Iraq’s army conducts an offensive to retake Daesh’s stronghold in Anbar
BY Suadad Al Salhy and Mohammed A. Salih
On May 22, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider Al Abadi announced the launch of a military offensive dubbed the “Break Up of Terrorism” to retake Fallujah, Daesh’s strategic stronghold in the Anbar province, and the first city to fall into the militia’s hands in December 2013.
According to the Iraqi government, tens of thousands of its troops backed by local militias and supported by airstrikes from the U.S.-led military coalition, began a series of offensives, which succeeded in regaining swaths of land as they moved towards the city itself.
Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim-dominated city, is also known as the City of Mosques (or Minarets) due to the large number of mosques it houses. The city, which witnessed two fierce battles against U.S. troops in 2003 and 2004, has long opposed the successive Shiite-dominated governments in Baghdad. For some Iraqis, Fallujah is a “symbol of resistance” against the Americans and the governments that came into power following the ouster of former President Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The liberation of Fallujah could prove to be Abadi’s greatest victory—or his downfall, as at least as 50,000 civilians remain trapped in Fallujah, unable to flee. He took charge as prime minister in September 2014, three months after almost a third of Iraq’s territories in the west and the north had fallen into the hands of Daesh militants.
If Iraqi forces can successfully oust Daesh from Fallujah, they will be able to focus on recapturing the city of Mosul, the largest city in Daesh-controlled territories in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Steve Warren, estimates that there are between 500 to 1,000 Daesh militants in Fallujah so the city’s recapture won’t just be a symbolic victory but a strategic one too as it will push Daesh further away from Baghdad.
Fallujah, located on the bank of Euphrates River, just 65 kilometers west of Baghdad, is the last major Daesh stronghold close to the Iraqi capital.
Most of “the deadly attacks that targeted Baghdad since 2003, were launched from Fallujah,” Lt. General Abdul Wahab Al Saiedi, the commander of Fallujah’s military operations tells Newsweek Middle East.
“It is a transportation route between Baiji (196.3 kilometers north of Baghdad), Samarra (99.7 kilometers north of Baghdad), and Mosul (386.2 kilometers north of Baghdad),” Saiedi explains.
According to military sources, more than 30,000 troops have been allocated for the mission to retake control of Fallujah.
The Iraqi troops are led by the Counter Terrorism Squad aided by the Iraqi Federal Police, Anbar local police and 5,000 Sunni anti-Daesh Anbar tribal fighters—all as one group.
A second group, consisting of the Shiite-dominated paramilitary troops, including Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al Haq and Kataib Hezbollah-Iraq, has been assigned the task of providing any backup for those on the offense, and maintaining a tight siege outside the city.
Holding on to Fallujah is critical to Daesh as it was the first major urban center in Iraq that the group brought under its control in January 2014. The town has been a stronghold for various insurgent groups that have emerged in Iraq in the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.
“We are welcoming the (military) operations to liberate Fallujah as this means liberating the people including children, women and old men who have been captured by Daesh to be used as human shields,” Taha Faris, a member of Anbar’s provincial council tells Newsweek Middle East.
“Fallujah is considered as the capital of Daesh… and its liberation would mean defeating it not just in Anbar or Iraq, but in the whole world,” he adds.
Fear Of Retribution
However, not everyone shares Faris’s optimism.
“We have real fears. Even the government has the same fears that Kataib Hezbollah-Iraq may get into Fallujah,” a senior local official in Anbar, who asked not to be named tells Newsweek Middle East.
“We met with Hadi Al Amiri (the commander of Badr troops) and Qais Al Khazaili (the commander of Asaib Ahl Al Haq), and both men gave us assurances that their troops will not enter Fallujah, but the Kataib sent signals that they will get in,” the local official says.
Local officials have stressed that no violations have been recorded so far by either the Iraqi regular security troops or the paramilitary troops.
According to Iraqi military, Daesh has booby-trapped the outskirts of the city to block the advance of Iraqi security forces, in addition to holding people hostage inside Fallujah.
No Word From The Inside
Abu Jasim, a former merchant, left Fallujah a little over a year ago and resettled in Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan region where thousands of other displaced people from Fallujah and Anbar province currently reside.
His uncle’s wife suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and the last time he spoke to them, they said they could not find the medicine she needed in Fallujah.
“I have not been able to speak to them for a month. Their phones don’t work,” he says. “I don’t know what’s happened to them; if they are dead or alive.”
Daesh has disconnected telecommunication networks in many areas under its control.
The town has been under a “cruel embargo” for months, he says, as Iraqi forces have been amassing on the town’s outskirts.
“Friends tell us there is a shortage of everything—food, medicine, milk for babies,” Abu Jasim says with a shaky voice as he tries to pull himself together.
He is deeply distressed by the fight in Fallujah and fears for his relatives and friends who have stayed behind. He describes events in Fallujah in recent years as nothing “[short of] a calamity.”
Some people there have certainly cooperated with Daesh but many have also fought against them, he says, referring to a recent uprising by some local tribes that was crushed by the militants.
“Our people are caught between Daesh on the one hand and indiscriminate shelling of the town on the other hand,” says Abu Jasim.
Humanitarian Aid Needed
As the offensive by multiple Iraqi forces rages in Fallujah area, the town’s mayor, who is currently in Baghdad, estimates that between 70,000 to 100,000 civilians are still trapped inside.
“They live under disastrous circumstances,” Saadoun Shaalan, Fallujah’s mayor tells Newsweek Middle East. “They’re being used as a human shield by Daesh who doesn’t let them leave the town.”
Shaalan adds that the town’s residents are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance due to shortage of basic survival items, but voiced concerns that it’s not possible at the moment to deliver aid to the town.
For Fallujah residents, getting out is extremely risky. Shaalan says relations between the majority of residents and Daesh is “very bad,” but civilians are afraid to leave the town because Daesh has threatened to severely punish anyone trying to do so.
“Only around 100 people have managed to flee over the past few days,” Shaalan says.