More than two years after Islamic State militants were ousted from this ancient town in northern Iraq, only one man has returned. He lives in the wreckage of a house that has enough of a ceiling to protect him from the winter rains, with four or five stray dogs at any time for company.
In the shadow of a church pocked with bullet holes, he survives on food donated by local security forces in exchange for performing an important task: keeping looters and vandals away from three newly renovated schools and a new medical center. Each has a sign in Arabic stating it was rebuilt through a partnership between the United Nations Development Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Batnaya, once home to some 6,000 Chaldean Catholics, is a small but striking example of the enormous challenge facing the Iraqi government, United States and United Nations in rebuilding and repopulating areas devastated by the Islamic State occupation and the three-year war to rid Iraq of the militants.
At the current rate, it could take a generation or more to reconstruct what the conflict has ruined. Iraqi officials say it will require $88 billion to recover, far more than the government can muster on its own, and foreign help is falling far short of plugging that hole. Nor is there any guarantee that residents would return even to those pockets that are being restored if security can’t be assured and vital services provided.
As a result, Iraq now confronts a double danger.
For Iraq’s non-Muslim minorities, in particular Christians whose communities are the Trump administration’s top priority, the protracted pace of reconstruction could push them past a tipping point. Already, barely one-seventh of Iraq’s Christian population before the war remains in the country.
And for Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, whose communities bore the brunt of the Islamic State occupation but have received little reconstruction help from the United States, the miserable conditions could seed a new round of militancy.
The slow redevelopment of the large swaths of northern and western Iraq where the Islamic State once ruled has given rise to fears among Iraqis and U.S. officials that the militants could make a comeback, exploiting security gaps and frustration over a lack of basic services and shelter.
Iraqi government officials have not responded to requests for detailed information about the funding pledged, received and spent.
So far, other countries and international organizations have anted up most of the money spent, though the bulk is in the form of loans the Iraqi government will have to repay, according to the country’s reconstruction fund.
The money is being distributed slowly and through patronage networks riven with corruption and bedeviled by rivalries among politicians and the armed militias that fought the Islamic State, Iraqi and Western officials say, further delaying the process.
The newly renovated schools in Batnaya, freshly painted and furnished, stand out in a landscape of rubble, the remains of homes destroyed by U.S. airstrikes and heavy fighting waged by U.S.-backed fighters during the operation to oust the militants in late 2017.
The new cream-colored medical clinic is directly across a narrow street from a cemetery where headstones, concrete crosses and mausoleums were toppled and smashed by the Islamic State. The few houses that are partially intact are still branded by the occupation. “Let it be known, the Islamic State is expanding, with God’s will,” is scrawled in black paint on the exterior of one home. “We remain, despite your Coalition,” graffiti written in blue declares on another.
“I’m the only one who has returned,” said the elderly guard, who declined to have his name published fearing authorities would disrupt his informal arrangement with the security forces. “I have no family, and it’s better than living in a camp.”
The rise of the Islamic State in 2014 accelerated an exodus to the United States and Europe that continues to this day and threatens a permanent demographic shift. About 200,000 Christians remain in Iraq, compared with 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Tamer El-Ghobashy