Eight months after ISIS took over Ramadi, Iraqi government forces backed by U.S.-led warplanes wrested the city from the ultra-radical militants, heralding a major victory. But the cost of winning has been Ramadi itself.
In the once blooming Haji Ziad Square, not a single structure still stands. Turning in every direction yields a picture of devastation with buildings reduced to rubble, shops annihilated to giant bomb craters. All those popular places have turned into a pile of concrete and twisted iron rods.
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 ISIS, and Jan. 22, after most of the fighting had terminated. Over roughly the same period, nearly 800 civilians were killed in clashes, airstrikes and executions.
The destruction encompasses almost every part of Ramadi, once home to 1 million people and now virtually empty.
Few signs of life are left in the city. The soldiers manning checkpoints have been 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 ISIS-laid explosives and hundreds of airstrikes by the Iraqi military and the U.S.-led coalition. Besides the fighting itself, the ISIS group is increasingly using a scorched earth strategy as it loses ground in Iraq. When ISIS 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 reconsidering the tactics they use in battling ISIS to recapture 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 fundamental as Iraq and the coalition build up to the daunting task of retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, held by ISIS 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 ISIS 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 ISIS booby traps. Officials estimate ISIS 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 is situated on the Euphrates River west of Baghdad and is the capital of Iraq’s Sunni heartland, Anbar province. Even as ISIS 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, ISIS 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 ISIS out of Ramadi, coalition aircraft dropped more than 600 bombs on the city. The strikes targeted ISIS fighters, but also destroyed bridges, buildings and roads, the Pentagon has acknowledged. Government forces captured districts on the outskirts and in December launched their final assault.
The battle between the Iraqi and ISIS has crashed the city’s infrastructure, destroying the electrical grid almost completely and damaging the water network heavily.
Although most of the population had already left, ISIS fighters tightened checkpoints along main roads out of Ramadi 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.