Iraq: State of a Nation

The nation was broken by the American-led invasion in 2003.
A decade later ISIS capitalised on instability.
Iraqis are still picking up the pieces.

Traffic at dusk in one the main roads in Fallujah. (Imad Mohammed for The National)   

Traffic at dusk in one the main roads in Fallujah. (Imad Mohammed for The National)   

Seven months ago, against the backdrop of national flags and dozens of servicemen, Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi declared victory over ISIS. “Honourable Iraqis, the dream of liberation is now a reality,” he said proudly, in a televised address.

A brutal, three-year battle against Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s terrorist group was finally over, the nation was assured. But while Mr Abadi basked in the glory, citizens turned away to face their own uphill battles. Today, Iraq’s people are dealing with slow reconstruction, heavily hindered by endemic corruption, a fragile political system and the resurgence of ISIS sleeper cells.

In Anbar, a sprawling Sunni-majority province west of Baghdad where trust of Shiite politicians has always been fickle, half-hearted attempts at outreach by the central government are causing a resurgence in tribal law. In the capital itself, the Shiite suburb of Sadr City is ravaged by unemployment, disillusionment and young men with little to do. Many of them have weapons.

Iraqis cannot forget the American invasion, the social and political instability that ensued and the rise of ISIS in 2013, because they are living with the consequences. In Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, an understaffed and understocked hospital cannot accommodate the hundreds of patients that visit on a daily basis. In a sign of the chaos, part of the hospital’s grounds remain littered with mines. A bombed out disused building is now a danger to patients, rather than a place to treat them. In Sadr City, residents are living on top of secret arms caches, ticking time bombs that could kill children playing in the street.

And then there is the politics of a fledgling democracy. Iraq’s political elite is scrambling to form a new government. In May, widespread allegations of vote rigging tarnished a largely peaceful polling day and a recent string of killings and kidnappings by ISIS has renewed security worries.

With politics seemingly in stasis, Iraqis from all walks of life are seething at what they consider is utter neglect on behalf of elected officials. Grievances remain unanswered. Mr Abadi’s declaration of victory over ISIS fell short at the ballot box: his alliance scored poorly with voters and came third in the election.

Now reduced to heading a caretaker government, Mr Abadi is fighting against becoming irrelevant in the latest redrawing of Iraq’s political landscape. And while most citizens demand change, even the emergence of a new government – whenever that might be – is unlikely to alter the state of Iraq.

Graphic: Ramon Penas / The National

Graphic: Ramon Penas / The National

In post-ISIS Iraq, tribal justice grows in shadow of Baghdad mistrust

Young men cool off in the Euphrates river. (Imad Mohammed for The National) 

Young men cool off in the Euphrates river. (Imad Mohammed for The National) 

When a member of Iraq’s powerful Albu Esa tribe was shot dead by a short-tempered militiaman, no policeman was called, no judge was summoned or court hearing held. Instead, Baghdad left it to tribal justice.

Diya Hadi Al Easawi had been trying to force his way through the busy gateway between Iraq’s capital and Sunni-majority Anbar province by skirting the long queue of vehicles. Tensions boiled over, warning shots were fired and Al Easawi was killed by a stray bullet to the head.

The leaders of his tribe chose not to pursue the killer – a member of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella of largely Iran-backed Shiite militia groups – who was set free and the case closed.

Mahmood Al Easawi, a leader of the Albu Esa tribe, says this has been a regular occurrence in Iraq’s westernmost province, where the central government’s jurisdiction, and residents’ confidence in the Iraqi leadership, is at an all-time low.

“Every single week, the government will ask us to resolve a murder,” the 39-year-old says. “People go to their sheikhs to fix their problems, not the government. They don’t trust the government.”

Fallujah residents rest on the bank of the Euphrates river. (Imad Mohammed for The National) 

Fallujah residents rest on the bank of the Euphrates river. (Imad Mohammed for The National) 

In Fallujah, Sheikh Mahmood sits in a cool, dark corner of one of the coffee shops that has reopened in Anbar’s second-biggest city following its liberation from ISIS control. He sports a large moustache and wears a military uniform. As well as being a respected tribal leaderMahmood is also a major in the PMF’s Sunni component, the Hashed Al Ashaari, and he speaks openly about the tribal role in Iraqi law enforcement.

“Under Saddam, when someone was killed, the court decided. [Today] there is no law, so you can see tribal power more,” he says. “Tribal power has always remained the same, the difference is in the power of the law. It was strong under Saddam, now it's weaker.”

The fall of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the gaping power vacuum that ensued paved the way for the resurfacing of tribal customs. Sheikhs in Fallujah say Iraq’s weak federal government and ongoing political turmoil has only served to strengthen their centuries-old system.

