Liberating a key Iraqi city from ISIS was 'a victory in the worst possible sense'

The US has been touting the liberation of the city of Ramadi from the terrorist group ISIS as a major victory for Iraqi forces, but one former US official in Iraq has a less-rosy view of the operation.

Ali Khedery is the longest continually serving US official in Iraq, and he worked for US ambassadors and heads of US Central Command.

In an interview with Business Insider, he pointed out that Ramadi was largely destroyed in the battle to liberate it. And with Iraq’s crippled economy, it’s unclear how the country will rebuild.

“Ramadi I think was a victory in the worst possible sense in that … there really wasn’t much left of Ramadi by the time it had been deemed ‘liberated,'” Khedery told Business Insider. “This seems like the 100th battle for Ramadi since 2003.”

Officials estimate that about 80% of Ramadi was destroyed in the fighting. Some of this damage was intentionally inflicted by ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) to ensure that life could not return to normal once the militants left.

“Between all those different types of battles, [Ramadi] was a shadow of its former self even before the most recent campaign, but now certainly between the ISIS booby traps and the airstrikes by the coalition and the militias’ mass shelling and the Iraqi military assault, there is basically nothing left,” Khedery said of Ramadi.

The United Nations Development Programme is still waiting for approval to go into Ramadi to start making it habitable again, according to Reuters. The non-profit organisation reportedly has 100 generators and mobile-electrical grids ready to power to city once it is to go into the area.

But for now, thousands of displaced Ramadi residents aren’t allowed to come back.

Erin Cunningham, a Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post, has been documenting post-ISIS Ramadi on her Instagram account. Her photos show a ghost city filled with rubble:

from Iraqi forces’ battle with the Islamic State on the outskirts of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and once one of the deadliest places for U.S. troops in Iraq. (#Hipstamatic #Yoona #Love81) @washingtonpost

A photo posted by Erin Cunningham (@erinmcunningham) on Jan 9, 2016 at 7:28am PST

Rebuilding the city will cost an estimated $10 billion.

It’s unclear from where this money will come — The Wall Street Journal noted that falling oil prices have shrunken Iraq’s revenue and that the country’s parliament just passed a budget with a $20-billion deficit. Other governments have pledged funding for rebuilding Iraq, but it’s not enough to cover the work that will be needed.

“[Iraq is] getting somewhere around $27, $28 a barrel for their crude, which is a quarter of what it was last summer, so that’s going to be a really big problem … because the government depends on oil revenues for roughly 95% of their budget,” Khedery said.

He continued: “So there’s no money for infrastructure like power generation, oil-field development, and roads, and there’s no money for the subsidies … plus Baghdad has to pay for soldiers, for bullets, and they have to pay salaries.”

This lack of opportunity for residents of cities that have been nearly leveled by fighting could turn some toward ISIS, which is known to pay fighters high salaries.

“The population [of Ramadi] is somewhere around 500,000,” Khedery said. “That’s 500,000 people with no jobs, nowhere to live, no economy. And if even only 2% of those people join ISIS, that’s 10,000 fighters for them.”

Even US officials are couching their optimistic statements with caveats — Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford said this weekend that while Iraqis “now have the momentum” in the fight to reclaim cities from ISIS, he admitted that liberating Ramadi did not mark a turning point for Iraqi forces.

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