Battle for hearts and minds in Fallujah

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Iraqi police patrol western Fallujah a day after the government took control of the city from Daesh in June 2016. (AFP)
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Iraqi troops prepare for deployment in Falluja. (fFile photo)
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A woman talks to the Iraqi commandos in Fallujah. (File photo)
Updated 02 May 2018
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Battle for hearts and minds in Fallujah

  • Iraqi troops are trying to win the peace in a city that has suffered some of the most ferocious fighting in the country
  • Daesh ruled Fallujah under a draconian interpretation of Islamic law for two-and-a-half years

FALLUJAH, Iraq: The main road running through the heart of Fallujah cuts the landscape in two like a fissure from an earthquake. On either side several of the buildings are gouged open by mortar shells and pockmarked with bullet holes. Even the general hospital, which once served as the local headquarters of Daesh, lies in ruins.

For the Iraqi commandos who must patrol this city, the long strip of tarmac — with its central reservation of dirt and shrubs — is still the safest way into town. The troops have been making significant progress in gaining the trust of people here, but they must move slowly and carefully. One wrong turn or misplaced word could undo all their hard work.

“People are tired. Their losses were great and the sacrifices we have made to regain the city are irreplaceable,” Capt. Haider Jabar, commander of the Commando Battalion, 50th Brigade, 14th Infantry Division, told Arab News as he moved through the rubble. “I hope this calm and security will continue and that we will not have to fight again.”

Fallujah lies around 66 kilometers west of Baghdad but shares little in common with the bustling, cosmopolitan capital. The population is deeply conservative and dominated by Sunni Arabs. An inescapable sense of tension and sadness lingers in the air. 

Everyone, including the commandos and the local women who watch them warily, carries the burden of the city’s past. But Jabar and his troops know that if they can overcome this ill-feeling and succeed in their mission to keep the peace here, the entire nation will benefit.

Fallujah’s strategic location in Al-Anbar province — the heartland of Iraq’s Sunni tribes — and its reputation as a symbol of resistance for people across the Muslim world, mean its stability is essential to the country’s chances of recovering from the past 15 years of war. 

Since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the city has been hit by a succession of conflicts that have devastated its infrastructure and left its residents mentally and physically scarred.

Once known as the “City of Mosques” and home to about 300,000 people, Fallujah has become synonymous with violence and radicalism. At different times American forces, Al-Qaeda and Daesh have all brought chaos to the vast neighborhoods of warren-like alleyways, trash-filled slums and cinder-block houses. 

In 2004, US troops waged two battles in the city against Iraqi and foreign extremists, and residents driven to take up arms by the occupation. The ferocious combat killed more than 100 American military personnel and thousands of insurgents. Tens of thousands of civilians were displaced.

A decade of simmering violence followed until Daesh began to seize control of the city in late December 2013 with help from local tribes, riding into Fallujah on a groundswell of anger at the corruption and discrimination prevalent in Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government. It was the first time the radical group had seized a major urban center anywhere in Iraq.

Daesh ruled Fallujah under a draconian interpretation of Islamic law for two-and-a-half years. Men were imprisoned for minor violations such as smoking, women were forbidden from going out alone in public and alleged spies were beheaded in the main market. Young males were made to fight alongside the extremists.

Then in June 2016 the Iraqi military retook control of the city after a month-long offensive. It has been struggling to keep the peace ever since, with traces of black graffiti from Daesh still defacing property once occupied by the group. In response, the troops have left their own mark. “The commandos of Baghdad were here,” read one message scrawled in green on the wall of a house.

When Arab News joined Jabar on a routine patrol this spring, there were also more tangible signs that he and his men may be succeeding where the various armed groups that walked these streets before them failed. The situation, however, was balanced on a knife edge.

“We used to hate (the Iraqi army) — I say this openly,” said Abdulqadir Mohammed, a local resident. “They were annoying and deliberately humiliated us when we passed through the security checkpoints. They used to spread sectarian slogans and do everything they could to provoke the people of the city. 

“Now their performance is more than excellent. They treat everyone with respect and without discrimination.”

The first stop on the commandos’ patrol was Na’imiya, a suburb of southern Fallujah that served as the frontline in the fight between Daesh and the Iraqi army. With the Euphrates river snaking past to the west, the houses, dirt roads and empty yards were still laced with land mines and makeshift bombs planted by the retreating militants.

Jabar got down from his armored pick-up truck and tried to remain calm as he advanced on foot through the neighborhood. It was sunny, around 22 degrees Celsius, and while his troops were armed with Kalashnikovs, he did not openly carry a weapon. Only occasionally did the tension get the better of him.

