The Falluja offensive risks handing a propaganda victory to Isis
My memory of Falluja is of roads leading to the city, of fields of swaying date palm trees, which my Iraqi friend Thaier once told me represented the souls of the country’s people. “They are symbols of our hopes and dreams,” he said, pointing to the lush fields along the Euphrates, on a trip we took crossing east to west and north to south, in the late winter of 2003. It was shortly before the invasion that crushed all those hopes and dreams.
Today, more than a week into the US-backed on Falluja, that trip seems very long ago, in the distant land that once was Iraq. The road north of Falluja is a road of bleak war – of mortars, rockets and bullets. It is brown and gutted and veined in places with tunnels built by Islamic State during their occupation there for the past two years. An Australian farmer who came to Baghdad in 2010 told me, as he sifted the dirt in his hands, that the land was so “traumatised” by war it would take generations for nutritious food to grow.
While the US-backed Iraqi forces, aided by Shia militias (backed by Iran), are now pushing back Isis in Falluja, farming or any form of ordinary life has vanished. Along with Isis, there are also in the centre of the city who might become (that horrible phrase) collateral damage.
They are vulnerable to mortar and rocket attacks, and terror: reports of Shia death squads roaming the streets conjure up memories of another heavy-handed military “clearing operation” – in Tikrit in 2015, when many civilians fled their homes as .
Looming ahead is also another catastrophic humanitarian situation. The says only 867 people from Falluja have managed to reach displacement camps since the fighting began on 21 May. Its Iraqi country director, Nasr Muflahi, says it doesn’t have enough water to give them once they finally get to safety. “How could we ever look Iraqis fleeing Falluja in the eye if we had to let them down just when they reach our camps?” he says.
No water, shelling, fear of reprisals, endless killing. How much more can the Iraqi people take? During the first Gulf War in 1991, civilians in Falluja suffered the highest casualties in Iraq, according to Human Rights Watch.
A decade ago, , patrolling the streets, kicking down doors to root out insurgents (many of them foreign fighters). Thousands died. The name itself – Falluja – has become synonymous with failure.
And what of the long-term effects of this harrowing conflict? Any child born after 2003 who has managed to survive these last 10 years – including living under Isis rule for the past two – will no doubt be infused with hatred, vengeance and sorrow.
In terms of geopolitics, the battle for Falluja will also fuel sectarian and ethnic divisions, which will have reverberations far further than Anbar province. On a recent trip to Iran this spring – the first time I was granted access to the country in 15 years – I was momentarily hopeful. I felt, perhaps naively, that the could move towards a greater harmony with its Sunni neighbours – in particular, the Saudis.
But it was rather idealistic. The combination of bloodletting in Syria – where Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters against opposition militias aided by Saudi, Qatar and others – and the Iranian involvement in Iraq will certainly not lead to healing. Arab papers have recently highlighted that the Iranian major general Qassem Soleimani is leading the offensive, along with other Shia militias backed by Tehran.
The marginalised Sunni populations in Falluja, and throughout Iraq, are at odds with the Iraqi government and coalition forces. And Isis has now exploited their vulnerability by creating an alternate narrative – that this is a Shia-based action which will wipe out Sunnis.
Hassan Hassan from Chatham House notes that the offensive plays into Isis’s twisted chronicle of being “custodian of the Sunni people” and providing them with a gift, for which, Hassan says, “they have long waited”. The clearing of Isis from Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town in March 2015, left mistrust and anger among the Sunnis: the battle of Falluja will do far worse.
A fierce and clumsy military clearing operation would further alienate the Sunni people from the Iraqi state. The US-led coalition broke Iraq when it dismantled the country, then did not stick around long enough to fix it or build up the new government. It left the people to rot, just like the roads outside the , where the “haves” – the ambassadors, the UN and the political elite – live and work. In the Red Zone, where real people live and work, nothing seems to work.
“There remains grave concern of potential human rights abuses against the Sunni citizens of Falluja during the ongoing battle,” General Mick Bednarek, who served in Baghdad from 2013 to 2015, tells me. “It is very sensitive. If the Shia militia groups ... stay on the outskirts of the city ... then there is a chance for success without political backlash.”
Lieutenant Colonel Scott Mann, a former Green Beret based in Iraq, has said that while it is necessary to “clear” Isis from Falluja and other strongholds, “we are using the failed counter-insurgency strategies of the last 15 years, which actually will make things worse.” Mann believes the Falluja campaign will be a “short-term reprieve on Isis violence, but will be a disaster in the long run”.
The only winner in this game is Isis. It plays right into their master plan. “They have one – we do not,” Mann notes. “Theirs is to play up the story that the Sunni existence is in peril because of the Shia and the west. Let’s not forget that fomenting has been part of the Isis strategy since their al-Qaida predecessors were bombing Shia mosques in 2006.”
We know too well the ruthlessness of Isis and how it will use innocent people – the civilians trapped in Falluja – to exploit its key message and to accelerate what Mann calls “a Jihadi call to arms”.
Iraq can only be stabilised by diligently working with Sunni locals, aided by special ops working from the bottom up. We need to re-examine strategies that are outdated and are counterproductive. And we need to take responsibility. The day show remorse for what they did is the day healing might begin.
Gen Bednarek adds: “The tougher issue will be, ‘what’s next?’ We must have local Sunni police and our tribes of Falluja sustain the fragile security, re-establish governance, and provide for the people,” he says. “The devastation of infrastructure is widespread.”
After the in 2014, I wandered through Baghdad talking to feverish recruits of Shia militias – fuelled up to wipe out Isis, but in some cases also to punish the Sunnis for the crimes Saddam had committed against them.
It was not long after the fall of Mosul I began returning to the Baghdad morgues, where I often go to try to determine what direction conflicts and wars are taking. Once I had seen Shia victims of Sunni militias. Now, one by one, the pathologist showed me Sunni victims of Shia militias. One woman, whose brother was found tortured and killed in a nearby park, told me that when the militias came to the door to take him away, they “screamed about what we had done in Mosul”. The woman said she had never been to Mosul.
Bush, the architect of the destruction of Iraq once said, “Iraqis will write their own history and find their own way.” But the offensive on Falluja will not lead them down the correct path. And as the days pass and turn into years, my long, melancholy road trip through the last days of Iraq with my friend Thaier, in 2003, seems very long ago.