Falluja Sunni tribes rise up but ISIS reasserts authority
Baghdad - The Islamic State (ISIS) reasserted its authority over Iraq’s jihadist bastion of Falluja following a rebellion by Sunni tribesmen that had signalled critical resistance to the militants’ two-year rule over the city.
ISIS detained up to 200 men after the fighting ended late February 20th, officials and residents said, pointing to growing fears that the militants would punish those suspected of taking part in the brief show of defiance.
“It’s the worst time for Daesh in Falluja,” Colonel Mahmoud al-Jumaili, commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Falluja, told The Arab Weekly, using ISIS’s Arabic acronym.
“The rebellion made ISIS nervous and we’re concerned that it will commit atrocities in Falluja by executing the detainees.”
Anxiousness spread to inside Falluja, where a tribesman told The Arab Weekly via social media that residents appealed to Iraq’s Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad for a quick military intervention to prevent a “bloodbath” in Falluja. Government officials declined to comment.
“If the army doesn’t support us, we will be slaughtered quietly,” said Majeed al-Juraisi, whose al-Juraisat tribe led the two-day revolt.
Clashes spearheaded by three Sunni Arab tribes in Falluja, 50km west of Baghdad, and, along with Mosul, one of two major Iraqi cities in the north controlled by ISIS, marked an uprising that threatened the jihadists’ continued existence in the city, residents told The Arab Weekly by telephone.
A concentrated and sustained uprising poses a significant threat to the estimated 400 jihadists in Falluja, a city in the vast western Iraqi desert province of Anbar, which is home to many Sunni Arab tribes critical of the Baghdad government.
Successive Iraqi governments, dominated by rival Shias, ostracised Sunnis on the grounds that many were insurgents or former members of Iraq’s disbanded Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party of dictator Saddam Hussein. Sunni Arab tribesmen from Anbar province played a key role in driving back al-Qaeda in Iraq after joining forces with US troops in 2006.
The uprising against ISIS marked a turning point in the relationship between some Sunni tribes who had once welcomed the jihadists into Falluja and other cities as a means to exact revenge on Baghdad.
However, Falluja residents played down the allegiance factor, saying only a handful of tribesmen backed ISIS and that, in general, the city feared the militants who killed scores of opponents and were brutal rulers.
“Those who dared speak out against them were executed,” said Yousef al-Mahamda, 32, a tribesman fighting militants in Falluja.
He said: “ISIS’s days are numbered in Falluja. They ruined our lives, stole our wealth and drove us to absolute poverty and complete despair.”
Mahamda and other residents said the uprising was led by al-Juraisat tribe and included the Mahamdas and the al-Halabsas, adding that the Juraisats planned the operations, collected the weapons and enlisted fighters.
The February 19th shoot-out in Falluja pitted some 1,000 fighters from three tribes against ISIS. Fighting broke out between tribesmen and ISIS members called al- Hesba, who are responsible for enforcing a strict version of Islam, Mahamda said.
Outside Falluja, the Iraqi Army launched aerial attacks and pounded districts with missiles from tanks, an Iraqi army colonel said. He insisted on anonymity, citing standing regulations that bar him from speaking to the media.
Iraqi police said fighting intensified in central and northern Falluja, where tribesmen torched an ISIS checkpoint on the outskirts of a northern district.
The fight began in Al-Jolan on the north-western side of the city and spread to Nazzal in its centre and Al-Askari on the eastern side, the colonel explained.
Mahamda said the battle indicates growing tensions resulting from increasingly difficult living conditions caused by Falluja’s isolation by the Iraqi Army. Anbar Governor Sohaib al-Rawi said the situation “has reached a state of famine”.
An estimated 120,000 people are trapped in Falluja.
There were various accounts on how the fighting started. Some residents said it began after Al-Hesba accused a woman in al-Nizaiza market in central Falluja of “misconduct”, allegedly for failing to cover her hands with gloves.
Sheikh Majeed al-Juraisi, a leader of the Al-Juraisat tribe, said tribesmen seized part of Al-Jolan and urged the Baghdad government and security forces to help in the fight.
Citing intelligence information, the Interior Ministry said the clashes began as a fight between al- Juraisat tribesmen and the Hesba in al-Nizaiza market. It escalated into a shoot-out and the Mahamdas and the Halabasa backed Juraisat fighters, the ministry said.
ISIS took control of Falluja in June 2014, when the Iraqi Army capitulated in several cities during an intense ISIS attack.
Tribesmen have played a key role in holding the jihadists back in multiple areas, including Haditha in Anbar, Amerli in Salaheddin province and Dhuluiyah in Diyala.