Iraqi military units took over central areas of Fallujah on Friday after a weeks-long battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) that had forced thousands of civilians to escape for their lives and had overwhelmed aid organizations caring for them, reports the New York Times.
Counter-terrorism units raised the Iraqi flag over the main government building in Fallujah, as they entered and encountered little to no resistance from the militants. The Iraqi forces also moved to occupy the Fallujah’s main hospital, which was the first target of US forces attacking the city in 2004, and had recently become the Islamic State’s headquarters.
This swift occupancy of government forces implies either a shift in the Muslim extremists’ tactics, or a weakening of their power as they left their primary positions and regrouped in western Falluja. The move allowed civilians, whom humanitarian agencies said were being used as human shields by ISIS, to flee across two bridges spanning the Euphrates River starting Thursday.
Though the battle with ISIS appears to be far from over, Iraqi leaders are optimistic that this recent development, which had been slowed down by snipers, roadside bombs and tunnels on the enemy’s side, would further a victory for the government.
Lt. Gen. Adbulwahab al-Saadi, a commander of Iraq’s counter-terrorism unit heading the Fallujah operation, said in a quick phone interview that, “ISIS has collapsed in Fallujah very fast,” and that his soldiers were now moving to the northern and western neighborhoods.
The United States, which has been leading an alliance against the Islamic State using airstrikes in Iraq for the past two years, lent its support to the Fallujah operation with air power. Col. Chrisopher Garver, a spokesman for the US military in Baghdad, said collation airstrikes helped Iraqi forces take the government building in Fallujah by disarming two heavy machine guns that had been slowing down the soldiers.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi quickly declared a victory, though he also admitted that there was some resistance remaining in Fallujah. “Fallujah has come back to the country’s bosom,” he said, promising to focus military efforts next on Mosul, another Islamic State stronghold.
Fallujah is a major city 40 miles west of Baghdad, and has been in the grip of the Sunni extremists since late 2013, the longest held city in ISIS’ so-called caliphate that occupies parts of Iraq and Syria. Fallujah was where Al Qaeda, the precursor to the current ISIS, was born in 2003. The Islamic State was able to exploit the Sunni population’s grievances towards former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, taking control of the city rapidly.
Authorities suggest that the sudden shift in Fallujah might, in part, be because local tribal warriors who had once been loyal to ISIS are now distancing themselves from the group. Or at the least, the local tribal warriors might have put their own safety first and left with their families, believing the Iraqi forces would win eventually.
Lise Grande, the humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations in Iraq, said that reports have been pouring in of some 10,000 families or 60,000 people moving towards government-held areas in western Anbar Province. Camps for refugees have already been overwhelmed, running short of tents and clean water. There are also growing concerns of diseases due to the lack of supplies. Civilians from Fallujah had been living under harsh conditions for months, without ample food, medicine or vaccinations. Reports show that many of the displaced civilians flocking to the aid camps have diarrhea, the flu or rashes.
The latest massive migration of civilians has not only added to the problems unfolding in humanitarian camps in Anbar, but is posing a big security threat to Iraq’s government forces as they are faced with the task of screening civilians for Islamic State militants attempting to blend in.
Iraqi authorities practice the separation of men and boy from women, children and the elderly – something that has been largely controversial as the boys and men are taken to detention centers where they are interrogated about possible Islamic State ties. While necessary for security, the practice leaves detainees vulnerable to abuse, especially if Shiite militias are involved. According to officials, many men have been tortured and executed while detained. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Abadi has said that some of the people suspected of such abuse have been arrested.
While this latest win for Iraq is a positive turn, the state of displaced civilians and their refugee camps is an alarming issue that the government will have to address before more fighting breaks out again.