Fallujah: Innocent Iraqis Fall Between US Bombs of 'Liberation' and IS Control
NEW DELHI: Images of Iraqi military personnel standing outside the besieged city of Fallujah in an effort to “liberate” it from the control of the Islamic State are flashed by news agencies across the world. This is just after Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi ordered the operation to begin from May 23.
Over 10 days of a relentless offensive has seen the military clear the surrounding villages and circle the city from three sides under cover of surgical air-strikes being conducted by the US-led international coalition.
The operation has not moved as fast as intended because of the presence of over 50,000 inhabitants in the Iraqi town that are being used as human shields by the Islamic State fighters.
The Islamic State responded to the assault by triggering a string of suicide bombings through Baghdad on May 30 that killed 24 people. Facebook was naturally not set alight by profile pictures in the Iraqi flag filter.
Media houses world over have hailed the advance in Fallujah as a decisive step towards ensuring that the Islamic State’s control over territory in Iraq is reversed. The operation is seen to build on the earlier success in Ramadi. A decisive “victory” in Fallujah will leave Mosul as the only major Islamic State stronghold in Iraq.
It is fair for readers to treat the operation as welcome news, after all who doesn’t despise religious fanaticism, and for good measure. Except, nothing in West Asia is immune from the complications created by sectarian divisions, political mismanagement and the often unwelcome role and influence of international powers. Fallujah is no different and has its own history written in blood and torment. This troubled past needs to be understood in order to answer the questions that impact its present.
Fallujah is located some 70 kilometers away from Baghdad and was known to constitute a part of the “Sunni triangle” i.e. the area of influence considered the political monopoly of Saddam Hussain. The first major wave of violence struck the city during the Gulf War that saw it suffer massive civilian casualties. It ended up being a grim precursor of things to come.
The United States invasion of 2003 changed the face of the hitherto bustling town forever. Fallujah was targeted and flattened in the initial days of the ‘shock and awe’ bombing of Iraq. The invasion brought with it a deadly re-emergence of sectarian tensions in Iraq. As the Ba’athist monopoly of power was systematically destroyed, factions quickly emerged all over the country grounded in the primary divisions of Shiite and Sunni.Extremists looking to fill the power vacuum formed bases in Sunni majority areas, like Fallujah and Ramadi.
The US established a largely unpopular presence in the city in April 2003. Mass civilian protests on April 28, 2003 resulted in the American troops opening fire that led to the death of 17 civilians. The local resentment was only exacerbated by the event and after a few more skirmishes, only a token force of US soldiers remained in Fallujah. By March 2004, Islamic insurgents had established firm control in the city. On March 31, four American private military contractors employed by Blackwater were ambushed. They were then paraded through the city and ultimately burned alive. It was time for Uncle Sam to respond, and respond he did.
Operation Vigilant Resolve was launched by the US Marines. The operation was largely unsuccessful as a combination of insurgent resistance and capitulation by the Iraqi National Guard meant the city remained firmly in the grip of the insurgents. The next few months saw sporadic fighting as the US continued with the airstrikes. The insurgents leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi gained popularity at this time for claiming to successfully repel “the invaders.”As daily firefights became the norm, the Americans started to plan a major offensive to “cleanse” the city. The operation was infamously named Phantom Fury and was launched on November 8, 2004. It was publicly authorized by the then Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to “liberate the people of Fallujah.”
What followed was the bloodiest battle of the war. About 13,500 American, British and Iraqi soldiers sought to wrest control of the city from Zarqawi’s men that numbered around 3,000. Due to the public nature of the offensive, a majority of the city’s population was forced to flee before the offensive was to begin. The operation went on till December 2004 and saw both sides suffer multiple casualties in a bloody battle.
The coalition forces failed to capture some of the prominent insurgent leaders, including Zarqawi who fled the city before the offensive began. However, the most harrowing aspect of the operation was the humanitarian crisis it led to. Over 800 civilians were killed during the operation, large areas of the city including residential spaces, hospitals, schools and other civilian establishments were leveled by the aerial bombardment.
This meant that thousands of Iraqis were left homeless and internally displaced in a war torn country after an operation that sought to liberate the city for them to return to, the irony wasn’t lost on the citizens. If this was not enough, conclusive reports emerged in the following months highlighting the use of white phosphorous on citizens by the American military, reflected in the many burned corpses that lined the city streets.
