The liberation last month of the Sunni city of Fallujah from a two-year ISIS stranglehold was celebrated as a rare victory by Iraqi forces and their U.S. backers amid a summer of bloody terror attacks across the Middle East and Europe.
But as the first “post-liberation” cameras broadcast images on June 26 from inside the city—fighters with their rifles raised in triumph, smiles and selfies all around as important-looking people (including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi) exited utility vehicles and gave interviews to reporters—something seemed off.
The city, for one, was ravaged. Most say it’s not as bad as Ramadi, but that city was completely destroyed during May’s liberation from ISIS, so that’s not saying much. Fallujah looks post-apocalyptic. Second, the only people in Fallujah right now are fighters. Shia fighters. And not just Iraqi forces, but non-uniformed Shiite militia raising their own flags in the city.
Meanwhile, everyone else—more than 80,000 Fallujans driven from their homes by ISIS and the ensuing battles—are languishing in sprawling desert refugee camps with not enough shelter or food or mattresses.
Worse, they are considered the lucky ones. According to reports, some 9,000 Fallujah men and boys are still being detained by Iraqi forces for suspected ISIS collusion, leaving tens of thousands of women and children to fend for themselves in the camps. Those camps are less than a hour away from Baghdad, but as recent reports indicate, the government is restricting Sunni access there, concerned that terrorists may slip through with the needy. Most would say they have cause for caution — an ISIS suicide bomber set off a truckload of explosives in a Baghdad market on July 3, killing close to 300 people.
So for now, it seems, the very people the U.S. helped to liberate are being abused all over again, stuck between a city now crawling with the celebratory Shia who despise them and a Shia- dominated—and some say pro-Iranian—capital city that wants them to stay as far away as possible.
This, says longtime foreign policy reporter Nancy Youssef, is nothing more than striking a match over a pool of gasoline. She and her Daily Beast colleague Jonathan Krohn reported that at least 50 men were killed by Shia paramilitary groups and hundreds more simply vanished. Claims of brutality by the government’s “Popular Mobilization Units,” which serve as an umbrella group of militias working with Baghdad, abound, and the finger-pointing has already begun.
“What I see is you’re laying the groundwork for the next iteration of an ongoing sectarian conflict,” Youssef told TAC in an interview. “The people didn’t trust ISIS and they don’t trust the Shia-led government.”
Youssef and Krohn referred to this report from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, which said thousands of refugees from one village just outside Fallujah fell into a trap, approaching what appeared to be government forces only find members of the notorious Shia militia Kataaib Hezbollah—which was once considered a terror group by the U.S. but is now fighting to oust ISIS alongside the Iraqi government—waiting for them. The boys and men were separated from the women, and a large group of 900 men are still missing and now feared dead.
Kali Jessica Rubaii, of the Islah Reparations Project, a U.S.-based group established in 2008 to help funnel aid and resettle displaced Iraqis, said her organization is hearing the same stories from its people on the ground. “Reports of people being kidnapped, killed prima facia, and physically abused are widespread, and there is a sentiment among Fallujans that they are being abused because they are Sunni,” she told TAC.
“People feel they are ignored by the government. In reality I cannot say to what degree the Iraqi government is providing for displaced people from Fallujah,” she added. “People are trapped between the anvil and the hammer, between their own government and Daash [ISIS].”
Can Fallujah Ever Recover?
To watch young amputee Mustafa Ahmed swing from his crutches into a dirty tent in the middle of the desert—no clean water or food, no mattress to sleep on—is to see the failure of U.S. policy in Iraq.
According to a grim report on PBS Newshour by foreign correspondent Jane Arraf, Ahmed lost a kidney and his leg when he was a baby during an American airstrike in Fallujah in 2004. (She doesn’t say whether it was during the first Battle of Fallujah or the second.) Now a handsome yet serious-faced child of 12 or 13, he has fled his city on crutches for eight miles before becoming trapped in one of the desperate camps outside.
He told Arraf he once had a prosthetic leg, fitted for him in Oregon—likely as a form of restitution for being collateral damage. But he has since outgrown it. Now he doesn’t even have catheter tubes. He couldn’t even get one of the free mattresses being distributed by the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the few aid groups on the ground there today.
“These last few weeks I’ve been shocked and heartbroken at how little humanitarian aid has been made available to Fallujah residents fleeing the Islamic State,” said Donna Mulhearn, an Australian human-rights activist who made several trips to Iraq before, during, and after the war. She listened to the parents and doctors who raised alarms about the growing number of horrific birth defects in post-war Fallujah in 2012. She held the babies. She wonders where they are now.