This was compounded in post-ISIS-Iraq, where the growing schism between a Shia-dominated government and Sunni civilians is pushing Anbaris to their local leaders and bypassing a rule of law of which they remain sceptical.

“There is more unemployment now than there was in 2012... there are no government jobs, no projects to support the farmers,”

Sheikh Khalil Ibrahim Al Halbousy, leader of the Al Halabsa tribe

Residents blame the central government for what they say is the collective punishment of a province often criticised for the rise of ISIS. In 2013, Fallujah was the first city to fall to the terrorists after some residents supported the organisation and the gunmen who entered the city.

Although liberated by the Iraqi military in June 2016, Fallujah is still plagued by the legacy of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s 18-month rule. High unemployment is feeding a decade-old sense of disillusion as a lack of jobs and a precarious economy give rise to criminal activity.

The presence of the tribes in these areas instead of representatives of the central government make tribal justice more appealing, according to analysts.

Looking out over Fallujah. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

Looking out over Fallujah. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

“It's often viewed as a better alternative, particularly in a time or place where the state's legitimacy or efficacy is in question,” said Jared Levy, director of research at the Iraqi Oil Report.

Twenty kilometres west of Fallujah, the leader of the Al Halabsa tribe laments the destitute state of his province and the possible repercussions of the conditions here.

“There is more unemployment now than there was in 2012, there are no government jobs, no projects to support the farmers,” says Sheikh Khalil Ibrahim Al Halbousy, sitting in a vast, empty reception hall off the main road that links Fallujah to Anbar’s capital, Ramadi.

“When a father can’t feed his family what should he do? I fear what could happen,” he says.

The spike in crime has resulted in an increase in the amount of diya – or blood money – to be paid to the families of victims, the sheikh says. Under Anbar’s tribal law, the accidental killing of a person can cost a family $4,000 (Dh14,690). This number balloons to $40,000 if the person is found guilty of premeditated murder.

In March, three people were killed in Garma, a small village northeast of Fallujah, during a scuffle between farmers. Before the police could intervene, members of the Halabsa tribe approached the families of the victims and culprits and settled on a $40,000 payoff.

“Even if I’m a tribal leader, I hope that Baghdad will be strong because we are under pressure to fix problems. Most people come to us because they don’t trust Baghdad,” Sheikh Khalil says.

Sheikh Jassem Al Halbousy, a member of the Halabsa tribe, supports the sheikh’s account of widespread mistrust of Iraq’s political elite.

“When the government is really strong, the tribes get weak, when the government is weak the individual goes to the tribe to get their problems fixed,” he says.

Relations will improve, because every prime minister right after elections will be weak so he will go to the tribes and make connections. Then, after a few months, he will ignore it

Sheikh Mahmood Al Easawi, a leader of the Albu Esa tribe

Sheikh Jassem, a former member of Saddam’s military, recalls the months that followed the fall of the dictator. “When the Americans came to Iraq, the country was without a government for more than eight months. But because we had tribal law, we didn’t face any problems,” he says.

In Fallujah, Sheikh Mahmood is convinced that the Baghdad-tribal partnership is a marriage of convenience. “This relationship is not based on trust,” he says. Instead, Baghdad relies on the tribes’ insight into Anbar to resolve outstanding issues more pertinent to a courtroom.

Sheikh Mahmood believes that even the formation of a new government will fail to change the dynamic between Anbaris and Baghdad.

The Green bridge, Fallujah. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

The Green bridge, Fallujah. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

“Straight after choosing a prime minister, relations will improve, because every prime minister right after elections will be weak so he will go to the tribes and make connections,” he says. “Then, after a few months, he will ignore it and things will go back to how they were.”

But as Baghdad’s political turmoil shows no sign of abating and efforts to restore relations with their Sunni citizens remain non-existent, the Iraqi state is likely to have to continue delegating power to Anbar’s sheikhs. It would be a move that will increasingly undermine the state's control over a province that has been the birthplace of both Al Qaeda and ISIS.

For some, Baghdad’s disrepair is so desperate that they would prefer a renewed American intervention. “The only solution is America,” says Sheikh Khalil. “They need to remove these people [from power] for new ones.”

Iraq's dates industry clings to hope of better days 

Dr Adnan Al Jumaily inspects his palm trees as we he walks through the unkept farm. (Sofia Barbarani / The National) 

Dr Adnan Al Jumaily inspects his palm trees as we he walks through the unkept farm. (Sofia Barbarani / The National) 

Every year, come rain or shine, Hajji Hassem would cram his car full of boxes of Iraq’s finest dates and embark on a three-day drive to Makkah in Saudi Arabia. There, he gifted the fruits to other joyful pilgrims undertaking hajj.