“Stay back, walk exactly where I’m walking — this area is still mined,” he shouted at his men at one point.

Passing from house to house, he spoke to several families whose relatives had been killed or injured. Many of the people looked exhausted and distressed, as if they might never piece their lives back together.

“The smell of the militants’ rotting corpses and the gunpowder still fills my nose,” Jabar told Arab News, as he recalled the offensive against Daesh.

“Our losses were great but it was militarily acceptable compared to the ferocity and nature of the battle. It was not a direct fight. The militants were relying on snipers, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices and the booby traps which you can see everywhere around you. They were freely moving from house to house through openings they had made in the walls.”

From Na’imiya the commandos moved on to Al-Andalus, a slum neighborhood largely untouched by the destruction elsewhere in the city. They then headed to Al-Shuhada, their pick-up trucks bumping up and down as they drove along roads damaged by Daesh explosive devices.

Huddled into the rear of the trucks, they could see signs of life getting back to normal, with teenagers playing football amid the crumbling houses. But the sheer scale of the destruction became impossible to ignore the deeper the troops moved into Al-Shuhada.

Makeshift bombs were still lying untouched inside empty yards, the dust and dirt that once covered them washed away by recent rain. Everywhere, buildings lay in ruins. 

As Jabar left his truck and went to inspect one partially damaged house, a man frantically yelled at him from several hundred yards away, warning him to stay clear of the property because it was booby trapped. Jabar told his troops to remain close but his customary calm was again fraying at the edges.

In the distance some of the commandos pointed out a government housing complex that they ominously referred to as “Al-Hayakil,” meaning “The Structures” in Arabic. 

They recalled how the buildings there had been used as firing positions by Daesh snipers looking to pick off Iraqi forces advancing toward Fallujah from Baghdad. “Our troops were under their eyes,” said one. 

Soon afterwards, Jabar decided that he had seen enough and issued the order to move on. The fight to free Fallujah from the extremists had taken its toll on him and he did not want to lose anymore men. Aged 34, he had experienced the breakdown of his first marriage as a direct result of his work in the city.

His wife, he told Arab News, had been unable to cope with his long absences from home while he was deployed to Fallujah. They had separated but he had since married again and was cautiously optimistic that both he and the city were beginning to leave the misery of the past behind.

For the civilians who have suffered in the succession of conflicts to hit Fallujah, however, moving on is not so easy.

The commandos ended their patrol at the house of Abu Saif, a quiet, bespectacled 50-year-old who works as a taxi driver. Earlier that day people had told them that two of his four sons, Wissam and Hamoudi, had recently been killed by one of the explosive devices hidden in Al-Shuhada. 

Jabar had spoken to him briefly at a local police station, but Abu Saif had been angry then and blamed the Iraqi army’s “negligence and corruption” for the deaths. Now, with evening drawing in, Jabar wanted to talk to him again. 

Inside the house the tension between them gradually eased as they sat around a small oil heater, smoking cigarettes and drinking endless cups of tea.

Abu Saif complained that the man he suspected of killing his sons was walking freely around Fallujah because the police refused to arrest him.

“You have to talk to the judge,” Jabar replied, as he took a deep breath on his cigarette. “This is my mobile number. If the judge does not do anything, just ring me. I will personally interfere and put (the corrupt police) officers in jail.”

Outside, some of the commandos smoked a shisha pipe with a local resident while their colleagues dozed in the evening sun. Another of the soldiers played with a child.

Jabar finally left the house after almost two hours. He roused his men and they began the slow journey back to base.


How ‘liquid of life’ is under threat in the Middle East

Updated 22 March 2019
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How ‘liquid of life’ is under threat in the Middle East

  • An increasing number of people in the region do not have access to clean water and basic sanitation
  • In 2015, there were more than 51 million people in the Arab region lacking access to basic drinking water services, and more than 74 million without access to basic sanitation services

DUBAI: World Water Day had somewhat of an abysmal feel to it across the Middle East this year, as the region witnesses a growing number of people with no access to supplies of the vital resource.

Although the issue of supply has always been critical for the Arab region, known to be one of the most water-scarce in the world, matters are only getting worse with a rise in refugees and the displaced.

“The freshwater scarcity situation is aggravated by several factors, such as dependency on shared water resources, climate change, pollution, non-revenue water losses from aging systems, intermittency, inefficient use, and high population growth,” said Ziad Khayat, first economic affairs officer in water resources in the Sustainable Development Policies Division at the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). “Occupation and conflict also affect people’s ability to access water and sanitation services. The Arab region is perhaps the only one in the world still experiencing direct military occupation.”

