One year after Iraq declared military victory over the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) our report finds that IS’s deliberate destruction of Iraq’s rural environment continues to have debilitating effects on poor, small-holder farmers. The research focuses on the area around Sinjar, scene to some of the most extensive destruction. Irrigation wells were often sabotaged with rubble, oil, or other foreign objects, and pumps, cables, generators and transformers stolen or destroyed. Efforts to hold IS responsible under international law should include these specific crimes. Meanwhile, Iraq’s government should provide farmers and former farmers with urgent assistance to recommence their livelihoods.
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Fifteen years after it was sealed off, the heavily fortified neighborhood in the heart of Baghdad was opened to the public on Monday.
The neighborhood, known as the Green Zone, had been cordoned off by the American military in 2003 to protect it from bombings during the war. The four-square-mile patch of land contained Saddam Hussein’s palaces, which later housed the headquarters of the American occupation authorities and military, and the Parliament building, the seat of the new Iraqi government.
But its history and isolation made it a potent symbol first of the American occupation and later of the alienation felt by many Iraqis toward their own government, and Iraqi leaders have been promising to reopen it ever since the American military withdrew in 2011.
Qais al-Khazali gained notoriety on the battlefields of Iraq, fighting to expel U.S. troops after they invaded 15 years ago.
Now Mr. Khazali wants to oust American forces again, but this time through the Iraqi political system after making major gains in an election earlier this year.
In the year since Iraq declared victory over ISIS, the country’s security forces have struggled to dislodge a lingering insurgency while across the border the militant group remain locked in a death struggle with Kurdish-led Syrian forces.
Former Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi celebrated victory over ISIS with a military parade through Baghdad last December 10, which was declared a national holiday. But in comments ahead of the parade, he cautioned against complacency.
Observers warn the difficult task of rebuilding remains incomplete.
The Islamic State has been stripped of nearly all the territory it ruled in Iraq and Syria and has been pummeled by nearly 30,000 airstrikes. But the extremist group has still managed to retain a small pocket of land on the Syria-Iraq border for more than a year.
The militants have even on occasion struck back with some of their former vigor from their toehold, around the Syrian town of Hajin in Deir al-Zour Province. In the last week of November, they staged a breakout from the Hajin pocket, attacking the American-allied Syrian Democratic Forces in the Syrian town of Gharanij, which those forces had captured a year earlier.
In the desert outside Mosul there is a giant sinkhole, once thought a natural wonder, with stories about it going back for generations.
There are believed to be as many as 10,000 or more bodies decomposing inside, unceremoniously dumped by Islamic State militants, after or during the killings.
And as Iraq marks the first anniversary of its victory over IS, this area is still strewn with so many bombs that authorities do not expect to recover those remains soon, if at all.
It is fall in Mosul, the season’s first cool breezes blow off the Tigris, and I am walking around a 12th century castle with my friend Safwan. We have spent the morning scouting on behalf of an NGO dedicated to direct cash assistance. The surrounding blocks are destroyed, but several families are trying to move back anyway, clearing the wrecked Ottoman courtyards, stone by stone. They are excellent candidates for support, but Safwan, a soft-spoken 29-year-old engineer, remains frustrated. “There is no progress with the mass of destruction,” he says. “It needs effort from foreign countries and serious work from the government. Until now, we haven’t seen that.”
Safwan’s frustration is common in Mosul. Though the city was liberated from ISIS in 2017, millions of tons of rubble are yet to be cleared; 40% of old Mosul remains disconnected from any water network; electricity is erratic; in certain neighborhoods, corpses and IEDs remain on the roadside. Sixty-five percent of the city’s housing stock was damaged or destroyed; in the less damaged quarters, spiking rents drive families into debt, while a lack of jobs leaves young men idle in tea shops. The surviving hospitals and schools cannot support the population of 1.5 million; in the street, children orphaned in the battle beg for change, then curse those who refuse them.
While this month marks the first anniversary of the Iraqi-proclaimed victory over the Islamic State (IS) terror group, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are still trying to hunt down remaining IS militants as the extremist group returns to its insurgent roots.
In a televised address on December 9, 2017, former Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi announced the defeat of IS and the end of Iraqi campaign to recapture its territory.
While many considered IS obliterated following the declaration, recent reports show the militant group is still active in parts of the country and increasingly has been assassinating important figures, bombing Iraqi forces and kidnapping civilians.
The Qara Chokh mountain range in northern Iraq is remote, parched and inhospitable. That’s what makes it attractive to the core of Islamic State, which has survived the four-year U.S.-led war against its caliphate. ISIS is now regrouping near here and in similar hard-to-reach corners of Iraq and Syria. The terror group isn’t finished.
“It’s more than 15 years that there is al Qaeda here,” says Lt. Col. Surood Barzanji, an officer of the Kurdish Peshmerga’s 14th Brigade, currently tasked by the Kurdish Regional Government with maintaining security in the mountain area. “They changed their name to Daesh”—the Arabic acronym for ISIS—“and now there is another one coming. A new one.” We look across the Hussein al-Ghazi Pass toward an imposing warren of caves where, he says, ISIS fighters are living. Two miles away, the first checkpoints of the Iraqi Security Forces are visible. In the no man’s land between Kurdish and Iraqi forces, Islamic State finds its niche.
Later, in a Peshmerga briefing room on the mountain, Col. Barzanji traces the route ISIS men use to reach their haven in the caves. It begins on the western side of the Tigris River, south of Mosul around the town of Hamam Alil. This region of Iraq is known to local residents, Peshmerga and Arab fighters alike as “Kandahar”—like the famously violent province of Afghanistan—because of the strength of support there for the Sunni jihadist cause.
At the precise moment when ISIS fighters were prepping for their retreat from the Iraqi city of Ramadi in February 2016, Hassan Mohammed lay in bed struggling to breathe.
For nine months, through the jihadist occupation of his hometown, the young engineering student had huffed and wheezed from morning to night. And for nine months, Mohammed, an asthmatic, had just about sustained himself with inhalers and a self-imposed house arrest. “I couldn’t go outside,” he said. “Pollution had always been bad because of the factories, the farm sprays, the desert dust. The fighting made everything much worse.”
But now, as the occupiers set about concealing their withdrawal from circling jets, Mohammed was convinced he was going to die. First, ISIS fighters lined the streets with burning tires, and then they blew up strategic installations across the city, including a pesticides plant. As the acrid smoke and plumes of dust seeped through the window cracks into Mohammed’s room, no manner of medication or precautions could keep the billowing filth at bay. “It’s a terrifying feeling when your lungs don’t work,” he said. “I still feel it. It doesn’t go away.”