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Iraq's former oil hub deserted years after IS defeat

Most of Baiji was destroyed in the battle to defeat the Islamic State group. [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 December, 2017

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Two years after IS were forced from the industrial hub of Baiji the city remains a devastated ghost town as funds to help rebuild life have failed to materialise.
Two years after Islamic State group militants were forced from the one-time industrial hub of Baiji, the city remains a devastated ghost town as pledges of funds to help rebuild life have failed to materialise.

Once home to what was Iraq's largest oil refinery, its rubble-strewn streets are lined by the twisted carcasses of buildings. In 2016 it was declared a disaster zone by the national parliament.

"Up until now there has been no money to reconstruct the town despite the promises made by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi," Khaled Hassan Mahdi, a member of the regional council, told AFP.

All available funds have been ploughed into financing Iraq's military campaign against IS, Mahdi said, which Abadi declared on Saturday had been defeated.

"And even if the ministries unblock the money, it will only go to restoring infrastructure, water, roads, electricity, but not pay benefits to people or give them aid to rebuild their homes", he added.

'90 percent destroyed'

The level of devastation in Baiji is among the worst left behind after Baghdad's punishing campaign to reclaim its towns and cities from IS, who fought fierce house-to-house battles to cling on to the city.

Before the militants seized control in 2014 the city had a population of some 180,000 people.

"Now 90 percent of Baiji is destroyed and the people have still not returned," city councillor Sheikh Hatef Bassam said.

"Baiji is the most destroyed place in Iraq after western Mosul," said council member Khazal Hammadi, referring to the obliterated old heart of the country's second city.

For Baiji, some 200 kilometres north of Baghdad, its role a major industrial centre boasting oil and chemical plants seems like a distant memory.

"It will be very difficult to rehabilitate the Baiji refinery, which was built in 1975 and used to produce 250,000 barrels a day, as so much equipment has been pillaged," a high-ranking official in Iraq's North Oil Company told AFP.

Even if the facility does get up and running again, the official said, then "it won't have the same capacity as before".

Traffic has long ceased along Baiji's wrecked main highway and, apart from a few military checkpoints, life is nowhere to be seen.

"The city is destroyed and the houses are uninhabitable," said local militia commander Hajj Ibrahim Taha.

"The roads are destroyed, the water system is damaged, electricity is non-existent and all the people have left."

Local police chief Saad Nafus said that some families come back from time to time to check their houses, but they have to get "authorisation" from security officials who still worry about IS militants returning.

In a camp for displaced people run by charities in the region, three kilometres north of the city of Tikrit, former Baiji resident Amer Abbas has no idea if his home is still standing or not.

"We are afraid that we will find nothing if we go back," he said.

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baiji found itself at the heart of the so-called "Sunni triangle" where those loyal to ousted leader Saddam Hussein continued to wage a ferocious insurgency, and the oil infrastructure was attacked repeatedly.

IS fighters swept into the city in June 2014 as the Iraqi forces collapsed and after more than a year in control were forced out by government troops and allied militias with the help of air power from a US-led coalition in October 2015.

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