His most vivid memories, dating back to the 1980s, elicit a smile as he recounts road-tripping the almost 2,000km to the holy city. It was a time when the journey was deemed safe and Iraq’s world-renowned dates industry was thriving.

"The Saudis always used to ask us to bring dates from here, it was the best gift someone could take," said Hajji. "They thought it was a holy fruit."

Now 60, he owns a wholefoods fruit and vegetable shop in the heart of Fallujah's main bazaar. Much like his country, Hajji now finds himself weighed down by decades of turmoil.

His large frame forces him to pray on a chair rather than on the floor – the same chair he sits in sipping water, as he chronicles the golden years for Iraq’s 350 types of dates.

"All of the Arab countries knew in the 1980s and 1990s that Iraqi dates were the best," he says. Quality combined with quantity: a 28 kilogram box of dates would sell for less than $1 because the fruit was so readily available.

A date plantation in Karma, about 30km from Fallujah. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

A date plantation in Karma, about 30km from Fallujah. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

Even the American invaders who came in 2003 loved the dates. "Most bought the Zahdi types," says Hajji, referring to a dry kind of date. "They would just come in and stuff their pockets."

Years of sanctions, conflict and displacement, coupled with a precarious economy, culminated in a decline in the production and quality of the fruit. While global output of dates increased exponentially between 1978 and 2008, Iraq fell progressively behind.

In the 1990s the industry was affected by the sanctions imposed against Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

In 2000, approximately one million metric tonnes of dates were produced – an increase of 748,900 tonnes from 1984, when fighting in the Iran-Iraq war was at its heaviest. The last 18 years, however, has seen a precipitous slump in Iraqi date production. By 2007, at the height of Iraq’s sectarian violence, it plummeted to only 350,000 tonnes annually.

Hajji Hassem holds imported Iranian dates. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

"Due to the years of war and hardship the dates industry has gone through a decline," said Hameed Al Naef, a spokesman at Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture. "We used to have 30 million palm trees, but now it has dropped to 16 million."

Seeking to protect the lagging local industry, the central government in recent years banned imports from neighbouring countries. Possibly as a result, production rose to between 650,000 and 850,000 tonnes annually. Companies and individuals continue to import dates illegally, says Mr Al Naef, smuggling dates across the Iran-Iraq border, alongside contraband food, livestock, tobacco and even vehicles.

Back in the 1980s foreign dates were uncommon, and not well regarded. Today Hajji sells Iranian, Saudi and Iraqi dates, but "what we get the most are Iranian dates," he said dryly. "And they're no good."

In an effort to rebuild Iraq's ailing agriculture, in 2011 the central government envisioned a $150 million project to triple the number of date farms by 2021. But the plan was interrupted in late 2013 with the rise of ISIS.

The impact was dramatic.

In the leafy town of Karma, just 28 kilometres northeast of Fallujah, six hundred of Dr Adnan Al Jumaily's 1,000 palm trees were burned during clashes between ISIS and the Iraqi military. Drought piled on the agony.

Hajji Hassem stands next to boxes of Saudi and Iraqi dates in his shop in Fallujah. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

During their three-year rule, ISIS cut off the irrigation canals that branched from the Euphrates to provide water to farms. They did this during the 2014 elections to flood and disable the road between Baghdad and Fallujah, explained Dr Al Jumaily, a tall man whose manicured thick, black moustache pokes out from a handsome face and piercing eyes.

But the original problem dates back much further, to the Iran-Iraq war, when the farms in the southern city of Basra were wrecked by warring factions. "It affected most of the farms, they were destroyed." Beyond the war, Saddam drained the south's swamps and chopped down palm trees in the thousands.

Younger generations do not see the fields as a way to make a living. Despite having swathes of arable land, more and more Anbaris are turning away from agriculture, searching instead for government jobs – still seen as the best and most secure employment available.

Lack of water and pesticides make farming a less appealing path. Local sheikhs also criticise the central government for not providing Anbaris with the necessary farm equipment for food production.

Flanked by hundreds of towering palm trees that his father and grandfather planted in the 1970s and 1980s, Dr Al Jumaily proudly walks between overgrown shrubs in sandals and a white thawb, the flowing robe of rural Iraqi men, carefully inspecting the charred logs.

But with no farmers to tend to it, the farm is wild in its disrepair. The seven employees he once had fled Karma when ISIS took over and they are still displaced. His home is empty also, after fleeing ISIS fighters and "liberating" Shiite militias looted his furniture.

"We're repairing step by step," says Dr Al Jumaily, standing against a backdrop of palm trees and a small murky lake.

Regardless of present difficulties, a sense of mission remains.

Charred and understaffed, Ramadi hospital still bears the scars of ISIS

Ramadi's former hospital. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

Ramadi's former hospital. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

Not far from the banks of Iraq’s winding Euphrates River, in one of Ramadi’s northern neighbourhoods, the city’s general hospital looms over the surrounding sand-coloured homes, wrecked and unfit for use.

