A bulldozer at work digging the trench around the city of Karbala. (Source: Militia website)
In Iraq, a number of cities are now resorting to security measures from the Middle Ages: They are digging trenches in an attempt to protect themselves against the extremist group known as the Islamic State. And in cities where the authorities have not initiated this kind of project, locals are now asking for their own trenches, even if their cities are actually relatively safe.
Starting from the middle of last year, Iraq’s anti-Islamic State forces have started to regain territory they had lost to the extremist group inside the country. The Islamic State, or IS, group began trying to create their own “state” after taking control of the northern city of Mosul and central Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2014. But once anti-IS forces had managed to push the extremist group out of the cities they controlled briefly, the question remained: How to keep them out?
And for many local authorities the answers seem to involve a bit of digging.
One of the first cities that the IS group was pushed out of was Jurf al-Sakhar, south of Baghdad. To isolate the city, inside the province of Babel, from neighbouring Anbar province, which was still hosting a lot of IS group fighters at the time, a trench was built. Around 45 kilometres long, the earthy security measure also boasts 10-meter-high dirt barriers and watchtowers every 500 or so meters.
“It was very important to build this trench,” says Hassan Fadaam, deputy head of the Babel provincial council. “The city has suffered from extremist attacks for years.”
The city of Balad in Salahaddin province also has a new trench. In July, extremists were able to get into the city – despite the fact that it is controlled by members of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim volunteer militias – and blow themselves up in front of a Shiite Muslim shrine, killing over 40 people. The attackers had apparently been disguised as anti-IS militia members.
Digging a trench around Balad.
“Together with the army, we are still digging a three-meter-deep and three-meter-wide trench,” Jaafar al-Saadi, one of the members of the volunteer militias there, confirmed to NIQASH. The trench was started two weeks after the suicide bombing at the shrine.
Not everyone in Balad is happy about this. “We are continuously under threat from the IS group anyway,” Abu Qassim, a resident who did not want to give his full name because he didn’t want to criticize the militias that control the city publicly, said. “And a trench is not going to stop them from getting in here. They can disguise themselves and easily come in.”
Abu Qassim says that mostly he is concerned about the fact that the trench might disrupt commercial and other relationships with neighbouring towns and cities.
There is also a trench being dug around the city of Fallujah, in Anbar province, which was only freed from extremists relatively recently. The trench, around seven kilometres long and 1.5 meters deep, is meant to ensure that the extremists cannot return. It forces one entry and exit point upon the city.
But again, not everyone is happy about this method for protection. “This trench will hinder efforts at reconstruction in Fallujah and stop the city from coming back to life,” one member of the local council told NIQASH on condition of anonymity. “Connections between people will be prevented – and Anbar is essentially tribal in nature, also Fallujah has been closely connected to [nearby] Ramadi for decades.”
Leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr has been a prominent critic of the trenches. He has publicly expressed his opposition to the Fallujah trench as well as others, saying that, “trenches are going to isolate Iraqi cities from one another. This is an idea that promotes sectarianism”.
Even cities and towns in the more secure parts of Iraq, in the south where the population is mostly Shiite Muslim and therefore not as threatened by the IS group, which bases its ideology on Sunni Muslim practices, have started to consider trench-digging.
Karbala, an important centre of worship for Shiite Muslims and home to many members of the volunteer militias, is about to complete a trench where it shares a border with the nearby city of Najaf and with Anbar province.
Karbala’s trench is around 70 kilometres long and two meters deep. There is also a dirt wall next to the trench several meters high. The construction was sanctioned by local religious authorities; building work was overseen by Abdul Mahdi Karbalai, a representative of Iraq's most senior Shiite religious leader, Ali al-Sistani.
And last week authorities in Muthanna were also demanding their own trench – that’s despite the fact that Muthanna is possibly one of the most stable cities in Iraq and barely affected by any terrorist activity.
Politicians from both Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim parties have criticized the trench, saying it is a way for the Iraqi Kurdish authorities to impose a de-facto border on their own area, an area where many say they want to vote for independence from Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan already has its own borders, parliament, military and legal system and the trench is yet another solid, geographic reminder of that.
Of course, leading Iraqi Kurdish politician, Massoud Barzani, denies this. The trench is there to protect the people and the military of Iraqi Kurdistan and to keep the IS group out, Barzani has argued.
As it is, most security experts don’t think the trenches are going to do anyone much good anyway.
“The extremists can easily bypass these trenches,” suggests Ziyad Tariq, a local expert on extremist religious groups. “When the IS group attacks a city, they bring bulldozers to deal with the trenches and dirt barriers – that is what they did in Anbar.”
“It is not attacks like that we need to be worried about,” Aziz continues. “What is of more concern are the IS group’s sleeper cells inside cities around the country as well as the checkpoints everywhere which can never seem to detect the extremists who pass through. For example, in the recent bombing in Karrada, investigations have revealed that the car bomb came from Diyala and crossed through more than 14 checkpoints to get to the site!”
And that is why, even if they prove efficacious in some situations, the trenches being built around Iraq can only ever be part of the solution. IS sympathizers and the extremist group’s opportunities for recruitment can only ever be halted if Iraq’s tactical and military victories are accompanied by political and societal victories that end the feelings of marginalization many Sunni Muslims in Iraq still harbour.