Horrific scenes in the streets of Ramadi
RAMADI - Street scenes in the liberated districts of Ramadi look horrific. It is a ghost town littered with debris and smashed concrete with destroyed vehicles and burned shopfronts. Stray cats nibbled on human bodies. Army units were on guard as bomb squads hastened to clear homes and streets of explosives.
The city and its suburbs, the capital of the vast Anbar province, is in ruins and chaos. The area, which witnessed the humiliating defeat of Iraq’s army at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) in May 2015, was mainly seized back after a gruelling offensive backed by 600 US-led coalition air strikes in December.
Ramadi is significant because it is an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, the seat of power for Iraq’s Shia-dominated government. The province’s 2 million inhabitants are mostly Arab tribesmen of the rival Sunni minority, one of the largest concentrations of Sunnis in the country.
Some tribes in Anbar sided with ISIS to take revenge against Iraqi governments that ostracised the Sunnis on grounds they were affiliated with insurgents from the disbanded Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party under the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Ramadi’s liberation was won at the cost of the extensive damage which characterises operations against ISIS militants who rig houses with explosives in the face of looming offensives.
Much of the city of Sinjar, the ancestral homeland of the Yazidi minority, was flattened during an anti-ISIS campaign in November 2015 led by the Kurdish peshmerga forces and backed by coalition air strikes.
Iraqi forces are likely next to set their eyes on Falluja, an ISIS-held city in Anbar east of Ramadi. Falluja’s recapture is crucial to cut supply lines from Syria into Iraq, primarily to Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city in the north under ISIS control.
In an army-escorted tour of Ramadi arranged for The Arab Weekly, Major-General Sami al-Aredhi, commander of the 3rd Division of Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Forces (CTF), better known as the Golden Brigade, said it was not yet decided if Falluja or Mosul would be next.
Iraq is deploying thousands of soldiers south-east of Mosul for operations aimed at cutting supply lines linking it with areas further south, which will set the stage for direct efforts to retake the city.
The battle over Ramadi began December 22nd and ended eight days later with the recapture of 95% of the city. In early February, the army announced that all of Ramadi, including its city centre and suburbs, was rid of all pockets of resistance by ISIS militants.
Aredhi spoke of “horrors” in the battle to seize Ramadi from ISIS. He told The Arab Weekly that CTF evacuated 3,922 civilians from Ramadi’s city centre before launching the massive operation to liberate the area.
“The operation went slowly to protect civilians trapped inside and used as human shields by ISIS,” Aredhi said. “We stopped (the battles) at times to help the civilians, or as a tactic to free them from ISIS.
“The retreating militants destroyed houses, demolished bridges, public buildings and the main university here before they fled.”
He pointed out that Iraqi forces seized Ramadi’s general hospital, trapping ISIS fighters inside.
“We refrained from attacking the building but ISIS militants set explosives to the first floor as they escaped,” he said.
In the streets of Ramadi, scenes were excruciating. The city was deserted of inhabitants. Houses were damaged or destroyed. Palm trees that once decorated the streets were burned, as were cars, trucks and other vehicles. Piles of rubble were everywhere.
Signs warned of landmines and some booby-trapped buildings bore the letter “X”, signalling to bomb squads the locations where explosives needed to be defused.
Big, stray cats were everywhere. Hussein, a CTF agent, played a video clip on his cell phone showing cats eating dead bodies in Ramadi.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi said 80% of Ramadi was destroyed, either by ISIS or during battles to recapture it. He said ISIS set off at least 56 huge explosions across the city during the battles.
Obeidi said the Iraqi Army killed at least 813 ISIS fighters.
Iraqi Education Minister Mohammed Iqbal said 260 schools in Ramadi were destroyed. “We need at least $500 million to rebuild the schools,” Iqbal said.
Anbar’s provincial council estimated that $4 billion was needed to rehabilitate Ramadi.
Despite the destruction, some of Ramadi’s residents said they were eager to return home.
Zuhair al-Qaissi, a PhD student and teacher in the University of Anbar who lives in Baghdad, said he hoped to go back “as soon as the security situation allows”.
Reflecting on some of Anbar tribes’ alliance with ISIS, Qaissi said it was “unfortunate that we, the people of Anbar, once trusted those who called themselves the revolutionaries and the men of religion”.