JALAWLA, Iraq — More than two years after being liberated from Islamic State control, residents here began reconstructing their own city after begging Baghdad for help with roads, schools and power lines.
Luay Al-Balani, in her 30s, said people felt helpless after getting no response from the central government 150 miles away and finding private companies too expensive. "So, we depended on ourselves. We cleaned the city,” said Al-Balani, an administrative official at the Khanaqin District Council who coordinates aid.
As Iraqi forces with help from the U.S.-led coalition continue fighting to retake control of Mosul from the Islamic State, Jalawla residents said Iraq's government in Baghdad needs to plan better for life after the militants are gone.
Children wait as their mother collects food being distributed
Children wait as their mother collects food being distributed in a neighborhood recently retaken by Iraqi security forces during fighting against Islamic State militants on the western side of in Mosul, Iraq, on March 31, 2017. (Photo: Felipe Dana, AP)
Jalawla has long been known as “Little Iraq” because its ethnic mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen reflects the population of the whole country. Today most of the 85,000 citizens who fled the Islamic State between June and November 2014 have returned to a city that’s slowly recovering from the terrorist group's occupation.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said his first priority was defeating the Islamic State but post-war reconstruction plans were also in place.
"The Iraqi government would concentrate in the next phase, after liberating Mosul from the terrorist group of the Islamic State, on helping to bring displaced people back to their homes and reconstructing the areas affected by the military campaigns,” al-Abadi said in February.
Rebuilding after ousting the Islamic State militants is key to the country's future and safety, said Matthew Schweitzer, a researcher at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center in Washington.
"Their war against the militants has wrought intense damage in cities across the country, and that liberation without reconstruction creates conditions for renewed instability,” Schweitzer said in a recent report.
The government must also do more than it did before the Islamic State took large swathes of the country in 2014. Baghdad had ignored Jalawla for years before then, residents say. Iraqi officials also mishandled reconstruction after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
“The central government has not provided anything worth noting,” said Yacob Yousif Ali, 42, a member of the Khanaqin District Council that oversees Jalawla.
“Forty primary and secondary schools were destroyed — some of them at the hand of contractors before the Islamic State overran the town,” Ali said. “That was facilitated by corrupt state officials who had stolen all the allocated money to rebuild them. The Islamic State terrorists bombed the remaining schools.”
Now, children studying in a handful of Jalawla schools thank neighbors like Qusay Al-Lihebi more than the Iraqi government for the roof over their classroom.
“We launched voluntary campaigns to clean up some schools. Not all of them were destroyed and leveled,” said Al-Lihebi, 34. “We cleaned some governmental institutions as well to resume their providing services to the citizens.”
Proud Jalawlans also touted the reopening of the city’s sports arena, and stressed that the central government didn’t have a hand in the accomplishment.
“We started a fund to gather the money from our own (government) salaries to buy cleaning materials and start lifting the rubble in the coliseum,” said Najim Abed Awwad, 40, who runs the arena. “We managed to restore the electric power and the water supply. We did all that without the help of any governmental or non-governmental organization. Today, the forum hosts sports champions and cultural and artistic events.”
Rebuilding isn’t the only duty relinquished by Baghdad.
Kurdish peshmerga forces safeguard the city from militants and provide public safety. Officials loyal to Iraq’s central government administer other municipal services. Al-Abadi and Kurdish leaders disagree over who should have jurisdiction over the city, a common conflict among communities on the border with the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq.
"The local provincial government proved a total failure in providing services and aid to the displaced families because of the political conflicts and struggle inside the provincial council of Diyala," said Najat Al-Ta'i, a member of the council that oversees Jalawla.
The Islamic State destroyed government buildings, blew up the water and power plants and dug up roads to plant bombs that later damaged water and sewer lines. Few of those services are up and running consistently.
“There is one big electric generator that can be used either for the residential neighborhood or the main hospital in the town,” Ali said.
He also said the hospital doesn't have much to offer residents. “Islamic State fighters stole all the vital contents of the hospital — the expensive medical devices — besides bombing the outpatient clinics within the town and those in its suburbs,” Ali said.
Jalawla was once an agricultural center that produced wheat, barley, peanuts, sesame and vegetables — and a way station on trading routes between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. Volunteer recovery workers like Al-Lihebi yearn for the city to reclaim its former role in a peaceful country.
“We launched a big campaign to restart the vital bridge linking Jalawla with the northern provinces” and raised $180,000 in the community, he said. "Otherwise it would not have been restored.”