Uneasy path ahead for Falluja’s Sunnis
BAGHDAD - As Falluja residents flee the newly liberated city seeking safety elsewhere, they are weighed down by poverty, fear, oppression and the despair of living under Islamic State rule for two-and-a-half years. For many, a better future anywhere in Iraq might be a long shot.
Iraqi forces said they were fully in control of Falluja in late June after a month-long battle.
According to the United Nations, 85,000 people escaped from the city during the fighting with many now stranded in hastily formed camps with little food or water.
Abu Mustafa, owner of a bedding store in Falluja, took shelter in Baghdad a few months ago. He said he wanted to avoid having his five teenage sons exposed to the Islamic State (ISIS).
“They approached them and begged them to join, so we all sneaked out of Falluja, leaving everything behind,” Mustafa said.
Analysts predict that, even with ISIS out of the way, trouble awaits Falluja’s Sunni natives, who are especially loathed by the clergy of the dominant rival Shia sect, its officials and militias, many of them backed by Iran.
“There’ll be settling scores and a lot of blood spilled,” Baghdad lawyer Durgham Abed Zahra predicted. “Even Fallujans will seek revenge from each other.
“In the one tribe — or even the one family — there were some who worked for ISIS and may have either killed a brother, a cousin or relative. So family members will seek revenge from those individuals.”
Authorities in Anbar province and human rights groups accused Shia militias of human rights violations against Sunnis fleeing Falluja. Local officials said 49 civilians were killed after being detained by Shia militias and 643 others are missing.
Also, the UN human rights chief said there were “credible reports” that civilians faced physical abuse as they escaped Falluja.
Many Falluja tribes fought a bloody insurgency in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Some openly sided with ISIS’s predecessor, al- Qaeda in Iraq, and later with ISIS if only to seek revenge from Iraqi governments which sidelined Sunnis.
Falluja fell to a mix of Sunni insurgent groups in January 2014 after the Shia-led government in Baghdad ordered the dismantling of a protest camp near Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi.
In an attempt to defuse the tension, security forces withdrew from Ramadi and nearby Falluja, but that allowed insurgents to take over. After the stunning blitz in which ISIS seized large parts of Iraq, a long list of Falluja’s tribal leaders pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi.
It is unlikely that the Shia-dominated government will spend much-needed funds from the cash-strapped treasury on a Sunni city that has been in constant rebellion against Baghdad.
Some Shia militia leaders openly spoke about purging Falluja and moving its people to another place.
An online video showed Shia militia leader Awas al-Khafaji telling fighters that Falluja and its people have been the “source of all terrorism” in the country and that the “time has come to finish the problem of the city for good”.
Shia militias were reportedly “punishing” Falluja residents and making it difficult for them to return home. The head of Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout, accused armed groups of burning and looting houses in Falluja.
“These groups are hindering efforts to restore normality in the city. The government forces are doing nothing to stop such practices,” Karhout said in a statement.
Baghdad-based political analyst Bassem al-Sheikh said restoring order in Falluja would be more difficult for the central government than recapturing it.
“The government should work hard to win the minds and hearts of Falluja residents. There should be no collective or mass punishment. Vengeance will only breed vengeance,” he said.
Because of the turmoil and uncertainty, Abu Mustafa said he was not in a hurry to return to his city. He said he fears being arrested by militias or government forces as many of his relatives were ISIS operatives.
“I’m thinking of settling in Baghdad permanently,” he said.