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Iraq’s war heroes feel forgotten after war with ISIS

An estimated 30,000 Iraqis who joined security forces when Islamic State militants attacked their country in 2014 were injured in the war that persisted through 2017, in addition to thousands who lost their lives. And now, the survivors and families of those who died as well as wounded veterans say that the government is breaking promises it made to look after them. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simona Foltyn reports.

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  • Simona Foltyn:

    The city of Najaf in Iraq's south is among Shia Islam's holiest sites. It houses the shrine of Imam Ali, the cousin and son in law of and, according to the Shia, the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed. Najaf is also home to the world's largest cemetery. For Shia Muslims, it's an honor to be buried here, particularly for men who gave their lives fighting in the four-year war against ISIS. Busloads arrive daily to visit the graves of loved ones. Fawzia Kadhum and Shuagh Kareem are widows. Their husbands, Khalil and Musa, were brothers, both killed while fighting ISIS. Together with other relatives of the deceased, the women have come to commemorate their sacrifice.

  • Fawzia Kadhum:

    We visit the grave once a month. We clean the graves with rosewater, we read the Qur'an and say prayers.

  • Ibrahim Abdelamir:

    They paid the ultimate price, their life, in order to defend the religion, the sect, the nation, and the shrines. Hopefully they are in paradise now.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The brothers are deemed martyrs, an honorific bestowed on those who fulfill religious commandments, especially Muslims who wage jihad against those considered enemies of Islam. When ISIS launched its blitzkrieg in 2014, taking vast parts of northern Iraq, the country's leading Shia cleric Ali Al Sistani called on all able-bodied men to defend their country against the Sunni extremist group. Tens of thousands of men from Iraq's Shia south heeded the call. They joined the ranks of the country's various security forces, including the army, the police or, in the case of the two brothers Khalil and Musa, a paramilitary umbrella group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF. We joined the family again in their home village of Al Abassiya, a few miles northeast of Najaf. Pictures of dozens of fallen soldiers line the streets. Those left behind struggle to get by. Shuagh Kareem: He didn't leave us any funds to cover our expenditures, he just responded to the call.

  • Fawzia Kadhum:

    In the first year and a half after my husband died, we didn't receive anything, not even a pension.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The government is obliged to pay pensions to families of all deceased soldiers, regardless of the force they fought with. But Kadhum says it took several months until the government finally began paying her family of eleven a pension of around $600 per month, equivalent to the salary of a low-level public servant. She says the PMF still owes her a death-benefit of around $4,000, money she says she desperately needs for repairs to her house. The Abbas Brigade, the PMF unit her husband fought for, only gave her this plaque to recognize his contributions.

  • Fawzia Kadhum:

    They didn't really give a damn. They only brought these things and then they left. We got nothing.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    While the families of those who died fighting ISIS feel neglected, so too do soldiers who have been wounded in the conflict. The war is officially over, but soldiers are still being injured battling an ongoing ISIS insurgency in the north. Mahmoud Hussein was shot in the leg when ISIS attacked his position. His cousin, who fights in the same PMF unit, tells us he was first sent to a nearby hospital in the northern city of Qayara and then transferred to one in nearby Mosul. It took several days until his commanders finally sent Hussein south to this hospital in Baghdad.

  • Fouad Mohammed:

    Because of the delays, my cousin's foot swelled. They didn't have the right medicine at the hospital in Mosul, it was in very bad condition.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Hussein is recovering at this hospital in Baghdad's Medical City. It's considered the biggest and among the best in the country. Since Iraq's dedicated military hospital was destroyed in a US airstrike in 2003, many soldiers have been treated here, in addition to civilian patients.

    During the height of the conflict against ISIS, the facility received dozens of injured soldiers per day. The director tells us that casualties exceeded its capacity and financial resources.

  • Mohammed ABdul Zahra:

    During the war, there was a lack of funds because of the decline in the oil prices. This was in general not only for our hospital. But the government instructed us very clearly not to collect any money from the military personnel at the same time to exert the maximum effort to treat them despite the large number of patients received.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Despite that effort, some soldiers believe they're not getting the quality of care they need and deserve after fighting for their country.

