Iraqi city of Ramadi, once home to 500,000, lies in ruins

RAMADI, Iraq -- So complete was the destruction of Ramadi that a local reporter who had visited the city many times hardly recognized it.

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"Honestly, this is the main street," Amaj Hamid, a member of Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces, told the TV crew as they entered from the southwest.

He swerved to avoid the aftermath of months of fighting: rubble, overturned cars and piles of twisted metal. Airstrikes and homemade bombs laid by the Islamic State group had shredded the poured-concrete walls and ceilings of the houses and shops along the road.

Ramadi, once home to about 500,000 people, now largely lies in ruins. A U.N. report released Saturday used satellite imagery to assess the devastation, concluding that more than 3,000 buildings had been damaged and nearly 1,500 destroyed in the city 70 miles (115 kilometres) west of Baghdad.

All told, more than 60 per cent of Anbar's provincial capital has been destroyed by constant air bombardment and the scorched-earth practices of IS fighters in retreat, according to local estimates.

Officials are already scrambling to raise money to rebuild, even as operations continue to retake neighbourhoods in the north and east. Their concern is that the devastation could breed future conflicts, recreating the conditions that allowed the Islamic State group to first gain a foothold in the province in late 2013.

While the U.S.-led coalition acknowledges the importance of reconstruction efforts, the actual money pledged to help rebuild is just a fraction of the amount spent on the military effort against IS.

In previous fights for the city, government buildings, bridges and key highways bore the brunt of airstrikes and heavy artillery. But during the most recent round of violence, airstrikes targeted the largely residential areas where IS fighters were based.

After the Islamic State group overran Ramadi in May, storming and then largely destroying the city's symbolically important central government complex, fighters quickly fanned out into the city's dense neighbourhoods. Using civilian homes as bases, IS turned living rooms into operations centres and bedrooms into barracks.

Brig. Gen. Muhammad Rasheed Salah of the Anbar provincial police said if civilians don't start receiving compensation soon, tribal violence will quickly follow liberation.

"Listen, I am a son of this land," he said explaining he is from a village on the outskirts of Ramadi still under IS control. "My house was destroyed by someone I know. He was my friend, my neighbour. In cases like this, you need to be able to provide people with something," he said referring to government help for rebuilding.

U.S. and Iraqi officials estimate the price tag for rebuilding to be in the hundreds of millions. The Iraqi government, in the midst of an economic downturn triggered in part by the falling price of oil, has shifted almost all costs of rebuilding to the provinces, ruling that reconstruction must come from existing budget allocations. That means provincial governors will depend almost entirely on international aid.

"We will never kill our way out of the Daesh problem," U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, told a recent news conference in Baghdad following the Ramadi gains. "We cannot bomb our way to peace here. The key to defeating this enemy and making it stick is the reconciliation and the stabilization process."

That phrasing is often repeated by U.S. and coalition officials to describe wide-reaching plans to defeat the Islamic State group in Iraq. But, so far monetary pledges don't line up with the rhetoric.

The United States has pledged $15.3 million to stabilization efforts in Iraq, according to figures provided by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. That's compared with the estimated $280 million that the Department of Defence spends to fight IS each month, according to figures released by department and confirmed by coalition officials in Baghdad.

"We're doing the best with the money we have, but it's not enough, said Lise Grande, the U.N.'s deputy special representative to Iraq who is overseeing reconstruction efforts. "Anytime you have mass destruction like (in Ramadi), particularly if you have mass destruction of private houses and large-scale infrastructure, this is where the costs really start to add up."

Returning the rule of law and stability to Ramadi in the months ahead would also help "pave the way" for future military operations in Anbar and Nineveh provinces, said Muhannad Haimour, a spokesman for the governor of Anbar.

"The best way to secure any area and protect it against the return of Daesh is for the local residents and the local police to return to their areas and rebuild their lives," Haimour told The Associated Press. "In order for residents to support local security (forces), they need to see them doing a good job."

Haimour would not specify exactly how much money was needed or how much had been raised, but he said, "We have a long way to go."

Even a significant increase in reconstruction help won't necessarily stop the tribal vengeance and vendettas once Ramadi is fully liberated from IS hands.

Salah, the Anbar police general, said no amount of money from the government would prevent him from going after the men he suspects are responsible for destroying his home.

"No matter what," he said, "I will have my revenge."

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Associated Press Writer Khalid Mohammed contributed to this report.



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