“Everyone knew the siege would occur and that there were around 85,000 civilians trapped and already starving,” she told TAC in an email. “Why were camps for those displaced not set up and resourced beforehand, or as the campaign was going on?”
There was a three-month siege before U.S. airstrikes aided the final routing of ISIS in mid-June. At least 30,000 Fallujans were trapped there with no food and used by ISIS as human shields until the very end, when they started pouring into the camps en masse. Rubaii, whose group is gathering supplies for the camps, said she has heard horror stories of people who were forced to eat garbage before fleeing Fallujah, of babies miscarried, and others shot and killed by Shia militias when the siege was over and the battles began. Reports are widespread that civilians were killed by ISIS while trying to escape.
One report suggests that Baghdad underestimated the number of people who would flee as the battle turned and more residents were able to escape. In mid-June, when the camps began overflowing, al-Abadi said the government would begin building 10 more camps, but as of this writing there are still only four, and they are overwhelmed with no electricity, running water, or sanitation.
When asked what kind of humanitarian response the military has promoted, Youssef, who reports the Pentagon, shrugged. “They say they are monitoring it,” she said. Meanwhile, the U.S. is sending 560 additional American troops to help the Iraqi government take Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, back from ISIS. But the Sunnis there are already wary that Shia paramilitary units working with the Iraqi government are coming to sack their city, too. “It’s heartbreaking because you know there is no end in sight,” Youssef said of the sectarian cycle of violence and mistrust.
The State Department, on the other hand, said it was sending $20 million in additional aid for the ground efforts there as part of a larger package to be announced “later this year.”
When asked about the reports of brutalization by Shia militias in a June 3 briefing, the State Department said they were “very concerned,” and that they were raising those concerns with the Iraqi government directly. “But the Iraqi government has made every commitment—or rather, committed to make every effort—to avoid civilian casualties and has issued clear instructions to Iraqi Security Forces [to give safe passage to Sunni], and we obviously support them in this position,” said spokesman Mark Toner. As for the “Iranian thumbprint” on the operations, he added, “Well, of course, we’re concerned about sectarian tensions and any actions that could heighten those tensions.”
Ben Irwin of the Preemptive Love Coalition, one of the few aid groups active in Fallujah from the start of the battle in May, said they’ve been delivering food, water, hygiene packs, and cooking stoves directly to families there. They do not get U.S. government assistance, nor do they seek it.
“It seems like every aspect of this response [to take back Fallujah] was overlooked, under-planned, or deployed too late,” he tells TAC. “Fallujah was held by ISIS for more than two years. Its families were starving for months. Officials knew this was coming. Why weren’t the camps already supplied, waiting in the desert beforehand? Why is the world scrambling to catch up, spending a pittance on the humanitarian response in Fallujah, compared to the massive amount of spending and planning that went into the military campaign?”
Fallujans were out of favor with the West from the start. A center of institutional and political support for Saddam Hussein, it was a hotbed of insurgency after the U.S. invasion, and after the killing of four U.S. contractors there in 2003, it became the target of two of the Iraq War’s major battles. The second leveled tens of thousands of the city’s mosques, homes, and public buildings.
Later, after the much-vaunted “Anbar Awakening” drove the al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) insurgency into hiding, Fallujah suffered like much of the Sunni province. Men who had helped fight the insurgency were promised work with the Iraqi police and military, but the work never came. Meanwhile, Gen. Ray Odierno left then-Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki with a parting gift of iris scans of former U.S.-sponsored “Sons of Iraq.” The Sunnis were marginalized, arrested, abused. When they tried to protest during the Arab Spring, they were shut down violently.
As a result, weakened Sunni Iraq was ripe for ISIS, which rose out of the ashes of AQI, and cities like Ramadi and Fallujah paid the price. Those who did not die in retributive attacks weren’t strong enough to kick ISIS out once the fighters started seizing property, executing rivals, and creating an atmosphere of paranoia and deceit.
“Maliki’s out-of-control campaign of terror against Fallujah ultimately led to the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and the rest is history,” charged Mulhearn, who fears that after this last siege, “the social fabric of Fallujah has been irreparably torn.”
Or is it? While the U.S. picked its horse in the race long ago, that doesn’t mean it should stand aside while the city falls prey to another hostile sectarian power play. If anything, further violence and abuse will only create conditions for another insurgency.
“This is where we will either sow the seeds of the next conflict or begin unmaking years of violence through our acts of love,” offered Irwin. “We can turn our backs on Fallujah—and consign its people to more violence, more instability, more terror. Or we can show up in the hard places and love anyway, treat Fallujah’s people with the dignity they deserve, and maybe start writing a new future together.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.