As his armoured vehicle bounced along a dirt track carved through the ruins of this recently reconquered city on Wednesday, Gen Ali Jameel, an Iraqi counterterrorism officer, narrated the passing sites.
Here were the carcasses of four tanks, charred by the jihadis of Islamic State. Here, the home of a police officer the jihadis had blown up. Here, a villa reduced to rubble by an air strike. And another. And another.
In one neighbourhood, he stood before a panorama of wreckage so vast that it was unclear where the original buildings had stood. He paused when asked how residents would return to their homes. “Homes?” he said. “There are no homes.”
The retaking of Ramadi by Iraqi security forces last week has been hailed as a major blow to Islamic State – also known as Isis or Isil – and as a vindication of the Obama administration's strategy to fight the group by backing local ground forces with intensive airstrikes.
But the widespread destruction of Ramadi bears testament to the tremendous costs of dislodging a group that stitches itself into the urban fabric of communities it seizes by occupying homes, digging tunnels and laying extensive explosives. The US-led coalition that is bombing Islamic State, says that the air campaign is working and that the group has lost 30 per cent of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria. Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has vowed that 2016 will see Islamic State "terminated in Iraq".
Still, the question looms of what such a victory would leave behind. The coalition’s successes in Kobani, Syria, and Sinjar, Iraq, have also left communities in ruins, with few resources to rebuild. And defeating Islamic State will require extracting it from the much larger cities of Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, as well as from many other towns and villages.
Iraqi officials said that their forces now held 80 per cent of Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad and the capital of Sunni-dominated Anbar province, and that fighting continued on the outskirts. During a visit on Wednesday, the booms of artillery fire filled the air, followed by clouds of smoke rising on the horizon. Two Iraqi attack helicopters circled, and jets from the international coalition growled overhead.
Scars of war
Before the offensive, there were questions about what part of Iraq's security apparatus should lead the fighting. The Iraqi army, which lost the city to Islamic State in May, is still lightly regarded. Shia militias, which have proved effective in battles against the jihadis, are generally unwelcome in Sunni areas and have been accused by human rights groups of carrying out revenge attacks.
In the end, it appears that heavy coalition air strikes opened the way for the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, generally considered the country's most professional and capable security force. Formed by the United States about a decade ago, and still receiving training and support from the US military, it operates exclusively under Abadi's office.
The Iraqi army had little presence, limited to staffing artillery posts and running checkpoints outside the city, some of which provocatively flew the flags of Shia martyrs. Nor was there much sign of the thousands of Sunni fighters recently trained by the United States to join the fight against Islamic State. Iraqi and coalition officials said they were not considered combat troops, but were used to hold areas seized by other forces.
The scars of war in Ramadi were visible just about everywhere. Many streets had been erased or remained covered in rubble or blocked by trenches used in the fighting. To reach their command centre in the city’s southwest, Iraqi forces took a meandering, bumpy dirt track through neighbourhoods full of collapsed homes, shrapnel-ridden shop fronts and swimming-pool-size craters left by airstrikes. One was full of green water, apparently from a damaged sewage line.
Entire areas are considered no-go zones because they have yet to be searched for booby traps left by the jihadis. Few civilians remain from a population that once numbered about 400,000, and the city lacks electricity and running water, meaning that supplies must be trucked in, leading to traffic snags between armoured vehicles and water and fuel tankers.
Two rivers flow through the city, but the jihadis blew up bridges that connected neighbourhoods as they withdrew, meaning that what used to be a short drive from one place to another now requires a long detour south of the city to cross a pontoon bridge the United States provided.
The route passes Anbar University, the walls of its buildings peppered with bullet holes, and leads to the government compound at the city's centre, the capture of which by Iraqi forces on December 28th led them to announce the city's liberation. It remains deserted, except for a contingent of Iraqi troops who do not wander around much since Islamic State fighters still hit it with mortar rounds. The glass facade of its police station is shattered, and the police squat in a house farther from the front lines.
On the roof of a villa that serves as a command centre, an officer at a table covered with a map of the city juggled four walkie-talkies and three iPhones, jotting down co-ordinates received from the field in Arabic and relaying them in English to someone with a British accent.
A tour of the neighbourhood gave a glimpse of how the jihadis had fought. Tunnels passed under streets, and paths between houses were obscured by tarps or slats of wood to hide fighters' movements from surveillance drones. The force's commander, Lt Gen Abdul-Ghani al-Asadi, said in an interview that Islamic State depended heavily on explosives planted on roads and in buildings for defence and on suicide bombers for attacks.
A few hundred jihadis had been killed, he said, mostly in air strikes. Very few had been taken prisoner. “They don’t surrender,” Asadi said. “They blow themselves up.” Iraqi and coalition officials placed blame for the city’s destruction on the jihadis, who mined roads and buildings and detonated the homes of anyone connected to the Iraqi government. This week, they detonated explosives on the ground floor of the Ramadi General Hospital, the largest in the province, damaging the building as security forces approached, Asadi said.
City of ghosts
Col Steven H Warren, a Pentagon spokesman in Iraq, said, “One hundred percent of this is on Isil because no one would be dropping any bombs if Isil hadn’t gone in there.” But the heavy dependence on air power also clearly played a role. The coalition has launched more than 630 air strikes in the area since July, and Asadi said his counterterrorism force advanced only once the coalition had cleared the way.
Local officials worry that the money needed to rebuild the city will not materialise, given the magnitude of the need and disastrous effects of low oil prices on Iraq's budget. The United States and its allies have pledged $50 million (€46 million) to a United Nations fund for reconstruction in Iraq, but Sabah Karhout, the head of the Anbar provincial council, estimated that rebuilding the city would require $12 billion.
“Ramadi is a city of ghosts,” he said. “If there are not serious international efforts, it will not be rebuilt.” Those efforts will be central to whether the city’s former residents can return. Many Ramadi residents have sought refuge in a growing tent camp east of the city.
Khalida Ali (56) and her family of nine had remained in the city when the jihadis took over in May. While she avoided leaving home, masked fighters in Afghan clothing once harassed her at the market for not wearing a black gown and covering her face. Later, the jihadis arrested her husband’s brother, a police officer, and beheaded him in the street, she said, speaking from the tent where she now lives.
The jihadis prevented civilians from leaving in an effort to deter air strikes, she said, but after Iraqi forces entered the city, her family joined a group making a dash for the front lines. On the way, someone tripped a booby trap, killing her son’s wife and their infant son.
Ali was unsure whether her home had been damaged since she left, but she vowed to return. “It is where we were born,” she said. “We can’t leave Ramadi.”
New York Times service