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2022 Lawton, Oklahoma Chautauqua June 21 - 25

The war-torn Iraqi city of Ramadi is enjoying an investment boom

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many years ago, I had a chance to visit the city of Ramadi, Iraq, which was then a city of walls and gunshots and violence. It was the scene of some of the most intense fighting against U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And then it was devastated again in the more recent fight against ISIS. So how is it that this city is now among the safest in Iraq and is enjoying an investment boom? NPR's Ruth Sherlock went to find out.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: We drive into Ramadi on a smoothly paved road and stop where there used to be a U.S. military checkpoint. Locals know the area as death point for all the shootouts and suicide attacks that happened here. These days, it's home to a popular restaurant.

This sparkling restaurant with marble tiled walls and chandeliers, huge glass windows looking out right over the Euphrates River. Women dressed in brightly colored clothes dine with husbands or friends. Sometimes there are investors here, too, like Rames al-Fahdawi (ph).

RAMES AL-FAHDAWI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Fahdawi helped fight against ISIS in Ramadi. Now, he says, he's working alongside local authorities to help rebuild schools, roads and develop parks.

FAHDAWI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: And he says he's invested $2.5 million in building a college for agriculture. He tells us through our interpreter why he's chosen to put so much money into an area that's been so often at war.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He says nothing guarantee everywhere because sometimes there is natural disasters or earthquakes. We believe in something. We will build, and God will secure it.

SHERLOCK: Plus, Fahdawi adds with a smile, Ramadi is safe now. Signs of this optimism are everywhere in the city. We see the construction site of a hotel that will include pools and a Moroccan spa, said to cost more than $70 million. Two new hospitals have been built housing equipment not found even in the capital, Baghdad. A new mall, two new universities and even an ice cream factory are being developed. We see the construction of a new neighborhood. The gates of the homes have gold embossed decoration. The streets are clean. And there are children playing outside on their bicycles.

OSAMA AL RAWI: (Non-English language spoken)

SHERLOCK: (Non-English language spoken).

The investor behind this project is Osama al Rawi (ph). He's also a member of the investment commission that oversees development across Ramadi and in the wider province, Anbar.

RAWI: Anbar is a good place for investment, and especially in Anbar, Ramadi. And now you not imagine how many requests we have in Anbar Investment Commission from companies. I'm talking about overseas companies.

SHERLOCK: He says the commission is coordinating $5 billion of investment in Anbar province. Ramadi's position on the banks of the Euphrates River and on a road that connects to both neighboring Syria and Jordan has always made it an important hub for trade. It also means it's been fought over throughout history. Al Rawi himself was jailed in two of the U.S.'s most notorious prisons in Iraq.

RAWI: I was in Abu Ghraib and Bucca. I stayed there almost one year.

SHERLOCK: He says he was rounded up in a security sweep of homes during fighting in Ramadi after the U.S. invasion in 2003. His story is common for residents of the city. Al Rawi eventually left for Sweden and then came back after ISIS was forced out of Ramadi in late 2015. He says business is booming, with homes selling faster than he can build them because now Ramadi is one of the best places to be.

RAWI: Now Ramadi much cleaner than Baghdad and much comfortable than Baghdad, much organized than Baghdad.

SHERLOCK: He says, in Ramadi, the local government is organized and less corrupt than in other parts of Iraq. And above all, he says, Ramadi residents have learned the cost of war and cooperate with security forces.

RAWI: And this is the main reason for good safety here. People will not allow for anyone to back to the past. And if they saw someone, they will call.

SHERLOCK: The day after we left Ramadi, a suicide bomber targeted a police station in the city, sending a huge fireball between buildings. It was an isolated incident, the first of its kind since 2017. But it's a reminder of how precarious life in the city can still be.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Ramadi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "RELIEF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.