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The March to Mosul Continues While Fallujah Starves

Fallujah was once a both a flashpoint and a focus for American troops. Now it's starving as the city that's been under Islamic State siege longer than any in Iraq.

Iraqi pro-governement forces help people displaced from Islamic State (IS) group controlled areas close to Fallujah, on February 7, 2016, in Jwaibah, on the eastern outskirts of Ramadi, after troops retook the area from jihadists. / AFP / MOADH AL-DULAIMI        (Photo credit should read MOADH AL-DULAIMI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi pro-governement forces help people displaced from Islamic State (IS) group controlled areas close to Fallujah, on February 7, 2016, in Jwaibah, on the eastern outskirts of Ramadi, after troops retook the area from jihadists. / AFP / MOADH AL-DULAIMI (Photo credit should read MOADH AL-DULAIMI/AFP/Getty Images)

Fallujah never recovered from the U.S.-led Iraq War. Nor, one could argue, was it ever given the chance.

The dusty, western mid-sized city was long a flashpoint of conflict and focus of U.S. troops in Iraq. Two big, bloody battles against al Qaeda in Iraq were fought there in 2004, and insurgents strung the charred bodies of four Blackwater security guards from a bridge over the Euphrates River that same year. Even years later, in times of relative calm, Fallujah viewed outsiders with suspicion and hostility.

So perhaps it is of little surprise that authorities in Baghdad and Washington have all but ceded the city that has been under Islamic State control longer than any other in Iraq.

Fallujah fell on the last day of 2013. The nearby Anbar provincial capital, Ramadi, was infiltrated by ISIS around the same time but has since been liberated with the help of U.S. weapons and airstrikes. Farther north, Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and remote Sinjar were seized in the summer of 2014. Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, also fell then. And Mosul is what thousands of Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters are now gearing up to reclaim, aided by American firepower and a smattering of troops.

Fallujah, meanwhile, is starving — not just for military intervention, but literally.

A Human Rights Watch report published this week concluded that the failure of Iraqi government forces to confront the Islamic State in Fallujah has effectively trapped its residents. Food is all but impossible to import into Fallujah, spurring price spikes: A bag of flour now costs an estimated $750, compared to $15 in Baghdad, just an hour’s drive to the east, the human rights group reported.

People in Fallujah are making soup from grass to survive.

Though they have fretted over Fallujah, the State Department and Pentagon have done little to help liberate it. Senior U.S. officials admit their focus is on larger prizes: Mosul, the Islamic State’s bastion in Iraq; Ramadi, a symbolic battleground as a provincial capital; and Sinjar, where minority Yazidis were slaughtered.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in Baghdad on Friday, noted Iraqi forces have gained ground against the Islamic State, and insisted the insurgent group formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq is on the run. But not once in several public remarks Friday, according to transcripts, did he mention Fallujah — where ISIS has not yet been seriously challenged.

Daesh is on the defensive – that is clear,” Kerry said at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State. “But its capacity to inflict suffering regrettably still remains. That is also true. And we take very seriously the threat that it still poses.”

He said Washington shares Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s goal of freeing Mosul “as quickly as possible” and announced a new grant of $155 million — for a total of $780 million since 2014 — in humanitarian aid in Iraq.

Abadi, a Shiite, took power in Iraq in September 2014 following the resignation of Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shiite. Under Maliki, Iraq’s Sunnis — an estimated 20 percent of the country’s population, but the group that was most favored under Saddam — felt most sidelined from power. That gave rise to the Islamic State, which fed on Sunni frustration, and soon alienated whole communities from government protection.

And that is at the heart of Fallujah’s crisis, said retired Army Col. Anthony Deane, who helped U.S. forces convince Iraqi militiamen in Anbar turn the tide against al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006, in the so-called sahwa, or “awakening” councils. Fallujah’s ongoing plight, even as surrounding cities are liberated, reinforces perceptions that governments in Baghdad and Washington simply don’t care.

“Fallujah has always been the heart of the Sunnis. … There’s nothing in Fallujah but a bunch of Sunnis who are pissed off at the Iraqi government,” said Deane, author of “Ramadi Unclassified: A Roadmap to Peace in the Most Dangerous City in Iraq.”

“If they were serious about having a representative government, they would go liberate Fallujah,” Deane said Friday.

It’s a harsh assessment. But so are the images of Fallujah starving.

Photo credit: MOADH AL-DULAIMI / Getty

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