A protracted conflict against the terror group ISIS has left much of Iraq in ruins - though there are signs of rebirth.
On the fateful evening of August 7th 2014, then-US President Barack Obama gave a live address to the nation announcing the beginning of military actions in Iraq against so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS and Daesh), ushering in a new era of US involvement. The following day, US Navy F-18 Hornet fighters launched the first airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. Six years on, and 14,700 international air and artillery strikes later as well as thousands more by Iraq government forces, Iraqis are still reeling from the war against ISIS and its aftermath.
The conflict itself displaced over five million Iraqis and left schools, hospitals and other vital infrastructure in affected provinces across northern and central Iraq in utter ruin. While statistics on the number of civilians who perished overall during the war against ISIS varies, Iraq Body Count estimates that 67,376 civilians were killed between January 2014 and December 2017. According to the World Bank, the total cost of the conflict amounts to a staggering 124 trillion Iraqi Dinars ($107 billion), which is equivalent to 73% of the country’s entire GDP in 2013.
It is also estimated that 138,051 residential buildings and units were damaged, half of which were destroyed beyond repair in Iraq during the long war on ISIS. Meanwhile, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has estimated that the conflict left 6.2 million people in need of targeted humanitarian assistance.
Beyond the cold statistics showing the impact of war on an already beleaguered country, personal testimonies of Iraqis themselves give a more visceral idea of life under ISIS, and the aftermath of the military campaign. They also speak to the ongoing challenges that Iraqis living in formerly ISIS-occupied areas continue to face six years on.
Life under ISIS
By the time the US began its military campaign in Iraq, so-called Islamic State had already seized significant territories in northern and western parts of the country including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city – plunging the nation into its most serious crisis since the US-British invasion in 2003.
The announcement of a US air campaign came shortly after ISIS’s genocidal campaign on the Yazidi community in Sinjar and its surrounding areas in Nineveh province had begun – and almost two months after ISIS’s notorious massacre [Warning: GRAPHIC] of up to 1,700 unarmed Iraqi military cadets in Camp Speicher. The next three years would see the lives of millions of people change radically. The terror group’s occupation of these territories ravaged communities and decimated the social fabric of many of the cities under the group’s rule. Locals living in areas under ISIS occupation recount wanton acts of brutality by the group, in a bid to enforce their control and dominance.
Khalid al-Rawi, a musician and community activist in Mosul [see main picture], describes the state of fear instilled by the group during their occupation of Iraq’s second city. “I know many musicians who destroyed their instruments [out of fear of being caught] or would go far away in order to play a bit of music… If anyone played music openly, they could have been killed, but musicians wouldn’t have dared to do this”, Khalid recalled to Airwars this week. “People were killed for the smallest reasons by them [ISIS] – I was one of the people who if they caught me, I would have been killed instantly.”
Ziad Ghanim Sha’ban, a lawyer from Tikrit in Salahuddin province, paints a similar picture of violence and fear under ISIS, particularly when it came to religious and ethnic coexistence. “Iraqi society, as you know, is like a mosaic [of different ethnic and religious groups],” explains Ziad. “We have Kurds, we have Sunnis with Shia parents and Shias with Sunni parents, as well as Turkmen in our community – we are one country, but when ISIS came, this changed. They rejected and fought this vigorously, and killed anyone promoting this [coexistence] – this instilled great fear in society and many families were torn from the community.”
Ziad goes on to recall how some husbands and wives who had spouses from southern Iraq – where the population is predominantly Shia Muslim – divorced and ran away to avoid persecution by the group.
War on ISIS and the legacy of the International Coalition
Following a series of gains made by ISIS throughout 2014 that saw the terror group control up to a fifth of Iraq’s territory and 6.3 million people (19% of the population), the Iraqi Government, with the support of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) consisting of numerous armed groups, as well as international allies led by the United States, began pushing back against ISIS, slowly reclaiming territory until the group’s territorial defeat in December 2017.
The role played by the US-led Coalition was instrumental in eventually defeating ISIS. The US-led alliance has declared 14,771 air and artillery strikes in Iraq since its inception, providing air cover for Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and decimating ISIS positions in northern and western Iraq. Today the group exists only on the margins of Iraq, harried by ISF and Coalition attacks. However, the human and material cost of this campaign has been immense – and experienced almost exclusively by Iraqis themselves.
ISIS killed and injured many thousands of civilians during its occupation, and many more died in ISF actions. Using local sources, Airwars has also to date tracked 895 separate civilian harm allegations against the International Coalition in Iraq. According to local reports, between 9,801 and 14,037 civilians were claimed killed in these incidents and up to 12,248 others injured. The US-led alliance itself has so far publicly admitted 688 deaths from its actions in Iraq.
