After the Iraqi army liberated Ramadi in Iraq's western Anbar province Sunday, troops surveyed the wreckage of a city that had been devastated by months of artillerly rounds and airstrikes. Crumbled buildings surrounded the square at the city's center and tattered black flags, the emblem of the Islamic State group, hung on the sides of houses.
More than eight months of fighting between Iraqi forces and the Islamic extremist group have made the city of Ramadi unlivable and in need of massive reconstruction before the thousands of people who have fled can return home. But there is still no clear strategy within the Iraqi ranks or among U.S. military advisers on how to control the city in the long-term, and longtime sectarian divisions in the region that threaten stability could make it difficult to keep ISIS out for long, analysts said.
Rebuilding a crumbling city in Anbar province will take the support of the locals living there and the implementation of a strong, stable municipal government, analysts said. The government that is currently in place in Anbar now, led by Sunni tribal leaders, is fractionalized and some members have aligned themselves with ISIS. Beyond the internal disagreements in Anbar, the Sunni tribes do not trust the central government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite.
Reconstruction and governing will not begin in Ramadi until those tensions are mitigated and Sunnis are included in the process, said Firas Abi Ali, a senior manager of country risk in the Middle East and North Africa at IHS, a global economics and risk analysis firm. “Being able to hold [Ramadi] … will be dependent on the Sunni population being willing to participate in defense of the city and being unwilling to cooperate with the Islamic State,” Abi Ali said.
The battle of Ramadi began in May after ISIS took control of the city from Sunni tribes. Since then, the U.S. coalition has conducted about 630 airstrikes on the city, Pentagon estimates indicate. There is no running water or electricity.
The U.S. pledged $200 million to the Iraqi government in humanitarian aid in July and the World Bank announced a $350 million fund over five years for reconstruction in Iraq, aimed at restoring power, water, housing, roads and bridges in Salahdin and Diyala provinces. The U.N. Development Program is also involved in rehabilitating areas liberated from ISIS control through a fast-track scheme that brings immediate work to places like Tikrit.
There has been little reconstruction of any of the major cities retaken by Iraqi Security Forces except for oil infrastructure, James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, told International Business Times. Overall, the U.S. has a history of failing to rebuild cities it invades properly, Jeffrey said.
"There's this idea in the military that if you hit it, you own it and reconstruct it," he said.
During previous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. did not implement governing systems that worked long-term. In Iraq, the U.S. ordered what was known as "De-Ba'athification" — a policy that said all public sector workers affiliated with the Ba'ath Party, the party of former dictator Saddam Hussein, were to be removed from their positions and to be banned from any future employment in the public sector. In Afghanistan, the U.S. also tried to implement democratic governing structures for which the country was not ready, Abi Ali said.
"Afghanistan didn’t have institutions for decades," Abi Ali said, adding the U.S. introduced democratic reforms to Afghan leaders without training them first. "[It] didn’t lend to a modern state."
The main concern for the U.S. and Iraq now is to ensure sectarian tensions do not interfere with reconstruction. Tensions between Baghdad and the Sunni tribes in Anbar peaked when the U.S. helped install Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister, a new Shiite politician during the Iraq War. Maliki fired tens of thousands of Sunnis from their jobs in the government, forcing disgruntled former military men who fought under Hussein back into the folds of Anbar province. Many of them eventually joined the ranks of ISIS. Those same men, along with dozens of tribal leaders, helped ISIS take control of Ramadi and nearby Fallujah by providing them with cash and weapons.
Breaking those ideological bonds between Sunni tribes and ISIS, and brokering piece with Baghdad is necessary to keeping peace in Ramadi in the future, Abi Ali said. “It will be really dependent on the relationship between the government and the Sunni population. Because they’ve pushed back the Islamic State further from the border of the city, the forces deployed around Ramadi are theoretically in a position to prevent the Islamic State from returning,” Abi Ali said. “A key question is whether the Iraqi government will give Sunnis enough of a role in policing the city.”
Al-Abadi, a Shiite, said after the victory that a local Sunni police force would hold the city, but did not explain who would be in charge of reconstructing and governing the beleaguered community. U.S. officials leading the advising mission in Iraq did not specify in briefings this week how America would help remedy sectarian divisions between Baghdad and Sunni tribes — something military experts say is vital to keeping ISIS out of not only Ramadi, but the greater Sunni-dominant Anbar province.
Earlier this month, the U.S. claimed Baghdad was not doing enough to engage Sunnis, especially in the battle against ISIS in Anbar. Many of the men fighting the Islamic State group in the region were part of the U.S. “Sunni Awakening” strategy in 2007 that funneled arms to Sunni tribes in western Iraq to stop al Qaeda. The U.S. tried to implement a similar strategy against ISIS and enlisted tribal leaders to lead the fight against the Sunni militant group using American weapons. But that strategy fell apart because the weapons the U.S. promised never made it out of Baghdad into the hands of the tribes in Anbar.
“Sectarian politics and Iranian influence have made building a multisectarian ISF [Iraqi security forces] difficult,” said Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in a congressional hearing Dec. 1. “We continue to offer additional U.S. support of all kinds and urge Baghdad to enroll, train, arm and pay Sunni Arab fighters, as well as local Sunni Arab police forces, to hold territory recaptured from ISIL [another name for the Islamic State group].”
Although the Iraqi government said publicly it had taken the U.S. advice and entrusted Sunni tribes in leading the fight against ISIS in Ramadi, the Sunnis did not actually play a major role in the battle, Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria, told a press briefing Tuesday.
“Until now, their, their presence while, you know, every man counts, every rifle matters, they have not had a large, simply not a large enough presence to really to make much of a difference,” he said.
But, he said, they will be expected to hold the city going forward.
“It will be the Sunni tribal fighters along with police, right, both federal and local police who will provide the security and the stabilization for Ramadi,” he said.
Although the U.S. and its coalition partners have pledged millions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid to Iraq, the details of how former ISIS-held territory will be controlled is a decision the Iraqi government needs to control, Warren said.
“It's up to the Iraqi security forces how they will further deploy and further use their forces,” Warren said. “The government of Anbar is now working very closely with the Iraqi central government to finalize, to coordinate with the United Nations and other aid agencies so that we can, the moment that city is secure, get the needed help, get the money flowing and get the — get the reconstruction going.”
So far, little has been done by Iraqi forces to clean up the ravaged city of Ramadi. Military tanks still line the streets, bullet casings have been left scattered across the ground, and graffiti that reads "Islamic State" in Arabic lines the walls of abandoned buildings.
Lydia Tomkiw contributed reporting.