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Ramadi Destroyed as IS Driven Out      05/05 06:07

   This is what victory looks like in the Iraqi city of Ramadi: In the once 
thriving Haji Ziad Square, not a single structure still stands. Turning in 
every direction yields a picture of devastation.

   RAMADI, Iraq (AP) -- This is what victory looks like in the Iraqi city of 
Ramadi: In the once thriving Haji Ziad Square, not a single structure still 
stands. Turning in every direction yields a picture of devastation.

   A building that housed a pool hall and ice cream shops --- reduced to 
rubble. A row of money changers and motorcycle repair garages --- obliterated, 
a giant bomb crater in its place. The square's Haji Ziad Restaurant, beloved 
for years by Ramadi residents for its grilled meats --- flattened. The 
restaurant was so popular its owner built a larger, fancier branch across the 
street three years ago. That, too, is now a pile of concrete and twisted iron 
rods.

   The destruction extends to nearly every part of Ramadi, once home to 1 
million people and now virtually empty. A giant highway cloverleaf at the main 
entrance to the city is partially toppled. Apartment block after apartment 
block has been crushed. Along a residential street, the walls of homes have 
been shredded away, exposing furniture and bedding. Graffiti on the few homes 
still standing warn of explosives inside.

   When Iraqi government forces backed by U.S.-led warplanes wrested this city 
from Islamic State militants after eight months of IS control, it was heralded 
as a major victory. But the cost of winning Ramadi has been the city itself.

   The scope of the damage is beyond any of the other Iraqi cities recaptured 
so far from the jihadi group. Photographs provided to The Associated Press by 
satellite imagery and analytics company DigitalGlobe show more than 3,000 
buildings and nearly 400 roads and bridges were damaged or destroyed between 
May 2015, when Ramadi fell to IS, and Jan. 22, after most of the fighting had 
ended. Over roughly the same period, nearly 800 civilians were killed in 
clashes, airstrikes and executions.

   Now the few signs of life are the soldiers manning checkpoints, newly 
painted and decorated with brightly colored plastic flowers. Vehicles pick 
their way around craters blocking roads as the dust from thousands of crushed 
buildings drifts over the landscape. Along one street, the only sign that 
houses ever existed there is a line of garden gates and clusters of fruit trees.

   The wreckage was caused by IS-laid explosives and hundreds of airstrikes by 
the Iraqi military and the U.S.-led coalition. Besides the fighting itself, the 
Islamic State group is increasingly using a scorched earth strategy as it loses 
ground in Iraq. When IS fighters withdraw, they leave an empty prize, blowing 
up buildings and wiring thousands of others with explosives. The bombs are so 
costly and time-consuming to defuse that much of recently liberated Iraq is now 
unlivable.

   "All they leave is rubble," said Maj. Mohammed Hussein, whose 
counterterrorism battalion was one of the first to move into Ramadi. "You can't 
do anything with rubble."

   As a result, U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi officials are rethinking their 
tactics as they battle IS to regain territory. The coalition is scaling back 
its airstrikes in besieged urban areas. Efforts are underway to increase 
training of explosive disposal teams.

   The new approach is particularly key as Iraq and the coalition build up to 
the daunting task of retaking Mosul, Iraq's second-biggest city, held by IS for 
nearly two years.

   "They know they can't just turn Mosul into a parking lot," said a Western 
diplomat in Baghdad who has been present for a number of meetings with 
coalition and Iraqi defense officials regarding the Mosul operation. The 
diplomat commented on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to 
speak to the press.

   In January, after IS was pushed out of Ramadi, thousands of families 
returned to their homes. But residents have since been barred from coming back 
because dozens of civilians died from IS booby traps. Officials estimate IS 
planted thousands of IEDs, improvised explosive devices, across the city. Janus 
Global Operations, an American firm, began working to remove them last month 
and said it has so far cleared more than 1,000 square meters --- a fraction of 
a city block.

   The vast majority of the city's population remains displaced.

   Ramadi lies on the Euphrates River west of Baghdad and is the capital of 
Iraq's Sunni heartland, Anbar province. Even as IS swept over most of the 
province and northern Iraq in 2014, Ramadi had held out under tenuous 
government control. After months of fighting, in May 2015, Islamic State 
fighters captured it by unleashing a barrage of truck and suicide bombs that 
overwhelmed government forces.

   They raised their flag above Anbar Operations Command center, the former 
provincial police and military headquarters that was once a U.S. military base, 
then proceeded to largely level the complex with explosives. Over the following 
days, they methodically destroyed government buildings.

   Militants took over homes, converting living rooms into command centers and 
bedrooms into barracks. They dug tunnels under the streets to evade air 
strikes, shut down schools, looted and destroyed the homes of people associated 
with the local government. They set up a headquarters in the campus of Anbar 
University, on the city's western edge.

   Over the course of the eight-month campaign to push IS out of Ramadi, 
coalition aircraft dropped more than 600 bombs on the city. The strikes 
targeted IS fighters, but also destroyed bridges, buildings and roads, the 
Pentagon has acknowledged. Government forces seized districts on the outskirts 
and in December launched their final assault.

   As Iraqi ground forces moved into Ramadi, IS methodically laid explosives 
and blew up swaths of the city's infrastructure. The electrical grid was almost 
completely destroyed and the city's water network was also heavily damaged. The 
jihadis bombed the city's remaining bridges and two dams. Though most of the 
population had already left, IS fighters tightened checkpoints along main roads 
out of the city to prevent civilians from fleeing. They later used families as 
human shields as they made their escape.

