Can Falluja be recaptured next?
FALLUJA (Iraq) - After the Iraqi Army recaptured most of Ramadi, capital of the vast western Anbar province, the nearby city of Falluja looks set to be the next target of its advance against Islamic State (ISIS).
An ISIS supply lifeline to Falluja through Ramadi has now been cut. Residents say there are at least 1,000 ISIS militants in Falluja, including dozens of foreign jihadists who fled from Ramadi. But the ISIS fighters are now trapped alongside the predominantly Sunni Muslim population of the city which is normally a 40-minute drive west of Baghdad, the seat of Iraq’s Shia-dominated government.
ISIS militants have threatened to kill any resident who tries to escape Falluja, according to Anbar council member Ibrahim al-Fahdawi.
“Over the past few days, there were clashes and quarrels between Falluja residents and ISIS militants, mostly foreigners, who are keeping the people as human shields to bargain with when the army advances further towards Falluja,” Fahdawi said.
Resident Ahmed Hussein said there was “daily fighting between ISIS jihadists, some of whom advocate fleeing the city quietly, while others prefer to fight until the last moment and are preventing the other jihadists from leaving”.
“ISIS has become divided in Falluja since Ramadi was recaptured,” Hussein said in a telephone interview from Falluja.
“ISIS’s militants are extremely anxious and edgy of what’s coming,” he said. “They are even fighting each other, using firearms and shooting at each other.” He said the foreigners involved included Afghans, Pakistanis, Frenchmen, Britons, Australians and Arabs, namely Egyptians, Libyans, Algerians and Palestinians.
Wedged between Ramadi and Baghdad, Falluja was the first city to fall to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s militants in January 2014. Six months earlier, ISIS emerged from al-Qaeda and captured large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
Baghdad legal consultant Wadi al- Jubouri said the situation in Falluja “is catastrophic”.
“The tribes in Falluja differ from those in Anbar, who were ostracised by successive Shia governments and where some sided with ISIS to take revenge from the state,” Jubouri said.
He pointed out that Falluja’s tribes “are different from those in Anbar. Because of the proximity to Baghdad and the mix of people living in the city, Falluja’s tribes lack the close tribal affiliation and connection found elsewhere.”
Anbar council member Asmaa Osama said: “Falluja is living one of its most confusing and decisive moments. It’s difficult to predict what’s next but it looks like the zero hour is imminent.”
Police Lieutenant Ali Baidhani said fighting had started in the outskirts of Falluja, especially in the Karma area.
“For the final battle to recapture Falluja to start is only a matter of time,” he said. “The army is waiting for the go-ahead from the prime minister’s office — either to enter Falluja or wait for a bit.”
There are about 30,000 people living in Falluja, according to Jabbar al-Issawi, a local council member still in the city. Before the ISIS takeover, the city had a population of 300,000. Issawi said 100,000 people fled to Baghdad as well as the country’s centre, north and south with the others heading to Turkey, neighbouring Arab states or Europe.
There “are shortages of certain commodities, especially canned food, rice and sugar”, Issawi said, but some locally produced items, such as wheat, dates, salt and margarine, are available.
“The people of Falluja are calling for pressure on the Council of Anbar province to open corridors to pass food and treatment for children and the elderly,” Issawi said.