BATNAYA, Iraq — More than two years after Islamic State militants were ousted from this ancient town in northern Iraq, only one man has returned. He lives in the wreckage of a house that has enough of a ceiling to protect him from the winter rains, with four or five stray dogs at any time for company.
In the shadow of a church pocked with bullet holes, he survives on food donated by local security forces in exchange for performing an important task: keeping looters and vandals away from three newly renovated schools and a new medical center. Each has a sign in Arabic stating it was rebuilt through a partnership between the United Nations Development Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Batnaya, once home to some 6,000 Chaldean Catholics, is a small but striking example of the enormous challenge facing the Iraqi government, United States and United Nations in rebuilding and repopulating areas devastated by the Islamic State occupation and the three-year war to rid Iraq of the militants.
At the current rate, it could take a generation or more to reconstruct what the conflict has ruined. Iraqi officials say it will require $88 billion to recover, far more than the government can muster on its own, and foreign help is falling far short of plugging that hole. Nor is there any guarantee that residents would return even to those pockets that are being restored if security can’t be assured and vital services provided.
As a result, Iraq now confronts a double danger.
For Iraq’s non-Muslim minorities, in particular Christians whose communities are the Trump administration’s top priority, the protracted pace of reconstruction could push them past a tipping point. Already, barely one-seventh of Iraq’s Christian population before the war remains in the country.
And for Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, whose communities bore the brunt of the Islamic State occupation but have received little reconstruction help from the United States, the miserable conditions could seed a new round of militancy.
The slow redevelopment of the large swaths of northern and western Iraq where the Islamic State once ruled has given rise to fears among Iraqis and U.S. officials that the militants could make a comeback, exploiting security gaps and frustration over a lack of basic services and shelter.
Iraqi government officials have not responded to requests for detailed information about the funding pledged, received and spent.
So far, other countries and international organizations have anted up most of the money spent, though the bulk is in the form of loans the Iraqi government will have to repay, according to the country’s reconstruction fund.
The money is being distributed slowly and through patronage networks riven with corruption and bedeviled by rivalries among politicians and the armed militias that fought the Islamic State, Iraqi and Western officials say, further delaying the process.
The newly renovated schools in Batnaya, freshly painted and furnished, stand out in a landscape of rubble, the remains of homes destroyed by U.S. airstrikes and heavy fighting waged by U.S.-backed fighters during the operation to oust the militants in late 2017.
The new cream-colored medical clinic is directly across a narrow street from a cemetery where headstones, concrete crosses and mausoleums were toppled and smashed by the Islamic State. The few houses that are partially intact are still branded by the occupation. “Let it be known, the Islamic State is expanding, with God’s will,” is scrawled in black paint on the exterior of one home. “We remain, despite your Coalition,” graffiti written in blue declares on another.
“I’m the only one who has returned,” said the elderly guard, who declined to have his name published fearing authorities would disrupt his informal arrangement with the security forces. “I have no family, and it’s better than living in a camp.”
The rise of the Islamic State in 2014 accelerated an exodus to the United States and Europe that continues to this day and threatens a permanent demographic shift. About 200,000 Christians remain in Iraq, compared with 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Nearly half of those who once lived in Batnaya have dispersed to the United States and Europe, while the rest have moved to temporary homes in other parts of Iraq, residents say, as they seek to leave the country altogether.
Raad Nasir, a 40-year-old native of the town, said he and others have chosen to stay away and seek opportunities to emigrate to Europe. Speaking by phone from the nearby town of Tal Askuf, Nasir estimated only 200 families from Batnaya are still in Iraq and few have any plans to return to the ancient town.
“The whole place is destroyed . . . we can’t afford to rebuild our houses,” he said. Nasir added that those who have no plans to leave Iraq have already settled in places like Tal Askuf or the larger Kurdish city of Dohuk.
In an effort to keep Christians and Yazidis in their ancestral homelands, President Trump last year signed into law the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act — providing for funding of stabilization projects in communities targeted for genocide by the Islamic State.
Since October 2017, the United States has committed nearly $300 million to areas that were traditionally home to Christians and Yazidis. According to USAID officials, the agency has taken the lead on 304 rehabilitation projects in northern Iraq, where the vast majority of Christians and Yazidis are concentrated. The stabilization work ranges from rehabilitation of school buildings to installing temporary electricity generators to repairing broken water networks.
For the Trump administration, and Vice President Pence in particular, the millions of dollars in U.S. aid is a nod to key constituents back home. Christian groups in the United States have pressed for American support of their coreligionists in Iraq in the wake of the Islamic State onslaught.
So far, the record is mixed.
In towns like Batnaya and Sinjar, the traditional capital of Yazidis in Iraq, schools have been renovated but there is no one there to use them.
But in other parts of the north, such as Bashiqa and Bartella, USAID-funded public facilities like medical centers now serve Iraqis from across the region.
And in some places, like the large Christian city of Hamdaniya, the program has encouraged many residents to return. USAID’s logo is visible on a myriad projects, including the restoration of a large hospital and silver garbage dumpsters that dot the city’s streets.
Max Primorac, the USAID special representative for minority assistance in Iraq, said the philosophy behind the agency’s work is simple: If you give needy people the basic infrastructure they need to survive, they will return and rebuild.
“The most important aspect of that is giving hope,” Primorac said in an interview in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil. “The psychological impact that the genocide had on these communities was just tremendous. They felt that the international community wasn’t there to support them. They didn’t have anyone having their back.”
He said putting the USAID logo on the projects clearly advertises that “a superpower is helping them.”
Essam Behnam, the mayor of Hamdaniya, said the USAID and U.N. programs, along with private donations from American Christian groups, have helped bring back about half of the city’s original 60,000 residents.
But the assistance has not addressed what he said are the fundamental reasons that minorities are leaving Iraq: neglect by the Iraqi government and its failure to muster police and military forces to secure cities in the north.
Hamdaniya is now patrolled by government-sponsored militias made up of locals but commanded by outsiders, including some who are politically aligned with Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders detached from the needs and concerns of the region’s minorities.
“The Iraqi government should seriously consider if they really want Christians to remain in Iraq,” Behnam said. “If the situation remains the way it is, I don’t think there will be a future for us here.”
Primorac, of USAID, said the absence of government-provided security in areas freed from the Islamic State poses the greatest challenge to USAID activities and the return of people who were forced out or fled the militants.
“We need Baghdad to get on board,” he said, underlining the urgency of transitioning from “militias to normal police, recruited locally under Baghdad’s control.”
Salim Othman, the manager of the Iraqi government’s reconstruction fund for Ninewa province, countered that security has not been the main obstacle to rebuilding and repopulation. He said lack of funding is the primary problem and that the United States’ exclusive focus on Christian and Yazidi areas ignores the pressing needs of major cities like Mosul.
“Many nations participated in removing [the Islamic State], and we are grateful, but in the process they destroyed Ninewa,” he said. “They should all participate in rebuilding the province.”
Othman said that rebuilding his province’s infrastructure will cost between $20 billion to $30 billion. This year, the fund he controls is slated to receive $50 million from the central government with an additional $1.2 billion in loans from the World Bank and European nations, he said.
Since the fund was established, Othman estimated that only 2 percent of Ninewa has been rebuilt, with the vast majority of the work going into restoring Mosul University.
“Even if we had $1 billion easily available per year, it would take 20 to 30 years to rebuild the region,” he said. “This is a huge problem. If we tell this to our citizens, they will revolt.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.