   "ISIS made a concerted effort to ensure the city would be unlivable," said 
Patrick Martin, an Iraq researcher at the Institute for the Study of War.

   As his convoy of troops approached Ramadi, Maj. Hussein said he watched IS 
fighters set fires in Anbar University to destroy sensitive documents. The 
fires burned for days.

   The complex is now largely destroyed. A gymnasium used by IS to store 
documents has been torched. Charred sports equipment --- a boxing glove, 
cleats, pieces of a track suit --- line the hallways. Iraqi artillery fire 
punched thick holes into the university's library. Only the two main reading 
rooms are safe to visit; the rest of the four-story building is believed to be 
booby-trapped.

   Trying to uproot dug-in fighters, coalition aircraft and Iraqi artillery 
unleashed devastation. Haji Ziad Square, for example, is a strategic 
intersection with lines of sight down major thoroughfares by which troops had 
to approach. So IS fighters deployed heavily there. The new multistory Haji 
Ziad Restaurant made a prime sniper post. Iraqi troops called in intense 
coalition strikes on the square to help clear the militants.

   Similarly, a complex of around 40 large residential towers stood across from 
Anbar University on a key route for Iraqi forces entering the city. 
Before-and-after imagery shows at least a dozen of them were levelled. Multiple 
bomb craters are evident, including at least two that measure more than 45 feet 
across.

   In a district along the western edge of downtown Ramadi, a dense strip of 
buildings, homes and bustling shops, not a single building escaped unscathed 
from the IS occupation and the coalition airstrikes. Key streets throughout the 
city are blocked by craters as each side tried to hamper the other's movement.

   Tens of thousands of Ramadi's residents live in camps or with extended 
family in Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands are in other nearby villages. 
Thousands more live in a small resort town on Habbaniyah Lake south of Ramadi 
that has become a sprawling camp.

   Where Iraqis came to jet-ski and boat as recently as 2012, the beach is now 
lined with tents. The 300-room hotel and hundreds of chalets in the complex are 
filled with people displaced from Ramadi, Fallujah, Hit and smaller villages 
across Anbar.

   Umm Khaled, 30, once lived with her family in a two-bedroom home in Ramadi's 
center. Now, pregnant with her fourth child, she lives in a small shelter on 
the edge of the Habbaniyah resort that her husband built with corrugated metal 
and plastic tarps.

   She said she kept tabs on her Ramadi home since fleeing two years ago. The 
house remained undamaged. Then the offensive to retake the city began, and she 
heard from another fleeing family that her home had been hit by a missile or a 
bomb. The day the city was declared liberated, Umm Khaled said the camp burst 
into celebration, children set off fireworks and young men danced.

   Days later came more sobering news. Her husband returned to Ramadi to see 
what was left, and he brought back pictures on his phone.

   "It was like there was nothing. And it's not just our house --- the entire 
neighborhood," said Umm Khaled, who did not want her full name used because she 
feared for the safety of family members still living under IS rule.

   Without a home to return to and no jobs, her family is forced to remain in 
the camp and is dependent on handouts from aid organizations. The little cash 
savings her family had was depleted months ago, making it impossible to return 
to Ramadi and rebuild.

   According to the United Nations' satellite mapping agency, UNITAR, an 
estimated 5,700 buildings out of the city's total of around 55,000 were 
seriously damaged or destroyed.

   With an eye to reducing destruction in the fight against IS moving forward, 
coalition planes are using fewer airstrikes and smaller, more targeted 
munitions.

   In Hit --- a small town to the west of Ramadi retaken from IS in April --- 
Iraqi commanders complained that it was becoming increasingly difficult to get 
requests for airstrikes cleared by coalition forces. Brig. Gen. Sami Khathan 
al-Aradi said progress in Hit was slower because of the reduced airstrikes.

   "Our allies have their own standards, their own regulations," al-Aradi 
explained, implying that Iraqi planes would have used airstrikes more liberally.

   Mosul is roughly two-thirds larger in area than Ramadi, and some 1 million 
to 1.5 million residents are still in the city --- a far higher number than 
those who were in Ramadi as Iraqi forces fought to regain it --- putting large 
numbers in harm's way when an assault is launched.

   The destruction of Mosul on the same scale as Ramadi would result not just 
in billions of dollars of damage. It also would risk further alienating the 
Sunni minority population. Long oppressed under the Shiite-led central 
government in Baghdad, some Sunnis originally welcomed IS fighters into Mosul 
and parts of Anbar province. But after months of increasingly brutal IS rule, 
the group's support among Sunnis appears to have eroded.

   Widespread destruction also can spark cycles of revenge attacks within 
Anbar's communities, where tribal law often demands death and destruction be 
repaid in "blood money." In Ramadi's eastern edge, local security officials 
have already begun methodically razing homes of suspected IS sympathizers.

   Hamdiya Mahmoud's family home was destroyed by IS militants. Amid the rubble 
that was once her son's bedroom, she points to a dresser showered with shards 
of plaster and concrete that was a gift to her son and his wife on their 
wedding day.

   "I didn't let my youngest son go to school to save money to build this 
house," Mahmoud said, breaking into sobs, "This house is really priceless to 
me, it's like one of my sons." Mahmoud said she would not seek revenge for the 
damage done to the property. But as her husband looked over the ruins of his 
house, he was less forgiving.

   "I swear to God," said Ali Hussein Jassim, "if I learn who did this I will 
not keep silent."


(KA)

 
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