Fallujah’s Forever War
The battle for the Islamic State stronghold still rages, and civilians are bearing the brunt of the horrors of war.
FALLUJAH, Iraq – Khalil Mahmoud left Fallujah in the back of an ambulance after burying his daughters in the garden of the deserted city hospital.
“We tried to leave, but when we reached the market a rocket landed on us,” he tells me, his voice still edged with panic as he crouched next to his wounded 10-year-old son. “My wife and three daughters were blown apart.”
Mahmoud took their bodies to the Fallujah hospital after the attack on Thursday. But Islamic State staff had fled, and the hospital and the morgue were deserted. So he buried two of his daughters in the garden and took his wounded son home.
He starts to sob as he tells the story, covering his face with the sleeve of a grimy white robe. His son, burns visible on his face, is wrapped in a faded floral-print sheet and lies on a stretcher nearby. Traumatized women from Mahmoud’s extended family are crowded into the back of the ambulance.
“After that we couldn’t leave,” Mahmoud says, explaining they stayed in the city to care for the wounded boy as Iraqi forces moved in against the Islamic State.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, desperate for a victory, declared last week that Fallujah had been liberated. Iraqi commanders said they were just clearing remaining pockets of Islamic State fighters. But U.S. military officials said the battle for the iconic Islamic State stronghold is far from over, and that only roughly one-third of the city had been recaptured from the jihadist group.
Inside Fallujah, it’s clear the clashes are continuing. Black smoke rose from airstrikes in the north of the city over the weekend, and the rattle of heavy machine gun fire and the thud of mortars echoed from adjoining neighborhoods.
For civilians like Mahmoud, urged by Iraqi forces to leave, there were no good choices. Tens of thousands of civilians have managed to flee unharmed, but now face another struggle for survival in makeshift desert camps without enough water or even toilets and where health care workers say they are treating over 1,000 undernourished people per day.
In the countryside near Fallujah, in the steel and concrete skeleton of an abandoned construction site littered with debris from Islamic State suicide truck bombs, Iraqi Special Forces commander Abdul Wahab al-Saadi sits at a plastic table directing the fight with an iPad and a radio.
He approves a U.S. Hellfire missile strike on four Islamic State fighters his men have sighted behind the Fallujah hospital. A young U.S.-trained Iraqi colonel reads back grid coordinates to his Australian counterpart on another radio.
“The plane hit three, and a fourth is wounded,” Saadi radios to his unit commander minutes later. “If you can deal with the fourth yourself, even better.”
Saadi, a three-star general dressed in a black T-shirt, black trousers, and sneakers, has the air of nonchalant confidence that comes with 25 years of Special Forces experience dating back to Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
In the U.S.-led battle for Fallujah in November 2004, he served as operations officer in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense while the U.S. Marines and Army battled al Qaeda in the fiercest urban fighting by the U.S. military since the Vietnam War. The city was almost destroyed in the process. Fifty-four American troops were killed and more than 400 wounded in some of the worst U.S. losses of the conflict.
Twelve years later, the U.S. military has played a supporting role in the war against a new incarnation of al Qaeda in Iraq, launching airstrikes and trying to coordinate with their Iraqi partners on the ground while steering clear of Iraqi Shiite militias backed by Iran.
Saadi says they have learned a lot from cooperation with U.S. forces about urban fighting and wouldn’t have made it as far as they did without the airstrikes.
After the Iraqi government unexpectedly launched the Fallujah battle in May, it took five weeks to fight into the center of the city. Retaking the provincial capital of Ramadi this year took 18 months and left the city heavily damaged. Saadi is proud his forces have managed to accomplish their missions in Fallujah and Tikrit, where he says Special Forces fought much tougher fights last year, without destroying the cities.
“I have four priorities,” he says. “The first is to keep civilians safe, the second is to keep my men safe, the third is to destroy ISIS, and the fourth is to safeguard the infrastructure.”
That is not to suggest the city, and its residents, hasn’t suffered. Dozens of civilians were killed trying to flee the Islamic State – either drowning in the Euphrates River as they tried to evade Islamic State checkpoints or in artillery attacks after the Islamic State allowed them to leave. There has been no government-provided electricity or running water in the city since the Islamic State took control. And as Iraqi security forces began to surround Fallujah this year, the jihadist group began stockpiling food for its own fighters, leaving thousands of people living on dates meant as animal feed.
Security officials believe it will be months before civilians are allowed to return.
“Most of the people left Fallujah in 2014 or 2015, but there were some stupid families who stayed here and came under ISIS control,” says Abdul Aziz Faisel Hameed, a colonel in the emergency police force now in charge of the Tamim-Nazal neighborhood.
