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Islamic State Fighters fleeing Iraq leave Carnage behind causing major damage to local economies

Qayyarah's airbase was a key installation for the Iraqi air force before it was captured by IS in June 2014

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ISIS group members with their flag. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

– by Kawa Omar

As Islamic State fighters are being routed from cities and towns across Syria and Iraq, they increasingly leave behind carnage, which is causing major damage to local economies and devastating people they already have traumatized.

This week a VOA reporter visited a town that was held by IS until last week, when Iraqi forces pushed the fighters out. The oil-rich town of Qayyarah, 60 kilometers south of Mosul, was under IS rule for more than two years. IS militants made certain that Qayyarah’s infrastructure was damaged before they were defeated. Houses were partially or fully destroyed. Oil wells were set ablaze, causing major damage to the economy and the environment. At least 10 oil fields were burned down, local sources said.

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“IS targeted oil fields knowing it was people’s money,” said Hussein Jasim, a resident of Qayyarah, referring to the Iraqi economy.

The city’s military base also was wiped out, according to Iraqi military officials.

“The base is not usable now,” said Colonel Karim Radwan, an Iraqi military officer who led the offensive against IS there. “IS bombed the infrastructure of the base.”

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Qayyarah’s airbase was a key installation for the Iraqi air force before it was captured by IS in June 2014. The base also was used for several years by U.S. forces after the U.S. intervention in 2003.

Radwan said it will take a long time and a large investment to repair the airfield.

Residents said they lived under IS extortion and suffer psychologically from IS occupation.

“We paid them a lot of money,” said resident Jasim. “We either had to pay them or get slaughtered.”

Many residents say widespread destruction in the town means they will not return home anytime soon, despite IS fighters having been cleared out. Many of the residents have fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq or nearby areas under the control of the Iraqi government.

“I fled with my family as the [Iraqi] forces were liberating [Qayyarah],” said Wahid Khalaf, another resident.

He and his children walked for seven hours to reach safety, “taking many dangerous routes,” Khalaf told VOA.

Another resident who refused to be identified said thousands of families were devastated due to IS terror activities in the town. “These families have no homes or anything. They have nowhere to go,” he said, pointing to fleeing residents crammed in the back of a truck.

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IS’s intention is to inflict lasting suffering after it is pushed from towns, analysts say.

“This is exactly what IS wants,” said Hamid Majeed, an Iraqi political analyst. “They want to show people that their lives would be even more miserable after they [IS] no longer control their territories.” (VOA)

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    Not for long. They have already lost control in some parts of Syria and Iraq because of US coalition airstrikes, Turkish military intervention in Jarablus and a strong resistance from US-led rebel forces.

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Militants Regrouping to Attack in Syria, Iraq and Around the World even after Final Victory

“If we don’t get rid of the extremism, IS can come back at any time and destabilize our lands"

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IS, islamic state, syria
Many children are growing up in camps since they fled Islamic State militants, missing out on their education, pictured in Hassan Sham, Iraq on Feb. 21, 2019. VOA

In October 2016, Umm Aysha and her three children huddled on the ground outside a bombed-out shopping plaza with a crowd of other women, all wearing the black veils required by Islamic State militants.

They were on the outskirts of Mosul city in Iraq, fleeing a battle as Iraqi, Syrian and coalition forces pummeled IS across the region from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city and village to village. “Our house was bombed,” she told VOA, explaining why she fled.

That battle subsided and bit by bit, IS lost the lands they captured over the previous three years. On Saturday, after five years of fighting, the militants lost their last sliver of land, a bombed out camp in Syria. What was once a self-proclaimed “Caliphate,” occupying vast territories in Iraq and Syria and bent on the destruction, is now once again an elusive insurgency.

 But besides broken hearts, homes and families, IS is leaving a new threat in its wake, said Badran Chiya Kurd, an advisor for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which declared the final victory. Militants are regrouping and hope to continue to attacks in Syria, Iraq and around the world, he said.
islamic state, IS, syria
In the final weeks IS held a camp near Baghuz, Syria thousands of people evacuated the area, far more than any militaries or aid groups expected, pictured near Baghuz on March 10, 2019. VOA

Recovery for now-destroyed former IS holdings, including major cities in both Syria and Iraq, will require political will, investment and education, according to Kurd. If cities and towns remain in shambles without services or economies to speak of, extremism will continue to thrive, no matter who is officially in charge, he said.

