Three months after the siege of Fallujah, I spent more than 30 days covering the battle of Fallujah. After the announcement on May 23, the Iraqi Government launched Operation “Breaking Terrorism”, an effort by the Iraqi Army’s 1st Division and associated Shiite militia forces to take the city of Fallujah back from Islamic State forces. Its proximity to Baghdad makes Fallujah strategically important, no doubt one of the reasons why the ferocity and scale of the fighting was so intense.
The city was considered an ISIS stronghold in Iraq up until July 17, 2016 when the government declared it liberated from the radical Islamist group. On Monday, 23 May, after a three-month siege of Fallujah, the Iraqi Government launched Operation “Breaking Terrorism”, an effort by the Iraqi Army’s 1st Division and associated Shiite militia forces to take the city back from Islamic State forces. Its proximity to Baghdad makes Fallujah strategically important, no doubt one of the reasons why the ferocity and scale of the fighting was so intense.
The battle for Fallujah incorporated the use of the US-trained Iraqi Special forces, considered by many to be the most competent fighting force in the country. Progress was slow but steady, with the advancing troops were gaining about 500 yards a day. They faced fierce resistance from ISIS fighters. The danger of advancing into the city was heightened by the presence of snipers, mortars, and a wide network of roadside and car bombs.
Iraqi leaders emphasized the importance of airstrikes by the US-led coalition pointing out that they were a game changer on the ground. Despite this, as Iraqi forces closed in on the city it became more difficult to rely on air support. Tens of thousands of civilians - including an estimated 20,000 children - were still trapped inside Fallujah, where air strikes killed many innocent people.
This victory against ISIS is significant because it clears a major obstacle on the road to a much larger objective: the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq. Mosul is the largest city under the control of ISIS and promises to be a much more complex target to retake. Still, with Fallujah liberated ISIS is now deprived of an important regional command post and this is the most significant victory for the Iraqi army in its battle with ISIS to date. All eyes are now turning northwards as the army and militias push ISIS further from Baghdad.
Under the blazing sun and blowing sands, we arrived at a passageway used by IDPs who fled Fallujah. Seeing a man was a rarity as most were taken in for security screening. The majority of the displaced were women, children and elders.
The men were being questioned by the paramilitary units, or Hashid Shabby, as there were doubts about who had ties with the ultra-hardline Islamic State. Families who fled the combat zone had their men isolated and taken by cars to detainment centers near al-Thirthar lake of Khaldiya. The range of ages targeted was from as young as 16 to as old as 60.
During the moment of separation of one of those families a mother told me whilst crying that “the Hashid took three of my boys.” When a soldier walked nearby, she immediately changed her tale, fearing for the well-being of her sons.
At another spot near the Saqlawiya city center we met dozens of families who were trapped between trees and bushes for at least three days. They had been stuck in a cross fire between the Iraqi forces and ISIS fighters. By the time the media got to them, the families were split into males and females with children. One man had deserted from ISIS a week earlier and was hiding in the fields. The families didn’t recognize him, which placed him in a dangerous situation. A media member who reports to the security forces sniffed his hands for gun powder and checked for weapon-recoil bruises on his shoulder. The man deducted that he must have been fighting alongside the extremists and preceded to tell an official of the Kataib Hezbollah militia who accompanied them that “this man is Daesh, we will finish him,” using a derogatory term to describe the extremist group.
A week after the beginning of operations aimed at ending the siege of Fallujah, which lies 40 miles west of Baghdad, elite forces launched a new and more aggressive offensive on Fallujah.
The Iraqi government cited the fact that an estimated 50,000 civilians were used as human shields in Fallujah as a main factor that slowed military operations to regain control of the city. Aid workers had not been able to reach the city since last September. As a result, the population were living off stale dates, animal feed and dirty water from the Euphrates River.
Hundreds of families who were besieged inside the city of Fallujah and its various suburbs managed to escape to one of the military units stationed outside the city limits: Saqlawiyah. As they made their escape, ISIS fired indiscriminately upon them and they were even subject to the detonation of a roadside bomb.
The United Nations has warned that Iraq is facing a humanitarian
crisis if more aid funding is not imminent. Tens of thousands of people
have been displaced because of the fighting and aid agencies are
struggling to keep up. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the emergency relief fund to
provide aid to the Iraqis at risk not received two-thirds of the funding
was for projects for closing.
“Until now, it has received only 33 per cent or $ 285 million,” the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Sunday. “The only one-third of the funding appeal, and has already begun projects Closed
When IDPs arrive at military camps, it is difficult for the government to know who might be an ISIS sympathizer and/or someone who is trying to get behind enemy lines. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of men have been sent to detention centers until it can be verified that they are not indeed ISIS sympathizers. There are credible reports that many men who fled ISIS held regions were met with cruelty by Shiite militias. The situation is murky at best and promises only to get more complicated.