Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis and Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Minister Lillianne Ploumen speaking with local Iraqis during their visit to Iraq. Photo: Ploumen/Facebook
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – As the first ministers from a foreign country, two Dutch ministers visited the Iraqi city of Falluja, only months after the Iraqi army retook it from the Islamic group ISIS.
That, and the fact that Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis and Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Minister Lillianne Ploumen are female, led to a stunned Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi calling their visit ‘a true victory on ISIS’.
Lillianne Ploumen shared the anecdote with delight at the end of a two day visit to Iraq, during a meeting in the Kurdistan Region capital of Erbil with the Dutch military who are training the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
Recounting her visit to a school and a hospital in Falluja, she said she was shocked by the destruction that ISIS caused, often deliberately, moments before leaving.
“In this hospital nothing is working: no x-ray machines, first aid, operation rooms. But I am just as impressed that 200,000 people have returned since, to rebuild their lives and their city.” Ploumen said.
For this year and the last, the Netherlands is offering Iraq 25 million euros for military support and restoring the infrastructure. For emergency aid, 68 million has been released since 2014, and 11 million of Dutch euros went to de-mining programs.
On the second day of her visit, Ploumen announced at a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) from Mosul in the recently liberated Iraqi city of Qayyarah, that the Dutch government is making another 5 million euros available for housing of and care for IDPs.
The camp on the air strip near Qayyarah was only opened last month and already houses 14,000 IDPs, mainly from Mosul, where an offensive to liberate the city from ISIS has been ongoing since October.
“This country is going through rough times, and it will still take much commitment and many sacrifices before people have their lives back on track,” Ploumen said. “At the same time, we do see steps forward that give us hope.”
While Ploumen was in the refugee camp, her colleague Hennis and the Commander of the Dutch Forces, General Tom Middendorp, visited the Dutch special forces involved in the Casualties Collection Point (CCP), a new field hospital that has been erected near the Mosul front lines to offer medical care for those wounded in the battle.
For Hennis, the hospital symbolized the progress made in the two years that western troops, the Dutch military amongst them, have trained both the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi troops. The Dutch alone trained over 32,000 troops in that period.
Two years ago, the minister saw during a similar visit how Dutch trainers in a basic training explained some medical aid at the frontlines: “What to do when your comrades get wounded during the fighting.”
She was impressed to see that now the “wounded are treated first at the frontline, then are transported as fast as possible to the CCP to be treated and moved on. That is a world of difference from two years ago, and it touches me because it is not only about human lives, but also about credibility and diligence.”
Hennis spoke to two Iraqi soldiers who had sustained wounds in the fight for Mosul. “I asked: do you want to go home? They said: no, my unit is my home. They were determined to be on their feet again as soon as possible.”
When asked if the military aid offered to Iraq in the past years has had results for the Dutch army too, the Defense Minister conceded that the experiences of the Kurdish and Iraqi troops at the frontline bring useful lessons to an army that is based in a more stable environment.
“It can be used in the way we work in future missions. Based on those very strong experiences of the frontlines, we adapt training, advice and assistance.”
Just before the delegation left for home in a military plane, Commander General Middendorp spoke to the team of trainers and military in Erbil, who are in the last weeks of their 3-month deployment.
Forwarding to them the gratitude of the Kurdish Prime Minister Barzani for their efforts, he too spoke about the progress made, saying that the Iraqi and the Kurdish troops now “can synchronize, plan and work together”.
“We hear that the Peshmerga troops are eager to be trained by the Dutch. That is a big compliment, and it is justified to be proud.” Middendorp said to his men.
Both he and minister Hennis stressed the importance of keeping the areas that have been liberated safe, “So people can go back to their villages and families.”
Beating ISIS alone is not enough, Hennis pointed out, saying that for the liberated areas Iraqi stabilization forces are needed, as well as basic services.
“For the longer term, political reconciliation and economic reform are needed; otherwise ISIS will return and Iraq will remain fertile ground for terrorism.” Hennis concluded.