Fast-rising politician pushes rebirth of war-scarred Iraqi city

·4-min read

With a five-star hotel, malls and other real estate projects, the Iraqi city of Ramadi, ruined by more than a decade of war, is witnessing a construction boom led by the parliamentary speaker.

Mohammed al-Halbussi, trained as a civil engineer and who cultivates an image of dynamism, hails from the province of Anbar and is hoping to be re-elected in the October 10 national poll.

Supporters say the vote here will be akin to a plebiscite in favour of a new term for Halbussi, and his movement, whom they credit for pushing Ramadi's nascent economic revival after it was left in rubble following the battle to defeat the Islamic State (IS) group.

Sunni Muslim majority Ramadi is the capital of Anbar, a vast desert province west of Baghdad that covers a third of the country and extends to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, insurgents in Ramadi and nearby Fallujah fought some of the toughest battles against American forces.

A decade later, Anbar's Sunni tribes rose up against the Shiite-led Baghdad government, which many in the province accuse of marginalisation.

Then, IS jihadists captured Fallujah and Ramadi, before government forces reconquered the cities from the end of 2015.

- Marina, swimming pools -

Since then, Ramadi has strived to erase its bloody past and rebuild, with projects driven by Halbussi aimed at boosting the economy and wooing investors.

Halbussi, 40, travels frequently about the region, trading his elegant suits for jeans during field visits to shepherd the projects in Anbar province.

Along the banks of the Euphrates River, workers are busy finishing construction of Ramadi's first five-star hotel, complete with a Euphrates riverfront marina and swimming pools.

The 15-storey, 184-room hotel estimated to cost $60 million is a joint venture between the municipality and private investors.

Its builder, Hatem Ghadbane, praised the local authorities but reserved his plaudits for Halbussi.

"He deserves all the credit for construction projects underway in Anbar province, as well as for political stability and security," Ghadbane said.

- 'Smoke and mirrors' -

Over the years Halbussi has been known to maintain good ties with the Baghdad federal government while cultivating relations with regional powers.

In September, he travelled to the United Arab Emirates for talks with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and a few days later he met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo.

"He has climbed up the political and administrative ladder quickly as he went from a parliamentarian to governor to speaker all in his 30s," said Iraqi political analyst Hamzeh Hadad.

Halbussi attained the speaker's post with support of the pro-Iran bloc.

"He has moved up so fast... he has gone against the old guard of Sunni politicians. And he managed to unite them against him," Hadad said.

Portraits of Halbussi, with his slick black hair, and candidates from his Taqadom ("Progress" in Arabic) party have been plastered all across Ramadi, rivalling those of challengers from the Azm coalition comprising traditional Sunni figures.

The candidates' pictures rise above impeccably paved avenues adorned with new lamps and lawns. City work crews can often be seen touching up a sidewalk or street, but not everyone is impressed.

Iraqi journalist Amr Alkubaisi, who is close to Azm, has denounced the Halbussi-led projects as mere "smoke and mirrors".

Taqadom, he wrote on social media in September, is "a personal project" trying to promote itself by pushing "medium-size projects like the tarring of roads".

- Challenges -

Challenges abound. The main public hospital, for example, is functioning but awaits the conclusion of restoration work -- while a new private hospital with sophisticated equipment opened in April.

Anbar governor Ali Farhan al-Dulaimi, who is running with Taqadom, said a series of projects are planned, including an international airport for Ramadi.

Ramadi municipality head Omar Dabbous is proud of his city's economic revival and he, too, credited Halbussi for being a driving force behind efforts to attract investments.

"We hope he will stay at the top of the pyramid (and win a second term) in order to follow up on what he and his team have started," Dabbous said.

The analyst Hadad said it would be "very difficult to predict" if Halbussi can win a second term as speaker.

"But if ever someone were to do so, it is Halbussi."

tgg/hkb/it

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting