In the northern Iraqi town of Jalawla, there’s a lack of drinking water, roads and buildings destroyed during fighting with the extremist group known as the Islamic State have not been repaired and the hospital is small and lacks supplies.
These are just some of the things that the locals who returned to the town to try and rebuild their lives there are complaining about.
“And we are also collecting the garbage ourselves,” adds Mawloud Daoud, a Kurdish local from Jalawla, which is in Diyala province.
The main problem, as Daoud sees it, is that his town is located in what is known as one of Iraq’s disputed areas – that is, areas that the Iraqi Kurdish officials who rule the neighbouring semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan say should belong to them, but which the government in Baghdad says belong to Iraq proper. The question that throws up is: Who is responsible for reconstruction and municipal services in this town, from which the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group was driven in late 2014.
Our district has become a battle ground between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments. Each one is waiting for the other to start the reconstruction work.
“We have made our problems known to the governor of Diyala,” Daoud says. “And we have been told that whoever rules this area, should provide it with services. The federal government has neglected the area. So we had hoped that the Iraqi Kurdish government might help us. But instead we are caught between the two and each one keeps justifying why it won’t help.”
Jalawla, which has a population of around 50,000, mostly Sunni Muslim Arabs and Kurds, is in fact supposed to be under the control of the federal government in Baghdad. But in reality, the Iraqi Kurdish forces are running the place. After the IS group took the town over in August of 2014, a few months later Iraqi Kurdish forces pushed the extremists back out again. At this stage, the Kurdish forces claimed Jalawla for their own.
Many municipal buildings have been destroyed or badly damaged, Yacoub al-Luhaibi, the mayor of the Jalawla sub-district, told NIQASH. The police station, the courts, the council buildings, and most of the hospital as well as more than half of the power generators and transformers are gone. Hundreds of homes and businesses have also been levelled, al-Luhaibi adds.
“It is true that Jalawla is officially part of Iraq. But it is being administered by the Iraqi Kurdish forces,” al-Luhaibi noted. “We have knocked on both authorities’ doors more than once. But both declined to help and both used the same reason as to why. The two sides have to reach some sort of agreement on these areas and their future needs.”
Other areas are stuck in the same kind of limbo when it comes to reconstruction. Out of around 60 villages in the Hamdaniya district that have seen the IS group expelled by pro-government forces, 13 of them are under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish military. Most of these 13 are populated by members of the Shabak or Kakai minorities, both of which are known to identify more with Kurdish ethnicity.
“Our district has become a battle ground between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments,” says Ghazi Faisal, a Kakai local who identifies as Kurdish. “Each one is waiting for the other to start the reconstruction work.”
According to Faisal, the biggest problems in his village, Wardak, 40 kilometres east of Mosul, involve explosive booby traps planted by the IS group – 19 of his relatives were killed clearing out their homes, he says – and polluted water supplies.
“We were told that the IS group used chemical weapons here and that the water is polluted,” Faisal says. Now, he adds, they also fear that one day soon the Iraqi army and the Iraqi Kurdish military will start fighting in their town.
“The Iraqi Kurdish authorities have done everything in their power but the government in Baghdad is legally and administratively responsible for rebuilding in these places,” maintains Najat Ali, the Iraqi Kurdish commander of forces on the Makhmour front. Ali, who is also a member of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most popular party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, actually believes his political colleagues should do more to help with reconstruction in these areas. It would serve their long-term goals, he argues, because locals here would be more sympathetic to Iraqi Kurdistan and want to be part of the Iraqi Kurdish region in the future.
Many of the officials working in this and similar areas agree: They too think that if the Iraqi Kurdish government puts some strategic effort into reconstruction to consolidate their presence there, it will be very difficult for locals to do without them in the future.
Additionally, as many of those who are pro-Kurdish are quick to point out, the disputed areas where the Iraqi Kurdish pushed the IS group out were paid for, and with Kurdish blood.
“The liberation of these areas was only possible because of the sacrifices and blood of many Kurdish martyrs and it is really disturbing that the government in Baghdad does nothing for the people of these areas,” Sherko Mirwais, a senior member of Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, who heads the party’s office in the Khanaquin area, told NIQASH.
Jalawla saw some of the heaviest fighting in 2014: Although numbers are not exact, an estimated 176 members of the Iraqi Kurdish military died here fighting the IS group, along with many civilians.
Mirwais says that the reason Baghdad isn’t interested in helping is because they care more for the areas that are under their control, than under Iraqi Kurdish control. Officials at provincial level follow their lead, Mirwais complains.
One thing that is clear is that those that suffer the most from this level of disunity between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan are the civilians living in these disputed areas.
Former MP, Hassan Jihad, a Kurdish politician who once sat on the parliamentary security and defence committee in Baghdad, believes it’s an urgent problem to solve. “Bringing these areas back to life is going to prevent any outside interference and decrease the possibility of violence erupting again,” he told NIQASH.
Not only that, Jihad says, but “the government that starts reconstruction in these areas is going to win the approval of the local people and that is important, because the fate of these disputed areas will eventually be resolved by referendum.”
In fact, this week, the Iraqi Kurdish government announced plans to hold another referendum on Kurdish independence from the rest of Iraq; some of the disputed areas were to be included in the polling.