jan Egeland.

Violence has dropped across Iraq, according to the United Nations, which recorded the lowest casualty figures in six years in November with 41 civilians killed.
But the threat of hit-and-run attacks lingers.
A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that while the total number of Daesh attacks in Iraq had dropped in 2018, those against government targets had increased compared to 2017.
Observers are also worried that the bitter squabbles among Iraqi’s political forces could turn violent.
“Because of the divisions among the parties, anything is possible,” Hanoun said.
One scenario would be a conflict among the country’s competing Shiite Muslim factions, which he said would be a “disaster.”
But another major fault line divides Iraq’s entrenched politicians and an increasingly frustrated public.
Deadly protests in the summer of 2017 saw tens of thousands turn out over unemployment, a lack of public services, and accusations of corruption.
Rampant power cuts mean millions of Iraqis have just a few hours of state-provided electricity per day. The country is ranked the 12th most corrupt in the world, according to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Protest leaders have threatened a return to the streets if these issues, as well as the political stalemate, are not resolved.
“There’s certainly a conflict within the Shiite camp, but the biggest conflict will be between the people and the whole system,” said Mansour.
“Summertime will be a test for Abdel Mahdi.”