Iraq forces enter central Falluja as hordes of civilians flee

Advance slowed down due to Islamic State snipers, roadside bombs, tunnel networks

 

After weeks of battling Islamic State militants, Iraqi forces quickly entered central areas of Falluja on Friday, as thousands of civilians fled in a new wave of displacement that has overwhelmed the ability of aid agencies to care for them.

Reporting little resistance from Islamic State fighters, counterterrorism forces raised the Iraqi flag over the main government building in central Falluja, officers and state television reports said.

They said pro-government forces moved on to besiege the city’s main hospital, which was the first target of US forces when they invaded the city in 2004 and in recent months has served as a headquarters complex for Islamic State.

The rapid and unexpected gains suggested a shift in tactics by the Sunni extremists of Islamic State, also known as Isis, or perhaps a sign of their weakness, as they abandoned their dug-in positions and regrouped in western neighbourhoods of Falluja.

This allowed thousands of civilians, whom aid groups had said were being held as human shields, to flee across two bridges over the Euphrates River beginning on Thursday.

Though the battle appeared far from over, Iraqi commanders on the ground were optimistic that the advance, which had slowed in the face of Islamic State snipers, roadside bombs and tunnel networks that allowed fighters to move around undetected, would continue.

“Isis has lost its power to defend Falluja,” Col Jamal Lateef, a police commander in Anbar province, said in an interview. “Its defensive lines have collapsed, and the battle of Falluja will be over in no time.”

Lt Gen Adbulwahab al-Saadi, a commander of Iraq’s counterterrorism forces who is in charge of the Falluja operation, claimed in a brief telephone interview that “Isis has collapsed in Falluja very fast”, adding his forces were moving to northern and western neighbourhoods.

The US, which has led a coalition targeting Islamic State with airstrikes for almost two years in Iraq, has supported the battle for Falluja with air power, even as it has raised concerns about the role of Shia militias backed by Iran in the fight.

Sectarian tensions

Washington has expressed fear that the participation of Shia forces in assaulting a Sunni city like Falluja would heighten sectarian tensions.

Col Christopher C Garver, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, said coalition airstrikes on Friday aided the taking of the government building in Falluja by knocking out two heavy machine guns nearby that were slowing the advance of Iraqi forces.

“There will still be tough fighting ahead in the days coming,” Col Garver said. Referring to Isis in Falluja, he said, “It’s certainly not one big amorphous mass. You have different fighters making different decisions for themselves.”

Falluja, a major population centre just 40 miles west of Baghdad, has been in the hands of Islamic State since the end of 2013, longer than any other settlement in its so-called caliphate that straddles parts of Iraq and Syria.

The city was a stronghold, and something of a birthplace, for al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor of Islamic State that formed after the United States invasion in 2003.

In Falluja, Islamic State exploited the grievances of the Sunni population towards the sectarian policies of the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and was able to rapidly take control of the city after Iraqi security forces assaulted a protest camp in the city.

Officials speculated that the change in the complexion of the battle might have been because local tribal fighters who had been loyal to Islamic State’s leadership and its transnational ambitions had now distanced themselves from the group’s foreign fighters. Or at least, the officials surmised, the tribal fighters had come to believe that victory by the Iraqi government was inevitable and were trying to get their families to safety.

Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq, said she was receiving reports that perhaps 10,000 families, or 60,000 people, were on the move toward government-held areas of western Anbar province, where camps for the displaced are already overwhelmed and lack basic supplies such as tents and clean drinking water.

Karl Schembri, a spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Baghdad, said that, beginning on Thursday, Islamic State militants had been withdrawing from positions inside the city, allowing civilians to begin fleeing.

Mr Schembri said they had withdrawn from checkpoints at two bridges on the Euphrates, “and then people could just walk out”.

He expressed concern for the thousands of civilians stuck in the city, including those that are unable to walk out on their own - the elderly, disabled and pregnant.

Bare-bones camps

Referring to the militants, he said, “We don’t know where they have gone to or what their plan is.” Tens of thousands of civilians have fled Falluja since an offensive began late last month, and most have reached bare-bones camps that are running low on supplies.

There are also growing concerns of diseases, because of a lack of clean drinking water.

Civilians in Falluja had also lived for months under siege conditions, without enough food or medicine, and many children have not been vaccinated for conditions like measles. According to Mr Schembri, who has spoken to doctors recently in the camps, the majority of displaced civilians arrive with ailments such as diarrhoea, the flu and skin rashes.

The latest exodus of civilians has not only added to the grave humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding for weeks in Anbar province, but it has also presented a serious security challenge to the Iraqi government’s ability to carry out security screenings of civilians so Islamic State militants are not able to escape by blending in with civilians.

It has been a longstanding, and controversial, practice of Iraqi authorities to separate men and boys from women, children and the elderly, among those fleeing Islamic State areas.

The boys and men are taken to detention centres where they are interrogated about any ties to Islamic State.

The process is seen as necessary for security reasons, but vulnerable to abuses, especially if the Shia militias take part.

There have already been some abuses - Sunni officials have said many men have been tortured by the militias, and the governor of Anbar province has said 49 men were executed. A spokesman for prime minister Haider al-Abadi has said some people suspected of abuse have been arrested as a result.

But with so many people fleeing in recent days, the ability of the security forces to carry out adequate screening has been strained, raising concerns that militants are also escaping amid the flow of the civilian population.

Sajad Jiyad, who runs an Iraqi research organisation, the Al-Bayan Center, and who sometimes advises the office of Mr al-Abadi, wrote on Twitter on Friday, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, “Daesh fighters escaping as civilians is a massive concern”.

New York Times