- - Wednesday, December 6, 2017

ISTANBUL — Anas Jaroo has been waxing nostalgic lately about his family’s home in Hosh Al-Bai’ah, a formerly Christian neighborhood of carpenters and fishermen on the west bank of the Tigris River in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

“I miss Grandfather’s house,” said Mr. Jaroo, a 23-year-old software engineer in Baghdad who fled Mosul for his safety a few years ago. “The door was low. You had to bend your back to enter. Limestone floors kept it cool during summer and held heat from the fireplace during winter. It even held a Turkish bath with a special bench where you could relax and have a massage.”

Today, more than four months since U.S.-backed Iraqi forces retook Mosul from the Islamic State group, the house lies in ruins. “It is now damaged beyond repair,” Mr. Jaroo said.

Land mines and other unexploded ordnance left behind by the radical Islamic terrorist group that seized the city in June 2014 have led Iraq’s federal police to cordon off much of Hosh Al-Bai’ah and other historic neighborhoods in West Mosul, where Ottoman villas, Assyrian Christian churches and world heritage architectural gems dating back 1,500 years once stood.

International architectural heritage groups are now drawing up plans for western Mosul in hopes of returning the area to its former glory. But longtime residents of the historic quarter worry that they won’t be permitted to return if Iraqi leaders want to erect modern developments on the ruins of the old.

It’s a story in microcosm of the giant reconstruction task still facing the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, even as the military threat from Islamic State recedes.

“There are officials who are trying to remove and demolish the Old City and rebuild it from scratch,” said Qahtan Al-Zaidi, an engineer who is working with the United Nations Development Program on Mosul redevelopment proposals. “This would change the city’s identity.”

Of the 54 residential districts in western Mosul, fighting flattened 15 that were home to 100,000 residents, according to U.N. estimates. “The cost of stabilizing western Mosul areas and making them livable could surpass $700 million,” said Lise Grande, who heads the UNDP operation in Iraq.

Additionally, key landmarks such as the tilting 12th-century “Hunchback” minaret, the sixth-century Assyrian Christian St. Thomas Church, the 18th-century Al-Aghawat and Al-Pasha mosques and the 19th-century Dominican “Clock Church” have been leveled or seriously damaged.

Many fear those treasures will fall to a wave of development to provide housing. Uncontrolled construction has undermined historic architecture throughout Iraq in the past 25 years, dating back to the first American-led invasion of the country under President George H.W. Bush in the 1990s.

“Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we put the entire country on the watch list because of the limited abilities of the State Board of Antiquities to really police every site during such a tumultuous time,” said Lisa Ackerman, executive vice president of the World Monuments Foundation, a New York-based group that supports conservation efforts of ancient landmarks and other sites.

With the approval of officials in Baghdad, reconstruction is beginning in East Mosul.

“We are starting without any government support,” said Thakwan Al-Saffar, the chief executive of the Diwan Residential Compound, a project that includes more than 1,400 residential units, schools, a 100-bed hospital and other amenities.

Skyrocketing rents

The drive to build comes as rents have skyrocketed in East Mosul because of housing shortages, forcing many residents to live outside the city rather than return now that Mosul has been cleared of the last Islamic State militants.

“I have friends who are still in Dohuk preferring to come to Mosul for work and driving back every day,” said Zaid Al-Ta’i, 32, an English teacher who wants to repair his home in the Old City, referring to a city 45 miles to the north in Iraqi Kurdistan. “It is hard to find a suitable place to live now.”

Iraq’s government is preparing reconstruction plans for Mosul to present to an international donors conference scheduled early next year in Kuwait. But former residents of the historic western half of the city said those officials have yet to consult with them on plans for the area.

“Since I’ve spent my whole life in the alleys of the Old City, I would like to have the chance to tell officials about the picturesque things that need to be protected,” said Shihab Ahmed, a 28-year-old resident of the Bab Lagash district, where most working-age males were employed as marble tombstone engravers before the Islamic State invaded the area more than three years ago.

Leaders in Baghdad have assured residents that they will restore the area as soon as they secure financing. But they warned that they might not be able to fund costly preservation projects for heritage sites that require highly skilled archaeologists, engineers and craftsmen.

“We want to rebuild in a way that saves the city’s identity,” said a senior official in Mr. al-Abadi’s administration who is drafting reconstruction plans for former Islamic State-held territories and who asked that his name be withheld because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “Ultimately, it’s all a matter of financing. We are just as dependent on what the private sector can do as we are on the friendly governments coming to the Kuwait conference.”

But policymakers and private developers have little incentive to repair the landmarks.

“While modern buildings in this context are not ideal, I don’t see another way of doing it,” said Ahmed al-Mallak, an Iraqi architect who organized this year’s Mosul Housing Competition, which aimed to focus local and international talent on rebuilding the city.

Mr. al-Mallak and the other judges awarded a prize to Parisian architect Vincent Callebaut, who proposed using three-dimensional printers to construct five “self-sufficient farming bridges” to span the Tigris. Inspired by the mythical hanging gardens of Babylon, the bridges would use recycled war debris and feature rooftop vegetable patches.

That concept is an unlikely scenario for Mosul, where only one of the five bridges destroyed in the war has been even partially rebuilt.

Prospects are better for giant French retailer Carrefour, which plans to open nondescript, big-box supermarkets and department stores in Mosul. The company has numerous locations throughout Iraq.

“The reality is what is being built is going to be mediocre quality,” Mr. al-Mallak said. “And what the government will do in state-run projects will be even lower quality due to budget restrictions.”

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