He spoke of the Israeli occupation of Arab territories, which affects access to water resources and the ability of countries to properly manage and provide required water and sanitation services, with a ripple effect on food security, health and development. “Armed conflict in the region has resulted in the destruction of the water and sanitation infrastructure, hampering the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation,” he said. “In response to shortages, households resort to unregulated water vendors relying on compromised resources, such as unprotected wells. In addition, damaged wastewater systems have resulted in river waters and shallow wells becoming contaminated.”

Water shortages and electricity outages have rendered many health care facilities non-functional, while vulnerability to the outbreak of waterborne diseases, particularly for people living in conflict-affected countries, has greatly increased. “The systemic conditions affecting the Arab region’s water security are not expected to improve in the near future,” he said. “In fact, climate variability and change are projected to impose additional pressures, with adverse impacts on the quantity and quality of freshwater resources in an already water-scarce region, affecting its ability to ensure food security, sustain rural livelihoods and preserve ecosystems.”

A higher frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and extreme weather is being experienced in many countries, which aggravates the situation of vulnerable communities and has led to economic losses and environmental degradation in several parts of the region. “The region has a high population growth rate and is one of the most urbanized in the world, with more than 58 percent of the population now living in cities,” Khayat said. “It has witnessed significant and uneven urban transformations, with some countries undergoing rapid wealth generation, others confronting economic challenges, and several afflicted by conflicts that have led to major displacement and migration of large sections of the population.”

Such trends are expected to place more stress on the urban infrastructure, particularly in water, given the scarcity conditions in the region. And with 86 percent of the region’s population — or nearly 362 million people — living in countries under water scarcity or absolute water scarcity, action is needed. “The predictions are that water scarcity is only going to get worse unless we change the way we manage the resource,” said Monika Weber-Fahr, executive secretary at the Global Water Partnership. “I remain an optimist. We were able to meet some of the water-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now, with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is a new and broader resolve to, not just improve water supply and sanitation, but take a more holistic approach to managing water, including its transboundary aspects.”

“Leaving no one behind” is the theme of this year’s World Water Day at the UN. The central challenge, Weber-Fahr believes, is that to achieve efficient, equitable, and sustainable water management, all parties must have genuine opportunities to actively participate in water management decisions. “Only then can decisions be taken that reflect how we all value water — reflecting its social, economic and environmental value,” she said. “We need to create a safe space for people to come together to build common ground for water management decisions, working with everyone, everywhere.”

In 2015, there were more than 51 million people in the Arab region lacking access to basic drinking water services, and more than 74 million without access to basic sanitation services. Access to water and sanitation  is also lacking in rural areas compared with urban areas. “The record shows that in the past 10 to 12 years in the Arab region, the overall proportion of population with access to safe drinking water has improved from 85 percent to 90, almost reaching the global average of 91, but deteriorated in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen, where it dropped from 94 percent to 88 due to military occupation, civil conflicts and insufficient investments,” said Dr. Waleed Zubari, professor in water resources management at the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. “Disparity between urban and rural population in both services continues to be considerably large, especially in the lower-income countries. This is expected to continue with the civil conflicts in Syria and Yemen and in Iraq, and under the military occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip.”

If only excess water during rainy days can be stored for use during the dry months, water shortage wouldnot be much of a problem. (AN file photo)

Climate change and drought are also expected to worsen river flows, which is the main source of water for many Arab countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. “Whether we have achieved a universal access to water for all the population or not, there are some challenges that will stay with us in the Arab region,” he said. “Scarcity of water resources and limited endowments facing increasing water demands due to increased population will continue to be a major challenge in the region. Another issue that needs immediate attention is the water supply and use efficiency, recycling and reusing water, considered very low in the region, and if worked on, will reduce water stress tremendously.”

Peace and stability will also help improve the situation, as well as rebuilding the water sector in countries shattered by civil war and occupation. Similarly, water management, efficiency and conservation in policies will need to progress.

For Dr. Ahmed Murad, dean of the college of science at United Arab Emirates University, said that providing clean water for the population is essential for all communities. “Historically, the absence of water could increase conflicts between nations,” he said. “Latest statistics show that about 844 million people in the world live without access to safe water, and one in nine lack the access to safe water.”

He spoke of more pronounced circumstances in the Middle East, with high temperatures and a low amount of rainfall. “Such conditions with population growth may reduce the availability of clean water due to a high demand on water resources,” he said. “The limited and diverse water resources will pressurize natural resources, and this will continue to deteriorate if no action is taken.”