A member of the Iraqi Pro-government forces walks in front of flames rising on the horizon in Jurf al-Sakhr, south of Baghdad, on October 27, 2014
A member of the Iraqi Pro-government forces walks in front of flames rising on the horizon in Jurf al-Sakhr, south of Baghdad, on October 27, 2014 © Mohammed Sawaf - AFP/File
A member of the Iraqi Pro-government forces walks in front of flames rising on the horizon in Jurf al-Sakhr, south of Baghdad, on October 27, 2014
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W.G. Dunlop, AFP
Last updated: November 9, 2014

Iraq area retaken, but destruction and anger remain

A column of grey smoke drifts up from a burning building in Jurf al-Sakhr, south of Baghdad, while the broken roofs of some houses slope down into piles of rubble.

A column of grey smoke drifts up from a burning building in Jurf al-Sakhr, south of Baghdad, while the broken roofs of some houses slope down into piles of rubble.

Homes charred black by fires line a narrow dirt road scarred by gaping holes that mark places where buried bombs either exploded or were unearthed by demining teams.

Iraqi leaders including Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi hailed the expulsion of Islamic State (IS) jihadist group fighters from Jurf al-Sakhr as a major victory, and state TV broadcast days of coverage from the area.

But it will take months if not years to restore the area, in a sign of the enormous challenges Iraq faces in its battle against IS, which has seized significant territory in the country since June.

"This area represented an important location for (IS)," Karim al-Nuri, an adviser to Badr militia commander Hadi al-Ameri, told AFP in Jurf al-Sakhr.

Badr and other Shiite militias played a key role alongside security forces in the fight to retake Jurf al-Sakhr.

Located between Baghdad and the shrine city of Karbala, the area in IS hands was "a major danger and a real threat," Nuri said.

While retaking Jurf al-Sakhr lessens the threat to those cities, the area has paid a heavy price, as the fighting left a trail of destruction and forced people from their homes.

It is a story that will be repeated in towns and cities across Iraq as security forces and pro-government fighters to battle drive back the Islamic State group.

And the damage will disproportionately affect areas such as Jurf al-Sakhr that are populated by Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs, which may deepen the divide between them and the country's Shiite majority.

- 'There is nothing left' -

"They hit us with aircraft and mortars and artillery and rockets. This is what made us leave," said Abu Ali, a 45-year-old farmer who fled the violence along with his mother, wife, and two children.

"It became a military area," he said. "We did not bring anything with us -- we escaped with our lives."

Houses and cars were blown up and orchards uprooted, he said.

"There is nothing left."

In Jurf al-Sakhr, dozens upon dozens of once-soaring palm trees have been toppled, laid out in rows in fields along the road, while abandoned goats, cows and other livestock wander loose.

Some of the roads winding through the palm trees and farms are navigable, but bombs planted by IS still make other parts impossible to pass.

The burned bodies of three militants lie decomposing in the sun next to the smashed remains of a Humvee armoured vehicle near one bomb-laden stretch of road.

While security forces were deployed in parts of the expansive district, Shiite militiamen, who in some cases have acquired US-made military equipment, made up the bulk of the forces.

An M113 armoured personnel carrier driving down one road had been painted with the name of Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, while another flew the group's flag.

- Bomb-rigged buildings -

In the town of Jurf al-Sakhr, which shares its name with the surrounding area, shops have been smashed in the fighting, windows shattered, metal roofs scarred by shrapnel.

Graffiti, much of it Shiite religious references, covers walls, buildings and even the wall of a mosque.

Before they were forced out, the jihadists rigged buildings in the town with bombs that have yet to be defused, militiamen said.

A building that may once have been the police station has been reduced to a pile of broken concrete.

It is not always clear who is responsible for the destruction, with all the combatants having played a role.

But at least some of the fires in the area have been set by militiamen, with one fighter from the Ketaeb Hezbollah militia saying that: "We burned those houses belonging to (IS)."

Abu Ahmed, a 55-year-old farmer who fled the area, was critical of the militiamen, who are viewed with suspicion by many Sunnis due to their involvement in sectarian violence in past years.

"What did (they) liberate? This militia killed us, bombed us, destroyed our houses," Abu Ahmed said.

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