The governor of Anbar, Iraq’s largest province, took office last fall just as the fight against ISIS was winding down. Mohamed al-Halbusi will now have to provide services to the heavily damaged province with what he considers woefully inadequate funding and steer it through the lead-up to parliamentary elections in May, with thousands of residents still displaced or missing, according to a report published Thursday in al-Monitor.
In an interview with the Washington-based media site at his home in Baghdad, he said that he will also have to deal with non-local Iranian Militias in Iraq and Syria (IMIS), which were instrumental in the fight against ISIS but which remain despite local sentiment against their presence.
Halbusi, previously the head of the parliamentary Finance Committee, stressed that his region continues to be treated unfairly in terms of border regulations and budgetary matters, with inadequate funding for a province so heavily damaged by the war.
He claims that new measures have been imposed that would affect only the border crossings recently reopened in Anbar and not those elsewhere, and that "if they are going to do something," they should do it "in Trebil and Basra and Diyala," and not only in Anbar province.
He noted that there are a number of problems with the planned 2018 budget, including a stark difference between money expected to be allocated to the Sunni Endowment (Waqf) and to its Shia counterpart, "about 300 billion Iraqi dinars [$240 million] for the Shias and only about 3 billion [$2.4 million] for the Sunni."
"In the past, they gave Iraqi Shias more because they thought the Sunni Waqf was richer — that they had more land. But not 300 billion compared with [basically] nothing," he lamented, when most of the mosques and religious property destroyed in the fight against ISIs were in Sunni areas.
In general, "we don’t have [an adequate] budget for Anbar, Ninevah and Salahuddin. I am the governor and I have only 40 million per year," he said, naming three Iraq provinces in which Sunni Arabs constitute the majority of inhabitants.
When asked whether he could cite other governorates’ budgets, he noted that many "other governorates did not have to deal with ISIS. They do not have destroyed bridges and buildings" from the fighting or the need to act quickly to ensure that anti-government sentiment is not rekindled.
On fighting corruption — the bane of his predecessor, Suhaib al-Rawi, who sacked all aides and advisers in August 2015 as part of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's first attempt to crack down on corruption but who was himself later accused and removed from the post in August 2017 — Halbusi said that he had set up teams to follow up on specific cases.
The continued presence of non-local IMIS factions in the area — most of whom are from the Shia-dominant south — could become a serious problem, he noted. "Now we have ended the war. They said before, 'We have come to assist you.' Thank you. You assisted me. Now you must go back," he stressed. "I do not want more conflicts."
He added that the IMIS factions were "there before I became governor. They were in Kilo 160, after Ramadi. They were between Amiriyah and Jurf al-Sakar" as well as in Fallujah "at checkpoints and to the north of al-Karma."
Halbusi said that in the eastern part of Anbar province they are limited in number and mostly on the road toward Baghdad, but that this was not the case in the western part of the province.
He continued that he had told his point of contact with IMIS earlier in January to "send them a message. They must go home. We don’t like the fact that we are under their control."
If "Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes would like to come to Anbar, I will hold a meeting with him. I will tell him 'Thank you, now take your men,'" the governor said, in referrence to the IMIS deputy chief and head of the Kata’ib Hezbollah faction.
The whereabouts of hundreds of men from Anbar reportedly taken by security forces including IMIS factions during the fight against ISIS meanwhile remain unknown. Some reports put the number of those who "disappeared" from the Razaza checkpoint, which many Anbar internally displaced persons used to flee to Baghdad in 2015, at over 1,000.
"I spoke with Abadi about that," Halbusi reiterated, "and he said he had heard that. They speak about 700 but I think that it is less than 700."
But even if it were "five people, where are those five people?" he asked. "I spoke with [IMIS]. I spoke with other guys. But we need more pressure. I think they're not dead. I feel that maybe they are in Jurf al-Sakar, with Kataib Hezbollah."
On getting services to recently liberated areas, he stressed that "now I [am getting] assistance from the prime minister and this week we will send about 40 generators and school supplies" to the recently retaken western sections of the province.
Halbusi added, "I also got about $2 million from the Ministry of Migration and Displacement to rehabilitate health centers and clinics, but time is needed. If I take my documents and start to go around offices to get signatures, I need at least a month. We need about two months" total before plans are implemented.