It’s been over two years since the Iraqi military recaptured the capital of Anbar province from ISIS in a gruelling battle that levelled huge parts of the city. The liberation was hailed as a major victory for the central government, but today homes still lie in ruins, roads are punctured by craters, and basic services like water and electricity are largely nonexistent. The hospital did not escape the devastation.

In 2016 the UN described the destruction in Ramadi as “staggering”, following their first assessment of the newly liberated city.

During their time in Ramadi, ISIS members commandeered the hospital, where they treated their wounded fighters. Some local doctors operated on patients in their own homes, including a surgeon who said he carried out an appendectomy without anesthesia, using only painkillers and sedatives.

Before losing the city in February 2016, the militants detonated explosives causing three of the hospital's six floors to collapse on top of each other. A huge fissure cuts through one of the external walls, leaving the building teetering on the verge of collapse.

On the charred ground floor, where minor surgeries were once carried out, medical equipment lies strewn on the ground and twisted metal rebar pierces the ceilings. The building has yet to be inspected for IEDs and booby traps.

The ground floor of Ramadi's former hospital, where minor surgeries were once carried out. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

The ground floor of Ramadi's former hospital, where minor surgeries were once carried out. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

In a region of Iraq where widespread uncertainty about the future and the threat of a resurgent ISIS is ever present, a crippled health-care system has left many Anbaris wanting for basic treatments.

“Nothing has been fixed in the main building,” said Chief of Staff Dr Mazin Al Dulaimy, sitting in one of the offices of the temporary emergency department.

Medical units that once were housed in the devastated hospital now fit uneasily in prefabricated cabins and buildings meant as accommodation for single male doctors.

“We’ve had different organisations visit and received donations from Kuwait – but nothing major,” explained Dr Al Dulaimy. “Since the main building was destroyed, the doctors’ apartments changed into the departments for medicine and surgery but they are not qualified to be CCU and ICUs,” he said referring to the coronary care and intensive care units.

A temporary emergency unit stands next to the wrecked building of Ramadi's general hospital. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

A temporary emergency unit stands next to the wrecked building of Ramadi's general hospital. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

Deemed less essential, the burns department has been transformed into a surgery unit. As a result, burns patients face travelling to Baghdad for treatment – a two-hour drive that often takes much longer due to delays at security checkpoints.

Sometimes, says Dr Al Dumaily, patients die waiting for treatment. Last month a man was injured when a sticky bomb was placed on the underside of his car and detonated. “The patient died because we didn’t have time to transfer him to Baghdad.”

Before ISIS, Ramadi’s hospital had 446 bed spaces available, today they can only accommodate 200 patients and are the only hospital in the region with a CT scan machine. "For surgery we have more than 30 patients every single day,” said Dr Al Dumaily.

On the first day of Eid, they received 300 patients in one day. Some 50 kilometres east of Ramadi, the equally overburdened and less-equipped Fallujah hospital often refers patients, further overwhelming Ramadi's hospital.

Outside the office, the hustle and bustle of people resounds through the lobby where flimsy blue curtains separate patients from visitors.

“The problem is that this is a general hospital, so the whole region counts on us,” said Dr Al Dulaimy.

"We don’t have a building fit for a hospital.”

Resident surgeon Mostafa Saleh

The heavy patient load is exacerbated by a shortage of staff. The orthopaedic unit is manned by one resident doctor and a general practitioner from the government Health Department who agreed to volunteer temporarily.

“I work four continuous days, 24 hours a day,” said twenty-eight-year-old resident orthopaedic Dr Ahmed Hamud.

Young educated doctors have already left Iraq, while many more are planning to do so soon.

Resident surgeon Mostafa Saleh, 28, wants to relocate to Sudan. “I am quite frustrated to be here,” said Dr Saleh. “We don’t do much to help because we are limited, we don’t have a building fit for a hospital.”

According to the young doctor, the Ministry of Education is demanding a payment of $150,000 (Dh550,800) in order to release their doctoral certificates. This, he says, is a government strategy to keep young medical residents from leaving the country and mitigate Iraq’s ongoing brain drain.

Remnants of medical equipment on the former hospital's ground floor. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

Remnants of medical equipment on the former hospital's ground floor. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

Dr Saleh is disillusioned with the rundown system. The hospital, he says, is only taking emergency cases. “We’re in the centre of the province and have too many cases.”

Medication is also scarce, with not nearly enough drugs making it through Al Suqoor, the checkpoint that links Anbar province to Baghdad. Despite Iraq’s free healthcare system, doctors often have to ask their patients to purchase their own medication, which some can't afford.

