Can Falluja be recaptured next?

Friday 15/01/2016
Zero hour is imminent

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.