MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Perched atop a mound of rubble, Abdelsattar al-Hibbu surveyed what remained of his second-floor office: twisted iron and centuries-old stone reduced to dust by an airstrike.
“I used to look out at the river from my window,” Hibbu said wistfully, recalling how the nine-month battle that defeated ISIS militants in Mosul last year destroyed tens of thousands of buildings. “Now look at it.”
Hibbu is the municipality chief of Mosul and faces the titanic task of rebuilding Iraq’s second largest city from the ruins of war. It is a mega-project that could take years and require billions of dollars – yet his administration is strapped for cash.
“What are we supposed to do, dig money out of the ground?” asked Hibbu, a tall, broad man in his mid-forties who is fond of recounting his city’s storied past as a center of culture and learning.
His daily struggles reflect the challenges facing a city seen as vital to efforts to stabilize Iraq. Once home to about two million inhabitants, Mosul now has an estimated 700,000 of its population displaced and needs at least $2 billion of reconstruction, according to federal government estimates. Before the war it had an administrative budget of $80 million a year; now it doesn’t know how to pay its bills.
In mid-January Hibbu told Reuters he didn’t have a budget for 2018 yet, but that the city needed $75 million just to maintain basic services. He thought he might get $10 million from the Ministry of the Municipalities and Public Works, a federal government agency in Baghdad that oversees municipal governments. Nor is he expecting much from the provincial government, which once provided Mosul with about $60 million a year. It’s in disarray after the governor was suspended in an investigation into alleged corruption and the torturing of journalists. The governor denies any wrongdoing.
What scares Hibbu and Western officials is that the devastation and lack of help may reignite old sectarian grievances.
Mosul’s predominantly Sunni population had for years complained they were marginalized by the Shi’ite-led central government, treated like second class citizens and deprived of decent jobs and senior positions in the security forces. Those resentments led many of Mosul’s Sunnis to welcome ISIS when it captured the city in 2014 and called for war against Iraq’s majority Shi’ites.
Hibbu, a Sunni himself, wants to avoid conditions that could enable a new group of militants to exploit frustration with the central government and pose another security threat.
“If Baghdad doesn’t properly invest in the reconstruction of Mosul, we could get something worse” than ISIS, said Hibbu. “This lack of foresight is going to have very negative consequences.”
Lise Grande, until recently the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq who oversaw the U.N.’s stabilization program tasked with servicing immediate humanitarian needs, takes a similar view. “If we don’t stabilize these areas quickly, violent extremism might emerge again, and the gains against ISIS could be lost,” she told Reuters.