Al Suqoor is manned by members of the Iraqi military and the Popular Mobilisation Forces – an umbrella organisation which includes a number of Iran-backed Shiite militia groups. Anbaris say they are being punished by the central government, who they say blames the Sunni-majority province for the rise of ISIS. Fallujah, Anbar’s second largest city, was the first in Iraq to be overrun by the militant group in December 2013.

“The medicine should be coming from the Ministry of Health,” explained one young doctor in charge of the hospital pharmacy. But basic drugs like aspirin, hydortisone and tramadol are not readily available.

Hadi Muslah lies in the dark in one of the makeshift patient rooms in what was once a doctors’ residency. In her 50s, she has been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat only to find that the hospital was out of the drugs she needed.

Ramadi's general hospital. In 2016 the UN described the destruction in Ramadi as “staggering” following their first assessment of the newly-liberated city. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

Ramadi's general hospital. In 2016 the UN described the destruction in Ramadi as “staggering” following their first assessment of the newly-liberated city. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

“It cost me $50, I borrowed money to buy the drugs,” she says. “I can’t continue taking them as I don’t have the financial capability. But if I don’t take drugs this condition will continue.”

With Ramadi residents facing social, political and financial challenges, the slow reconstruction of the hospital exacerbates these existing problems.

As is often the case with so many of Iraq’s ills, some cite corruption as the main problem.

“People are stealing and they are highly organised,” said one doctor, asking that his name not be used. “The former head of the hospital told me there is an organisation, they’re inside the hospital and the Ministry of Health, but he can’t control them so he quit.”

Sadr City seethes over Iraqi politicians' neglect

On a searing early summer morning in a northern suburb of Baghdad, dozens of tuk-tuks driven by young boys weave maniacally through heavy traffic, indifferent to the swerving vehicles around them. The roads are unpaved, littered with rubbish and lined by unlicensed corrugated-sheet shops and derelict homes.

This is Sadr City, a Shia-dominated sprawling slum on the edge of the Iraqi capital and stronghold of the cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.

Between March and April 2008, the suburb saw one Iraq's fiercest battles as Mr Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia fought American and Iraqi troops. Automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades were used in the densely populated neighbourhood of about 3 million people, with 925 people killed and more than 2,000 wounded in March alone. The fighting ended with a ceasefire between Mr Al Sadr and the Iraqi military on May 12.

Ten years on, the face of Mr Al Sadr, flush with electoral success, is emblazoned across a giant billboard at the entrance to the slum. His personal prospects are on the rise — his coalition won the most seats in parliamentary elections last month. But inside his eponymous neighbourhood disillusionment with the political elite is at an all-time high.

Ali, a Sadr City resident who asked that his name not be used says little has changed over the past decade “from the oppression of Saddam Hussein, to the oppression of the Americans, to the oppression of the current government.

“In Sadr [city] no one does their work. There is a high population density and a lack of services,” he says.

Water and electricity supplies are erratic, giving residents little respite from the summer heat. In the winter, rain causes the sewers to overflow. Waste collection is virtually non-existent and the two public hospitals are crowded and under-equipped.

At least security has improved, Ali says. In 2008 “there was terror, everyone was scared and worried". During the battle's darkest weeks, he would see people waiting anxiously outside one of the local morgues on his daily walk to work.

A protest in Sadr City in 2008. Moqtada Al Sadr's personal prospects are on the rise after parliamentary elections in May, but disillusionment with the political elite is at an all-time high. (Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP Photo)

What most concerns Sadr City residents these days is the high level of unemployment, which some blame on a corrupt political elite. Gaggles of men stand on street corners, waiting to be hired for a day-job.

“Now there is less fighting but there’s poverty and unemployment. It has increased and it is causing trouble because many youths are unemployed,” says Ali. “Sadr City is a bomb waiting to explode.”

Inside one of the area's covered markets, fruit and vegetable stalls run by elderly women stand next to cages stuffed with live poultry. Nadbiyet, or religious Shia ballads, can be heard from one of the shops.

“Politicians are thieves and only God can help the poor people,” exclaims Umm Hadi, 60. In 2008 the market's roof collapsed as fighting raged around it. For hours she hid beneath the counter of her stall, hoping for the best.

Today, she is more concerned with Iraq’s rampant nepotism. Two of her five children have college degrees, one of them a master’s, but both are unemployed.

“If you’re connected to political parties they will secretly get you a government job,” says Umm Hadi, who makes about 25,000 Iraqi dinar (Dh 77) on a good 12-hour day — hardly enough for a family of seven.

Sharifa Taleb, an elegant woman in her 40s, and her family of six survive on the 60,000 dinars her builder husband earns every 10 days. She recently had to sell her mobile phone and a video-game console to make ends meet.

“It’s not a good life, there’s a lot of suffering and unemployment,” she says.