In fact at least 80,000 people stayed in Fallujah, and almost all of them are now under suspicion by security forces of supporting the Islamic State. As the families have escaped the city, Iraqi security forces have separated the men and older boys from their families, taking them away for screening. They spend days in an overcrowded warehouse with little food or water, where security forces lack the computers necessary to verify their identities.
Planning had been underway for an assault on Mosul later this year, but Iraqi and Western officials say Abadi switched gears abruptly after a series of car bombs in Baghdad believed to have originated in Fallujah, a 40-minute drive away.
Iraqi commanders say once they broke through the outer belt of Islamic State sand berms, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and suicide bombers, there was relatively little resistance. They’re holding out hope that the areas of the city that were still populated under the Islamic State will be free from the explosive booby traps for which the jihadist group is known.
“If you’re trying to run a city with 50,000 citizens inside, you can’t litter the whole thing with IEDs or all your citizens get blown up and then nobody wants to live in the caliphate anymore,” says Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, who described the announcement of liberation as “slightly premature.”
“We are still conducting strikes in support of the fight,” he says. “It will take days to weeks to make sure it’s fully cleared and a while before people can come back in again.”
Months before the Islamic State rolled into the northern city of Mosul two years ago, the group took root in Fallujah – a deeply tribal city that had seethed under U.S. occupation and chafed under Iraqi government neglect.
The Islamic State, like al Qaeda before it, fed on the anger of a Sunni population that believes it has been persecuted by a Shiite-dominated government and security forces. The fight against the Islamic State has been complicated by the participation of Iranian-backed Shiite militias fighting under the nominal control of the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government has told Shiite paramilitary groups to stay out of Fallujah, a purely Sunni city.
But it hasn’t prevented them from operating on the outskirts. At the beginning of the current assault on Fallujah, as its remaining resident began to flee, Shiite militia fighters set up their own checkpoints outside the city. The men they intercepted were then taken away and beaten or tortured, according to human rights groups.
While several thousand Sunni tribal fighters were recruited for the assault on Fallujah, the Iraqi government has delayed providing them with arms. As a result, they have not been involved in the main fight, but are intended to help secure the city once the neighborhoods are cleared.
Whether Sunni fighters and police can establish themselves as a force trusted by both Fallujah residents and the Iraqi government will do much to determine the Iraqi government’s success in holding the city. But wresting back Fallujah from Islamic State control is only the beginning of a new era of inclusion promised by an Iraqi government — one that it has so far failed to deliver.
“We have a strategy to win people’s hearts and minds, so the government has to provide security and services for the families who live here,” says Special Forces Maj. Rajji al-Husseiny, in a house in Fallujah taken back from the Islamic State. “If we don’t win over the people, IS will come back and brainwash them again.”
Amid the plush sofas in the large salon, documents with the Islamic State seal detail the make and model of guns and other weapons that were apparently kept in the house.
Husseiny says they are grateful to the Americans and Australians, who he says taught them how to raid buildings and called in airstrikes at one point, when he and his men were trapped by fighting in Ramadi.
“Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to get to Fallujah,” he says.
Many of the Special Forces fighters are Shiite and deeply religious. But there seems less these days of the obvious sectarianism that has characterized other elements of the Iraqi Army and federal police.
Cpl. Wissam Karim, the driver for a colonel from Mosul, has tied a green cloth from the Shiite shrines where the rearview mirror of his battered Humvee should be. The mirror was blown out last week in a mortar attack. Two of the windows have been shattered by anti-aircraft bullets.
“The blessing of the imams is everything to me,” says Karim, referring to the successors of the Prophet Muhammad, particularly revered by Shiites. Karim, 29, will still be at the front when his second child is born over the next few days.
Hameed, who is a Sunni from Fallujah, holds a special contempt for the Sunni politicians and protest leaders who siphoned off money and have not been seen in Anbar for almost two years.
“They are in Amman, wearing suits and living in hotels,” he says. “Anbar was the richest region in Iraq. Now it’s gone to less than nothing because of its own people. From now on we will not respect politicians, or tribal leaders, or imams.”
Many here share Hameed’s anger. For most of them, the battle has become deeply personal: In 2005, while Hameed was with the police, he says al Qaeda came to his house and attacked and injured his wife and son. They blew up his home and his brother’s homes. He knew the men.
“I killed some of them,” he says, when asked what happened to them. “It was in battle in 2007.”
“You see all these people?” he asks, pointing to almost a dozen Fallujah policemen standing behind him. “All of them lost someone – if they didn’t kill their father, they killed their brother. If they didn’t lose relatives or friends they blew up their houses…. We have all suffered from them. Either they die here,” he says, referring to the Islamic State, “or we die.”
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images