Iraq renamed this town on the banks of the Euphrates this week to reflect the triumph of its security forces here against Islamic State militants, who were driven out last week. Jurf al-Sakhar, or “rocky bank,” became Jurf al-Nasr, or “victory bank.”
But a visit to the Sunni settlement Tuesday laid bare the huge cost of that victory. The town is now emptied of its 80,000 residents, and building after building has been annihilated — from airstrikes, bombings and artillery fire.
After four months of battles between the Islamic State and the Iraqi army, about 10,000 pro-government Shiite militiamen were poured into the area for a final push, according to Hadi al-Amiri, who leads the Badr Brigade and coordinated the operation. Defeating the militants involved clearing out all of the residents and leaving the town near-flattened, underscoring the challenge the Shiite-led government faces in areas where demographics do not work in its favor.
Here, there was no choice but to push forward. In just over a month, the nearby highway would be packed with millions of Shiite pilgrims heading south to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, a figure revered in Shiite Islam. Militants based in Jurf al-Sakhar had stepped up attacks in recent weeks on the holy city of Karbala, about 20 miles south and home to the Imam Hussein Shrine. Officials said clearing Jurf al-Sakhar of militants had been essential to prevent large-scale assaults during more than a month of religious events.
On Tuesday, hundreds of militiamen trundled out of Jurf al-Sakhar in trucks and buses, handing over control of the town and outlying villages and farms to Iraqi security forces. As flatbed trucks carrying field artillery waited to move out, Humvees and bomb-disposal vehicles burned in streets that the insurgents had laced with explosives. In the town center, the smell of death lingered in the air.