Fleeing or staying, Falluja residents face deadly ordeal
BAGHDAD - Residents of the Iraqi city of Falluja are caught between Islamic State (ISIS) militants using them as human shields against an Iraqi Army offensive, and pro-Iranian Shia militiamen backing besieging forces who are reported to have tortured and killed some civilians who have fled.
About 90,000 residents are trapped in Falluja, west of Baghdad, as ISIS prepared for a showdown with the Iraqi Army, which launched an offensive to retake the key city on May 22nd. Fleeing residents said jihadists were enslaving women and children, using families as human shields and killing those who object.
Civilians who managed to escape have been harassed, tortured and even killed by pro-Iranian Shia militias backing the army, reports said. Shia-dominated governments have marginalised Iraq’s minority Sunnis, driving some of them into the arms of jihadi extremists such as ISIS.
Tens of thousands of government fighters, including members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces — a paramilitary grouping dominated by Shia militias — are engaged in the operation to retake Falluja, which had a population of 300,000 before ISIS seized it in January 2014.
As anti-ISIS forces push towards central Falluja from the south, they are being met by fleeing civilians while engaging in fierce battles with jihadists who are using booby traps, suicide bombs and snipers.
Initially, media images showed Shia militias welcoming the escaping civilians, who praised them as “heroes”. However, video clips have since circulated on social media that appear to show Shia militias shooting civilians suspected of being ISIS fighters.
Falluja Governor Saadoun al- Shaalan said at least 17 escaping men were killed by Shia militias. He referred to a video showing men lying face down on the ground, as militias beat them with batons and ask them to repeat: “Falluja men are cowards”.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it conducted interviews corroborating allegations that members of the federal police and al-Hashed al-Shaabi had executed at least 17 people fleeing the fighting in al-Sijr, north-east of Falluja.
The rights group also listed reports of civilians being stabbed to death and others dying after being dragged behind cars in the Saqlawiya area, north-west of Falluja.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi promised to investigate and prosecute all cases of abuse.
Anbar Governor Sohaib al-Rawi said at least 76 men were detained for questioning on suspicion of having assisted, fought for or been loyal to ISIS.
Salem Hasanein, 32, a Sunni school teacher from Falluja said: “Missiles that landed unexploded had drawings and scribbling mocking Sunnis and their clerics.”
He said he was mistreated by pro-Iranian militias outside Falluja. “They beat, pushed and shoved me to intimidate me,” he said. “Initially, they said I was an ISIS fighter, then they accused me of supporting ISIS before they eventually let me go.”