Al-Abadi announces drive to retake Falluja
BAGHDAD - The Iraqi Army’s long-awaited push towards the Islamic State-held city of Falluja is diverting attention from growing tension between Shia factions and could unify them against their common enemy, the ISIS jihadists — at least temporarily.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi on May 23rd announced the beginning of operations to retake Falluja, which fell under Islamic State (ISIS) control in January 2014, promising that the “Iraqi flag will fly high” once more over the city.
Less than a day into the battle, Iraqi forces secured the nearby town of Garma, cutting one of the last ISIS supply lines to the city 65km west of Baghdad, said Major-General Ismail al-Mahalawi, the head of the Anbar Operations Command. Other routes linking Falluja with cities in the vast Anbar province in western Iraq had been blocked by the Iraqi Army for several weeks, he said.
“It’s only a matter of time that we will be celebrating another victory, this time in Falluja,” Mahalawi said.
Abdul-Karim al-Aloussi, an international law professor at the University of Anbar, said diverting attention from tensions in Baghdad to Falluja was imperative. “The situation was so difficult that it required a quick move to pacify the peaking tensions, especially between Abadi and al-Sadr,” Aloussi said, referring to powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who locked horns with the prime minister over the pace of what he sees as inadequate reforms.
Although the territory under ISIS control has been steadily shrinking for months, the jihadists have still been able to carry out attacks in Iraq and in neighbouring Syria.
ISIS carried out a barrage of suicide attacks in Baghdad starting May 15th that hit crowded markets, checkpoints, a restaurant, a café and a gas plant — mostly in Shia areas — killing more than 200 people. The start of the attacks came five days before ISIS abandoned Rutba, another city in Anbar near the border with Jordan, sending its fighters north-east to Qaim, close to the Syrian border.
The Baghdad assaults stoked anger, rather than fear, particularly at the political elite, and Shia protesters stormed into the heavily fortified Green Zone housing government buildings. Police responded by firing tear gas and warning shots into the air. Scores were wounded in the incident on May 20th, which stoked simmering tensions between Shia factions.
Historically, Falluja is known as an important religious hub for Iraq’s Sunni minority. Its skyline is adorned with hundreds of minarets, making it known as the City of Mosques. Once a small trading post on the Euphrates, built on the crossroads for routes from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Falluja was one of the first places in Iraq where the hard-line Wahhabi ideology took root. Many of its tribesmen pledged allegiance to ISIS in revenge against the Shia-dominated government that had ostracised them.
Iraqi state media on May 25th showed video of Falluja residents fleeing along what the army said was an “eastern corridor” it had cleared for them to escape the city. Welfare workers said the corridor on the Euphrates west of Baghdad was closed and the crowd were being diverted to Rutba and other Anbar cities further west.
“You will emerge victorious, God willing,” shouted a group of women. Others, all clad in black, ululated and some held children’s hands as they ran across a narrow, dusty path between pale brick and cement buildings to safety. Men waving long white flags were seen embracing Shia forces, with the elderly weeping, as boys signalled “V” for victory.
“Those who are fleeing Falluja only live on its outskirts but not the centre where ISIS has restricted their movement, apparently to use them as human shields in a showdown with the army,” said Taleb al-Jumeili, 29, an engineer who is trapped in Falluja with thousands of other residents.
“We’re frightened and we don’t know what to do but it’s all in God’s hands,” Jumeili said over the telephone, his voice crackling.
Another Falluja resident, former teacher Muhannad al-Janabi, 33, said people “are so afraid that women and children may just die of fear, not by the army’s air strikes targeting ISIS”.
“The jihadists are also nervous,” Janabi said, noting that ISIS estimated 30 of its fighters were killed in the May 23rd initial round of shelling. He said at least 100 civilians were killed and scores were wounded.
Ismail Hamoudi, an independent legal consultant, said Abadi’s plan, clearly sanctioned by the Americans, was a “master stroke”.
“He really played up the jihadists by saying the battle over Falluja was still distant to veer off attention from the actual plan,” Hamoudi said.