The American military confirmed the reports, although maintaining that it was only used on insurgent targets. The claim became contentious in the context of a war front where the insurgents often occupied civilian areas and identification between fighters and civilians relied on sketchy intelligence. The citizens that returned had to go through biometric identification and were made to wear identity cards at all times. Understandably, the population of the city dwindled to 50,000 a sixth of the original number which was 300,000.
The next decade saw continued insurgent activity in the Anbar province where Fallujah is located. The massive damage suffered by Fallujah resonated in nearby cities like Ramadi that also had a Sunni majority population. The continued failure of the majorly Shia led government to sustain the administration of a failing state meant that insurgents over the country started to coalesce into larger groups driven by fanaticism, challenging official authority. Zarqawi would continue to remain a thorn in America’s side as he controlled the operations for Al Qaeda in Iraq. He is seen by many as the founder of the Islamic State, as well. The insurgents initially received little to no resistance from local populations as they sought to exploit the power vacuum and promised security and justice to the locals, two important administrative necessities that the government was miserably failing to deliver.
However, the support declined as the ultraconservative brand of Islam that they wanted to impose became clearer. This led to years of fighting between the insurgents, local resistance forces and the Iraqi army. The next major change in scenario emerged with the growth of the Islamic State. Their claim at establishing a self-proclaimed “caliphate” necessitated capture of new territories across the “Levant” region.
Fallujah was incidentally one of the first cities overtaken by the militants in January 2014. They would go on to capture swathes of land across Syria and Iraq including important cities like Mosul, Raqqa and Ramadi.
The present offensive to recapture the city has been inspired by the recent successes of the larger Anbar offensive that has led to the liberation of Ramadi and Hit among others. The Islamic State has been facing a revenue crunch as it loses strategically important territory. It has responded by raising taxes that make up a substantial portion of its finances. It has also come up with new “fines” like ones for leaving the front door open, or on women for leaving their house without wearing socks, gloves to make up for the loss. The Islamic State fighters have also seen their salaries slashed.
As of yesterday the Syrian troops have also begun to march into Raqqa which is the Islamic State’s “capital” in Syria. The spate of operations has raised certain pertinent questions. The liberation of Ramadi was tainted by reports of sectarian violence as well as the high levels of air bombardment making the city nearly uninhabitable. Similar scares are being raised during the present offensive in Fallujah. It is fair to assume the angst of the citizens if they are to witness the destruction of their livelihood for the second time in just over a decade. It is this recurrent cycle of apathy, bloodshed and devastation that fuels the tribulations that West Asia witnesses today.
The constant displacement faced by the people is what forces the wide scale migration to seemingly prosperous states of Europe that require treacherous and expensive sails across the Mediterranean that only a few survive. The inability of the governments to ensure basic sustenance is what drives scores of youth towards religious fanaticism and ensures the cyclical nature of this crisis. The not-so-hidden sectarian divisions lead to “proxy wars” across the region, similar to the ongoing strife in Yemen.
This is where we come back to Fallujah. UNICEF reported yesterday that over 10,000 people that have fled the city are in need of immediate life-saving assistance. The ones stuck inside numbering close to 50,000 are being forced to rely on whatever stockpile of necessary food and water they possess. Venturing outside is worthless as shops have exhausted all food supplies since April, as reported by the World Food Programme in their bulletin on Iraq. Moreover, the aerial strikes are reminiscent of the scenes from 2004 that no one in Fallujah is bound to have forgotten. The humanitarian cost of these operations is staggering and strangely overlooked.
The fervor of defeating religious fanatics leads to the ignorance of the most important stakeholder in the war, the people. It is a reality that has been playing out in West Asia repeatedly through the last century.
From Fallujah to Aleppo, from Ramallah to Sana’a, the constant tide of unbridled brutality that is often state-backed or led by zealots oppresses the populace and scars their hopes of normalcy. The humanity of the so-called “humanitarian interventions” continues to be elusive.
It is nearly impossible to imagine that a resident of Fallujah will experience a sense of “liberation” as she walks into the city bombed beyond recognition, finding her home in ruins; family members either killed or displaced; and then be told to just restart her life until the next wave of rampant bloodshed knocks on her door.