A woman sells dates at the Sadr City bazaar in Sadr City, Iraq. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

“People who do have work are public employees and politicians,” interjects shopkeeper Ali Nasser, 51. “[Before] there was a lot of fighting and no security, no stability. Now things are stable but financially it’s not good.”

Disenchantment with the government is widespread. Some also blame local officials for neglecting their own people.

“Officials who are from here have forgotten about their citizens,” says Abbas, an elderly mosque guardian, who asked that his real name not be used.

But the people are partly to blame, he adds. “The government is negligent but it seems the people are also undisciplined.”

After Sunni Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003 and the suburb’s name changed from Saddam City to Sadr City, after Mr al Sadr's father the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. In the early days, politicians flooded the streets, eager to convince residents that they would lift them out of their poverty.

“They said they would pave roads, build schools, hospitals,” recalls Abbas, sitting at a desk in the lobby of the mosque. Outside, a string of flags bearing the face of Imam Ali flutters in the late-morning breeze; below them, a collection of shoes await their praying owners.

Abbas hopes for better days. Sadr City, he says, lost many men to Saddam’s regime and to ISIS.

“There is less fighting but there’s poverty and unemployment...Sadr City is a bomb waiting to explode.”

Ali - a resident of Al Sadr City

“Our men were the first to answer the call,” he says, referring to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani’s call for civilians to take up arms against ISIS in 2014.

One of them was Abou Kamil Fartoussi, 45, who joined the predominantly Shiite Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) paramilitary. Mr Fartoussi fought in the vicious battle for Beiji town in 2014 and was the only one from his unit to survive.

But he had seen war up close before then. During the battle of Sadr City in 2008 fighting raged around his home and mortar rounds exploded next to it. “Mortars were badly aimed by the Mahdi Army — but for the Americans, anyone was a target,” he says of Mr al Sadr's former militia.

Gunmen often blended in with the local population, making it harder for the US and Iraqi troops to distinguish between civilians and fighters. "They'd enter a house and force the family on to the roof or on the floor above them so our air weapons teams couldn't engage without killing the families," former US sergeant Konrad Ludwig told The National. "Sometimes they even lobbed bombs and mortars at civilian neighbourhoods, then used the mosques [loudspeakers] to say it was us."

Mr Fartoussi says the fighting forced a lot of people to leave his neighbourhood. “I personally evacuated people,” he says, sitting on a thin mattress on his living room floor.

Despite the detonation of an ammunition cache near his home on June 6, Mr Fartoussi is not concerned about security. Instead, he demands basic facilities such as public spaces for leisure.

“In Eid, we should have gone out to enjoy ourselves but we didn’t because there’s nowhere to go,” he says. “Sadr city is one big jail and the houses are the cells.”

Iraqis are living among a hidden arsenal that could explode

People gather at the site of an explosion in Baghdad's Sadr City district. (Thaier Al Sudani / Reuters) 

People gather at the site of an explosion in Baghdad's Sadr City district. (Thaier Al Sudani / Reuters) 

Abu Kumail was standing on a pavement when the blast wave hit his body. The twin boom of a massive explosion was a dire vocal accompaniment. Shocked, but ultimately lucky, Abu Kumail walked away unscathed. A few streets away from his home in Sadr City, 18 people had been killed.

As a northern part of Baghdad used to violence and more than a decade of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, the June 6 blast was not particularly shocking – to begin with. But this was not a normal incident. The deaths were caused by the accidental detonation of a munitions cache, clandestinely placed in the floors beneath a mosque.

In only a few seconds, a block of family homes had been destroyed, two schools wrecked and other property burned beyond recognition. Beyond the death toll, more than 100 civilians were wounded.

Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi ordered an investigation and 20 arrest warrants were issued by the country's top court.

Two days later, Moqtada Al Sadr, whose coalition won the highest number of seats in elections weeks earlier, called for a nationwide disarmament campaign, saying his eponymous Baghdad stronghold would be the first to do so. "The blood of Iraqis is more precious than anything else," he said.

"Every platoon has its own weapons and ammunition caches in their neighbourhood."

Abu Kumail, militia leader

Yet nothing has changed. More worryingly, it could happen again. The area is littered with hidden arms, representing a threat to human life.

"There are 10 such caches all over Sadr City," said Abu Kumail, a leader in Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Units, an umbrella of largely Iran-backed Shiite militia groups.

Mosques are a favoured location, an ongoing legacy of the US invasion of Iraq and the tactics used by militias to avoid American troops discovering illicit weapons and ammunition.

Like some of Mr Al Sadr’s political opponents, Abu Kumail says the caches belong to Saraya Al Salam (Peace Companies) – Mr Al Sadr’s own militia.