“If we don’t get rid of the extremism, IS can come back at any time and destabilize our lands,” he added, speaking on the phone from his office in Qameshli, Syria.

Over the last few months, SDF forces battled for Baghuz, the last IS stronghold. Militants fought bitterly as IS supporters poured into camps and prisons, often vowing that IS will rise again.

But even back in 2016, when IS’s imminent demise was just becoming apparent in Mosul, Umm Aysha could see members of the group plotting their survival.

“There were two militants wearing veils among the women we came with,” she whispered. “They were wearing makeup and everything.”

Unveiled

The next time we saw Umm Aysha was only a few weeks later in November 2016, but we didn’t recognize her at first. She had cast off the black full-body and face veil and replaced it with a pink headscarf and a smile.

islamic state, syria, IS
In the final weeks IS held a camp near Baghuz, Syria thousands of people evacuated the area, far more than any militaries or aid groups expected, pictured near Baghuz on March 10, 2019. VOA

She was at one of the camps housing displaced families in northern Iraq, and the weeks without bombings had been a relief. The camp was quickly filling up and others were opening across Iraq and Syria. Millions of people would flee their homes as the fighting continued.

“It’s this one,” she said, showing us the tent her family would make a home for the winter, despite the increasingly cold and rainy weather.

She didn’t know then, that this tent would become her only home.

Over the course of the next 28 months, IS-held towns and cities fell to Iraqi, Syrian and coalition forces. Thousands of civilians were killed in airstrikes, and the bodies of militants were left strewn across the region.

In the final few months of fighting, many of the most devoted IS fighters finally surrendered after retreating for months or years with the group before their “last stand” in Baghuz.

Syrian camps and prisons are now packed with IS supporters, including thousands of foreigners–fighters, their wives and their children–from countries that are hesitating, and in some cases refusing, to take them back.

islamic state, syria, IS
“Of course they will grow up with the same ideologies as their fathers,” she said. “I tell my children not to talk about these things.” VOA

Many areas once occupied by IS have been rebuilt, but many have not. Locals whisper that they still fear IS and describe circumstances that lead to the rise of the group that are still present. The region remains unstable, poor and people often feel neglected by authorities.

“It was lucky we escaped early,” Umm Aysha told VOA in late-February this year as the final battles raged on in Syria. We sat in a small space secluded by tarps and blankest outside her tent, as she held her youngest child. Aysha was born only six months before and has never lived outside a camp. “If we had stayed with IS, who knows what my children would be like?”

Future adults

Umm Aysha’s older three children played in the sun, vying to pose for pictures. They were not in school for different reasons. Marwa is 12, and stays home to help with household chores. Nahida, is 4. “I don’t have a backpack,” she said, explaining why she doesn’t go.

Mahmoud, 8, finds some of the children at school to be bullies and his mom fears the ones whose fathers were IS fighters could teach him extremist ideas.

syria, islamic state, IS
More than 90 percent of the population of al-Hol camp are women and children, and most are related to IS members, in al-Hol camp, Syria, March 4, 2019. VOA

“Of course they will grow up with the same ideologies as their fathers,” she said. “I tell my children not to talk about these things.”

At the al-Hol camp in Syria a week later, as IS was in the final throws of battle in Baghuz, children there said they were also not attending school. With about 62,000 new arrivals at the camp since December 4, 2018, the camp is in crisis, short of tents and other far more urgent supplies.

More than 90 percent of the newly-arrived people at al-Hol are women and children, and camp workers say they are nearly all related to IS. Several mothers told us they plan to raise their children to support the next generation of IS, and hope their sons will join the insurgency.

islamic state, IS, syria
Iraqi Federal police tour a neighborhood shortly after a battle, still littered with rubble and bodies of militants in Mosul, Iraq on March 16, 2017. VOA

“My children are free to be fighters or not,” said Umm Mohammed, a mother of five with her black veil fully covering her eyes. “But Islamic State was good.” Like Umm Aysha, Umm Mohammed does not know when, how or if she will be able to move her children out of the camp.

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And across the border in Iraq, Umm Aysha says although she fears IS will soon regroup, that is not the real reason she still lives in a camp, more than two years after she fled her home. She used to live in the suburbs of Mosul, but her neighborhood was destroyed and she doesn’t have the money to rebuild.

“Where would we go back to?” she asked, shrugging. (VOA)

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