A vast desert to hide in: The view from Rutba out into the Anbar desert. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Paul Greenberg)
While Iraq’s security forces are busy elsewhere, focused on fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State around Mosul, one part of the country is still profiting from disaster. Traders who live and work in the desert areas of Anbar province are doing great business facilitating goods coming in and out of Iraq and Syria in this area. Most of the action is centred on the Rutba district, about 500 kilometres west of Baghdad near the Syrian border. And the Islamic State, or IS, group facilitate that business because, by taxing vehicles and extorting locals, they also make money out of it.
“We deal with both the local security forces and the extremist groups,” says Abu Ammar al-Obeidi, a 49-year-old local who owns a refrigerated truck. “We are totally used to it now, it’s our everyday business.”
Al-Obeidi has been freighting goods in this area for various different companies for the past decade and he says that in the past he was frightened to travel on this road, which passes through Rutba, going from Baghdad into Syria and Jordan. But not anymore.
This trade is prolonging the Islamic State group’s life and strengthening its presence in Iraq.
“Today this road is passable and there is nobody on it checking on the kinds of goods coming into the country,” al-Obeidi told NIQASH. “So you can make profits from all sorts of imports, including goods that have passed their sell-by date.”
Sources from inside Iraq’s security forces confirm that there is a lot of trade in these border areas. Some of the traders use official border crossings, such as those at Albu Kamal and Al Qaim, the towns on the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the border respectively. But there are also many unofficial border crossings in the desert around here, many of them not even that far away from the official crossings. The IS group and illegal traders move freely along over 300 kilometres of border between the Al Qaim and the Al Waleed crossings, as well as along the Akashat road, that connects Al Qaim and Rutba.
Goods being imported include food items, vegetables, livestock and cigarettes, among other things. The goods end up being bought and sold all over Iraq, and certainly in Baghdad. Important sources of income for the Islamic State group are “the smuggling of sheep, drugs, antiquities and petrol products,” the same, anonymous security sources told NIQASH. “This trade is prolonging the IS group’s life and strengthening its presence in Iraq,” warned the source, who could not be named because he was not authorised to comment on the matter.
In the past, local man Muwaffaq al-Murawi, 46, says he used to work as a customs official at one of the government-controlled border crossings. “The crossings have been closed but our work hasn’t stopped,” al-Murawi says. “Today we act as middlemen for local businessmen; we use our good relationships with the extremists to make sure their goods get through. And everyone is making a profit,” he claims. “It’s not just the extremists. It is everyone.”
There is a sort of tacit agreement between all parties involved that business must go on. “There’s a lot of coordination between the different groups too,” al-Murawi notes. “The evidence for this is the fact that goods always get through and that supply has never been interrupted.”
Some of the locals say that it is because of the IS group that business is so good; they revived the trade going over the Syrian border. Some of the young local men have even joined the organisation because of this, working for the IS group as guards.
After the IS group took control of Rutba and areas around the district, locals were able to start transporting goods with the IS fighters’ permission, says Sheikh Abdullah al- Qubaisi, an older local man in Rutba. Depending on what was in the truck, each vehicle passing through the IS-held territory had to pay between US$150 and US$500 in “tax”.
“Cooperation isn’t just in business ether,” al-Qubaisi adds. “There was also a lot of information being shared. I believe this is how the IS group was able to get a lot of different information about local people and local security. That’s how the city fell to the IS group more than once.”
Al-Qubaisi doesn’t support the IS group and he and other locals have passed information about traders to the authorities. “But every time we do, they tell us they already know that all this is going on and that they’re monitoring the business the IS group doing here,” al-Qubaisi notes.
In general Rutba is an important stop on the road going through Anbar’s desert. Most of the people there work in trade or transportation and some of them have made a lot of money. The IS group has apparently also been targeting these wealthier individuals for extortion, in the same way they once did in Mosul, before they took that city over in 2014.
The district is a very important commercial area in Anbar, Rutba’s mayor, Imad al-Dulaimi, told NIQASH. “And the IS group has been able to exploit this, by blackmailing locals and securing trade routes.”
His own security forces are powerless against the IS group’s activities outside of the city. “Our security only goes about 150 meters outside the city borders,” he complains. “It’s like we are exiles from Iraq in the desert. The failure of the Iraqi government to re-open and maintain the border crossings, and their failure to control security in the Anbar desert, are the main reasons that business for the IS group is so good here.”