During the US occupation after 2003, troops frequently uncovered arms stashed in Sadr City. Most belonged to Saraya Al Salam’s predecessors, the Mahdi Army.

Mosques are a favoured location for storing weapons caches. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

Mosques are a favoured location for storing weapons caches. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

Ninety per cent of the area, explained Abu Kumail, is loyal to Mr Al Sadr's fighters.

"This is a stronghold and a safe haven for them. They are divided into regiments and platoons according to their geography,” he added.

"Every platoon has its own weapons and ammunition caches in their neighbourhood."

The cache that exploded last month was located directly below the mosque kitchen. That evening, members of the community had been cooking for a wake when the heat from the oven caused one of the shells to go off, triggering the detonation of roadside bombs packed with C4 plastic explosives captured from ISIS.

Remnants of the mosque that was blown up in the June 6 explosion in Sadr City. Residents say there is still explosives under the rubble. (Sofia Barbarani / The National) 

Unsafe storage is common, adding to the risk of further accidental blasts. Even some of those involved "lack experience in how to handle those weapons and munitions", Abu Kumail says.

The blast tore right through the second floor of Hussein Abbas's home.

The 46-year-old estimates it will cost him tens of thousands of dollars to tear down and rebuild the damaged building.

But so far, he says, he has not received compensation from the government. Under the Iraqi law on Compensation for Victims of Military Operations, Military Mistakes and Terrorist Actions, victims of damaged property should receive three types of reparations: a one-time grant, a monthly pension and a plot of residential land.

According to officials, this can be a lengthy procedure.

"We didn’t have time to run out," Mr Abbas recalls, standing in front of his home.

"My mother was in intensive care and my wife hurt her legs and back."

Jaffar Taleb, 27, woke up in hospital to find out that his 14-year-old sister, Fatimah, had been killed in the explosion.

"The entire house collapsed on us," he says.

"No one has come to see us or tell us anything. Only police and journalists came – not even the clerics have come."

Hussein Abbas, 46, stands in front of his home. The second floor of the building was damaged in the explosion. (Sofia Barbarani / The National) 

Down the road, a big colourful tent houses five brothers and their respective families. All of them lost their homes.

"We're angry, of course, we had 15 people injured," says one of the brothers. "We’d been living in that house since 1997."

The family is worried that there could still be explosive material buried beneath the rubble.

"No one has removed the ordnance, we found a jar of C4 in the next street," says Tahab Sharrif, a cousin of the five brothers.

"The militia in Samarra, when they come back they store it here," he says, alluding to Mr Al Sadr's fighters.

"Weapons were [once] only in the hands of the they're everywhere

Tahab Sharrif, Al Sadr City resident

Beyond the damage and the struggle of daily life, there is a stark sense of neglect among the victims of last month's blast. Most feel they have been abandoned by the country's leadship, who could be months away from forming a government, such is the disjointed and sectarian nature of Iraqi politics.

In a neighbourhood that is visibly lacking basic services such as water and electricity, the feeling of isolation is exacerbated by frustration.

Back in the cooler surroundings of his living room Abu Kumail is critical of the widespread use of weapons in Iraq.

Unlike before the US invasion it seems everyone now has a gun.

"Back then the weapons were only in the hands of the government," he says, recounting the days of Saddam Hussein's rule. "Now they're everywhere, it's a key problem, because the state is weak."

Radio ‘hams’: The legacy of Iraq’s amateur operators lives on

Ahmed Al Amshawi holds his Iraq Amateur Radio Society license. (Sofia Barbarani / The National) 

Ahmed Al Amshawi holds his Iraq Amateur Radio Society license. (Sofia Barbarani / The National) 

Ahmed Al Amshawi was just 17-years-old when he first discovered the underground world of ham radio in his native Baghdad in 1996. A brotherhood of Iraqi men from all walks of life united by a common, clandestine passion: amateur radio communication.

One of Iraq’s first ham radio operators is thought to have been King Ghazi in the late 1930s, paving the way for the rest of Iraq.

Saddam Hussein was in power when Ahmed first picked up the crackling microphone that would connect him to the outside world. The adrenaline rush he felt lives on with him today. So too does the hobby and its enthusiasts.

“It’s like a drug in the system, once you take it you can’t leave it,” says Ahmed, now 40, sitting at a coffee shop in Baghdad’s Mansour neighbourhood.

Saddam Hussein gives a TV address after US air strikes in southern Iraq. (Karim Sahib / AFP Photo)

Saddam Hussein gives a TV address after US air strikes in southern Iraq. (Karim Sahib / AFP Photo)

At the time, Saddam’s regime had prohibited ham radio operators from using their equipment – typically a transmitter and a receiver – at home. Instead, licensed operators were made to gather in government-sanctioned communal rooms where they each took turns having conversations with fellow ham radio operators. Meanwhile, the government listened in.

