Iraqi troops holding liberated Falluja
FALLUJAH (Iraq) - For the first time in nearly two years, I was allowed to drive to Falluja. It took the usual one hour to make the 64km drive west from Baghdad.
On my journey June 19th, memories kept coming to me how, in my teens, my family and I used to pass through Falluja on our way to Habbaniyah lake, one of my favourite vacation spots, which was turned into a camp for displaced Iraqis, and a string of popular street restaurants that serve delicious kebab.
After a few checkpoints along the road, I reached the gate of the so-called Skeletons Area, 16km east of Falluja, where tens of unfinished concrete structures that are supposed to be the Falluja University stand. Some of the buildings were partially demolished; others were intact and served as a makeshift base for Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Forces (CTF).
Inside one of the buildings, Lieutenant-General Abdul Wahab al-Saedi, commander of the Falluja operations, said Iraqis should be proud of the latest victory.
“At least 75% of Falluja is liberated but only 10% of it is destroyed,” Saedi said. “I laid out four priorities on the day we began the battle: namely to protect civilians, to protect my forces, to try hard to spare damage to the infrastructure and to finish up [the Islamic State] ISIS.”
His office is an unfinished room with a table and many chairs. Computer tablets, radios and blankets littered the floor behind piles of sandbags.
An explosion seemed close. “It’s our missiles being launched against ISIS,” Colonel Ali Jamil, a CTF officer, said proudly.
Saedi answered a radio call in which he was informed there were four ISIS militants close to an Iraqi Army unit. He relayed the information to officers in the field. Within minutes, there was a heavy explosion. “A hellfire missile,” said Saedi. A little while later, it was confirmed that three ISIS militants were killed and a fourth wounded.
“Falluja is completely empty, with no civilians,” Saedi said. There were 3,000-4,000 ISIS militants in Falluja, he said, 90% of them were Iraqis. The CTF killed 1,500 and 1,086 were arrested by Anbar police, he said. A manhunt was under way to locate the rest.
“The Americans said the Falluja battle would last six months,” Saedi said, “but we knew it would take much less and we wanted to show the Americans we are able to do it but with their support, of course.”
“Falluja is not only symbolic for the Iraqi forces but also for ISIS,” he said. “It was the first city that fought against the Americans and extremist Muslims have made it their shrine.”
He said Falluja residents had little to do with the extremists, adding: “They sympathise with the Iraqi forces.”
Jamil conducted a tour of liberated areas in Falluja. The most vital neighbourhood for ISIS was the “industrial area”, where car bombs, mortars and improvised explosive devices were manufactured.
In the town centre, ISIS burned the general hospital, part of which had served as the group’s headquarters. Black smoke stained windows and debris littered the ground around the hospital.
“ISIS’s command office was on the second floor,” Saedi said. He said he insisted his troops not attack the hospital while patients were inside. “I told them that would be a war crime but look what ISIS did.”
In Shuhadaa neighbourhood, Jamil said his troops found a family trapped. Now in hospital, Khalil Ibrahim said he was trapped at home with his wounded wife, three daughters and 10-year-old son while ISIS and the Iraqi Army fought nearby.
“My wife, three daughters and son were wounded seriously,” Ibrahim said. He said he took the wounded to the general hospital but nobody was there. He said his wife and three daughters died and he buried them in the hospital garden. Jamil’s troops found Ibrahim and his son and took them to a field hospital.
Anbar police Colonel Abdul Aziz Hamad said local police control areas liberated by the army. Hamad and his forces are from Falluja.
“Everyone has had painful incidents with al-Qaeda before and ISIS now,” he said. Hamad’s house was attacked five times. His mother and wife were wounded and his 20-year-old son suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We will never allow the politicians, tribal sheikhs and religious men who misled the Falluja people many times back again,” he said.
Going by the general hospital, there were columns of smoke on the skyline and heavy explosions in the distance. “There are confrontations in Golan neighbourhood,” said Jamil. “It is one of four neighbourhoods not liberated yet.”
According to Iraqi military strategist Hisham al-Hashimi, 15,000 men from Falluja were released after being questioned on suspicion of links to ISIS; 1,100 were detained. He explained that Falluja residents gave police information and evidence implicating some with links to ISIS.
Falluja needs at least six months to be cleared of bombs and ordnance in homes, mosques and streets, Jamil said as I wondered whether Falluja would one day become again a destination for Baghdad residents on an outing.