Beyond this, the military campaign has left vast swathes of the country in ruins, making it almost impossible for hundreds of thousands of civilians – still displaced by the conflict – to return to their homes.
Khalid recalls a number of instances where families were caught up in airstrikes targeting ISIS militants: “I have a friend whose family, including uncles and aunts, were living in the same house. From what was explained to me, there was one ISIS member on the roof of the house so an International Coalition missile struck the building, killing 13 or 14 members of that family.”
Ziad also recounts the tragic story of his younger brother, who was killed by what he says was an International Coalition airstrike in Tikrit. “I have my brother, a child, named Muhanad aged only 11 years old, who was injured in an airstrike and died immediately and we have still, to this day, not received any compensation or acknowledgement from the Coalition.”
In almost all cases, those interviewed say that very few, if anyone, receives any form of acknowledgement or compensation from the Iraqi Government or from the International Coalition. “The reality is that as a lawyer, as part of a team of lawyers, we submitted more than a hundred complaints against Coalition forces, calling for compensation…In the end we didn’t even receive 5% of the compensation we were entitled to,” Ziad told Airwars.
Reconstruction and Reconciliation
Six years on from the beginning of the International Coalition’s own campaign against ISIS, the societal impact of the group’s occupation and the conflict that ensued has been transformative, and will likely remain with Iraqis for decades. In many parts of the country that were under ISIS rule, communities remain divided, and little effort has been made by central and local governments to bring people together. In the absence of government action, locals have taken it upon themselves to repair the social fabric of their communities, in the days following liberation from ISIS.
Khalid al-Rawi points out that despite the immense challenges faced by the people of Mosul and the difficulties of the last few years, the re-emergence of a vibrant civil society in the city has been an unexpected yet significant silver lining in the post-ISIS years. “A number of initiatives have emerged aimed at promoting reconciliation, which I myself have taken part in. For example, we went to Hamdaniya, [a predominantly Assyrian district, with a significant Christian population] and cleaned and helped rebuild churches; and a number of young people helped clean another church in Mosul.”
He also says that the city’s experience under ISIS rule has changed many people’s attitudes about music and the arts, which were previously, perhaps, looked down upon by many in more conservative parts of the city.
“There is a positive I see [from this experience], a new page has been turned for the youth of this community – a revolution has occurred….from an artistic perspective, before people [used to say to me] music is wrong and haram and if you learn music it means you work in a bar. Now that is not the case, there has been a lot more acceptance after liberation from ISIS.”
— Mosul Eye عين الموصل (@MosulEye) October 24, 2019
However, Ziad paints a bleaker image of the societal impact of ISIS rule and the subsequent fighting that emerged. In contrast to Mosul’s civic revival, many in Tikrit are afraid to engage in civic activities, he says. “Since the violence we saw in Hawijah and Tikrit in 2013 against protesters and by ISIS during their rule, activists have not emerged in our areas because they saw the executions that would take place if they did come out… Even when protests emerged in Baghdad and the south [in 2019 and 2020], there were no protests in Salahuddin, Anbar, Hawijah and Mosul because [people] knew they could be killed,” explains Ziad.
In terms of reconstruction, efforts by the Government have often seemed futile, with progress slow and, in many cases, non-existent. Despite liberation from ISIS, residents of Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces face an uphill task in rebuilding their cities and communities, made even more difficult by government incompetence and widespread corruption.
Abdulrahman Mohammad, a businessman and community leader in Fallujah, who fled his hometown after the arrival of ISIS back in 2014, explains that upon returning to his city after three years, he found a city in ruins and a devastated local economy. “When we came back after ISIS, everything we had was lost. Our factories were destroyed. In the end, the economy of the province [of Anbar] had halted,” explains Abdulrahman. “Work is not given to anyone except to a specific group [of people] through patronage networks,” he elaborates.
“Anbar had 30 very large cement factories, each employing 500 people. To this day, these factories remain damaged and unusable,” laments Abdulrahman, adding that “Efforts to create jobs by the government are non-existent. None.”
The situation in other towns such as Sinjar in Nineveh, and Baiji in Salahuddin, is even more dire. According to the World Bank, 70% of housing assets in Sinjar were damaged, while in Baiji, 94% of residential buildings were damaged.
As Iraq now enters its seventh year following the beginning of the war against ISIS, many Iraqis have little faith in government efforts to rebuild their cities, and are instead forced to put up with the devastation wrought upon them by ISIS and years of war. While the post-ISIS period has brought security to the liberated provinces of Iraq – and has also created a space for local civil activism to flourish in certain areas – many know that there is still a long way to go before the majority can truly taste the fruits of liberation from ISIS.