“If you tried contacting foreigners without a licence there would be serious consequences,” says Ahmed.

If caught without a licence while “hamming”, an operator could be accused of espionage. The penalty? Execution.

But even today, 15 years after the fall of Saddam and with the development of a wave of new forms of communication, there remains some 150 licensed ham radio operators, proud members of a largely unknown community, inside Iraq.

In the 1990s, Iraq was agonising under the weight of sanctions – a financial and trade embargo issued by the UN in response to Saddam’s hasty invasion of Kuwait. A devastated economy and a severe shortage of food and medication had brought ordinary Iraqis to their knees. Diseases from contaminated water and high rates of malnutrition, especially among children, were common.

Ahmed, like other ham operators, found a way to communicate Iraq’s hardship to the rest of the world. They believed they were providing a vital public service for their fellow Iraqis, he says.

“It was a good way to communicate with the world, because we were so isolated. We were the predecessors of the chat rooms.”

Mohammed, engineer

“We relayed messages to the world,” says Ahmed, whose call sign was YI1AHC. Call signs were used as a means to identify transmitters. YI stood for Iraq, A stood for Ahmed and HC for Hotel California – the song made famous by the Eagles that he was particularly keen on.

Ham radio operators were soon amplifying Iraq’s call for help and the response was instant. People from all over the world reached out to Baghdad’s team of “hams” in hope that they could lend a helping hand.

Operators had to be careful about how they communicated the country’s plight and life under the regime to listeners outside of Iraq – ham radio rules don’t allow operators to discuss politics, religion or business and Saddam’s men were always listening in.

“They would ask us what the hospitals needed and how they could help, how they could get it through without getting into trouble,” Ahmed recalls of the non-Iraqis he was in contact with.

“Many campaigns began, they showed their support,” he continues. “We spoke to Americans about the humanitarian situation, most of them sympathised with us.”

Through a fellow ham radio operator in Germany, Ahmed tracked down diabetes medication for a family member. But the medicine never made it past strict customs controls.

“You felt like you were teaming up with the international community to achieve something. Us, who were so isolated,” says Mohammad, a 48-year-old engineer who asks that his full name not be used.

“We were kept in the dark for so long,” Ahmed adds.

As well as their bid to alleviate the suffering of Iraqis, the hobby also helped the operators shake the claustrophobia brought on by the combination of crippling sanctions and an oppressive regime.

“It was a good way to communicate with the world, because we were so isolated,” says Mohammed. “We were the predecessors of the chat rooms.”

Much of Iraq’s youth, explains Mohammed, wanted to leave the country. “There were always wars and we had an idea of the western world as modern.”

But he never had the chance to escape Saddam’s rule. Instead, his decades-old friendships with foreigners meant he was able to learn a series of languages such as English, Italian and German.

“Learning about other cultures get you more knowledge to be a better person,” said Ahmed.

After the fall of Saddam in 2003, operators were issued home licences, allowing them to communicate from the privacy of their own houses. But the US forces that occupied the country and a new Iraqi government remained suspicious of the operators at a time when a militant insurgency was tearing at the country from within.

Ahmed’s first radio communication from his home was with an operator in the US state of Alaska in 2003. Soon after, the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq forced his family out of the neighbourhood.

During the chaos that ensued, Ahmed lost his contact notebook. In it were the thousands of call signs and names of the friends he had made throughout the years.

He never recovered them. But today, he is intent on rebuilding a new list of contacts as he continues to "ham" in his Baghdad home.

“It’s not just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle,” said Ahmed. “You get to know new people every time you go on air. Some of them become your best friends and even reach the level of family.”

So what now?

Men cool off on the banks of the Euphrates. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

Men cool off on the banks of the Euphrates. (Sofia Barbarani / The National)

As the country’s political elite scrambles to form a new government, the fragile state of the nation is further underscored.

In May widespread allegations of vote rigging tarnished a largely untroubled polling day while a recent string of killings and kidnappings by ISIS has sparked widespread apprehension.

Regardless of their background, Iraqis across the board are lacking trust in the government. Many are seething over what they see as the neglect of their elected politicians. 

Tasked with heading a caretaker government, Mr Abadi has fallen from the pedestal he had been placed on following the defeat of ISIS.

Iraqis are demanding change, but even the emergence of a new government – whenever that might be – is unlikely to alter the state of Iraq.


Reporting: Sofia Barbarani
Producer: Stephen Nelmes
Editing: Arthur MacMillan; James Haines-Young; Russel Murray; Jack Moore; Campbell MacDiarmid
Graphic: Ramon Penas
Photography: Imad Mohammed; Sofia Barbarani; Agence France-Presse; Reuters
Photo Editor: Jake Badger
Multimedia producer: Kevin Jeffers