  • Naseer Asi Sulaiman:

    If you want a good doctor it will be at your own expense. Because of the large number of injured, you won't get the right care if you rely on the government. You have to pay to make sure you get well.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Naseer Asi Sulaiman was shot in the leg in 2016 during an ISIS offensive. He says he had to go to a private clinic and paid thousands of dollars for his surgeries. But two years on, Sulaiman doesn't have money to continue to pay for private care so he goes to the public hospital at Baghdad's Medical City.

  • Doctor:

    Pull your toes up.

  • Naseer Asi Sulaiman:

    There's nothing.

  • Doctor:

    Push them forward.

  • Naseer Asi Sulaiman:

    There's no movement there.

  • Doctor:

    Okay. Do you have feelings here?

  • Naseer Asi Sulaiman:

    No, I don't.

  • Doctor:

    Okay, there's nothing.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Whether these visits are effective or not, the soldier must show up as part of a lengthy process that determines his degree of disability, and whether he should return to serve or retire and start collecting his pension. Some high ranking members of the security forces also say they are getting less care in Iraq than they need. Rahman Abdeljabber was a brigadier general and Director of Intelligence in Diyala province. He says that when he lost both of his legs in an ISIS attack in 2013, the Ministry of Interior sent him to Germany for rehabilitation. They also supplied him with sophisticated artificial legs that are rarely given to lower ranking soldiers. But he says he still paid $200,000 for another surgery in Australia to ensure he could wear the limbs without pain.

  • Brigadier General Rahman Abdeljabber Abed:

    It's huge money but the Ministry of Interior considered it not necessary.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Abdeljabber exercises several hours per day in a small gym he set up in his yard. He also was able to afford an imported twelve hundred dollar device that allows him to drive his car.

  • Brigadier General Rahman Abdeljabber Abed:

    It's very expensive and the injured lack the finances to buy it.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Well aware that others are less fortunate than he, Abdeljabber has started to reach out to injured fighters who struggle to recover, and coaches them on how to build strength and overcome depression.

  • Brigadier General Rahman Abdeljabber Abed:

    These are the first steps he is taking after he was injured in a terrorist attack. For years, he was only sitting in the wheelchair, he wasn't walking at all. I trained him using simple techniques, nothing sophisticated, just by collaborating we reached this level.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But many soldiers need much more than a bit of motivation. One is Ali Mahdi, shown here before his injury in 2017. This is how he spends his days since an ISIS sniper shot him in the neck during the battle for Mosul. The injury has left him almost entirely paralyzed, but Mahdi claims that his condition is treatable.

  • Ali Mahdi:

    I just need an operation. They told me that this treatment is only available in Germany, America and Japan. But in the Arab countries they cannot do anything.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The Ministry of Defense sent Mahdi to India for one surgery, during which doctors repaired his fractured vertebrae. He claims that the ministry promised him a second surgery to restore the nerve functions, but it hasn't materialized. A Ministry of Defense official confirmed that Mahdi required further treatment. The official said that the second procedure has been delayed for almost a year because the Ministry lacked the funds to cope with the large number of wounded. Mahdi says his wife left him because of his disability. All he has left is anger and regret.

  • Ali Mahdi:

    They just got rid of us. They don't need me anymore. It's a pity that we fought, it's a pity that we went.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Mahdi's father served in the army in the 1960s. He claims that the government took much better care of its soldiers back then.

  • Mahdi Mohey:

    If one of us got injured, the helicopter came to pick him up within five minutes. They would transfer the injured to the best hospital in Iraq. But now there's nothing.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Mohey calls on the government to give his son the attention he believes he deserves.

  • Mahdi Mohey:

    I sent them a beautiful young man to fight. I want my son back. If they leave him like this, they shall be damned. They wouldn't leave him like this if he was their own son.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul, a spokesman for Iraq's Joint Operations Command, admits that more resources are needed to take care of veterans. A new military hospital to replace the one destroyed during the 2003 US-led invasion has been under construction for years.

  • Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul:

    We need more efforts to build the military hospital and to provide specialized care for injured soldiers. I hope that we will once again reach the standard of international and Arab countries.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But more than one year after the war against ISIS has officially ended, and even as soldiers continue to be wounded battling the terror group's insurrection, Iraq's government faces a new set of challenges and spending priorities. The soldiers who secured the peace and their families increasingly fear that they may be forgotten.

  • Editor’s note:

    This page was updated to more accurately describe how many forces were killed or injured.

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