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Retaking Fallujah may be a short-term success, but sectarian violence beckons

June 11, 2016 at 2:35 pm

During the Iraq invasion and war, its aftermath and the subsequent protests against the US-installed government, Fallujah and its residents have paid a heavy price. As the Iraqi government and allied militias ostensibly battle Daesh for control of the city, accusations of torture and assassinations have been levelled against both sides. While many are hoping for the “liberation” of Fallujah, at what cost will it be?

The bodies of four US security contractors (the modern euphemism for “mercenaries”) found hanging from a bridge in 2004 set in motion a chain of events which brought Fallujah to the situation it is in today. During the war, it was a bastion of resistance against the US forces and, in response to the killing of the four men, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of operations for the US military in Iraq, promised, “We will pacify that city“. For Kimmitt, “pacify” meant siege, bloodshed and the destruction of the city throughout the ensuing two Battles of Fallujah. When the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council demanded an end to the collective punishment of the Iraqi people, it was Fallujah to which they were referring.

Even US soldiers were reported to be shocked at the lack of concern for civilian lives, according to veteran war correspondent Patrick Cockburn, who said that the “US commanders largely treated Fallujah as a free-fire zone to try to reduce casualties among their own troops.” What did this lead to? Back in 2004, when writing about the battle in the city, Cockburn said: “The result has been to turn Fallujah into a nationalist and religious symbol for all Iraqis. For the first time the armed resistance is becoming truly popular in Baghdad.”

For the Sunni population of Iraq, the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime represented the end of their privileges at the top of the state pecking order. Under Saddam, a Sunni leader presiding over the predominantly Shia population, their sons had joined the army or the police. In the controversial “de-Ba’athification” process that followed, they were purged from their positions en-masse. This process was one of a variety of measures enacted under the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government of Iraq following the invasion of the country headed by senior US diplomat Paul Bremer. These measures, in the words of one US veteran, pushed the residents of Fallujah into the “arms of Al-Qaeda” (at least until the Anbar Awakening when the local Sunni population rejected the group).

The coalition list which won the 2005 elections was the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a broad Shia grouping. While the elections were celebrated widely as a symbol of democracy coming to Iraq, with George Bush calling it “one of the greatest events in Middle East history”, voter turnouts in Sunni provinces were low. There was only a two per cent turnout in Anbar province, where Fallujah is situated.

Under the subsequent premiership of Nouri Al-Maliki, a deliberate policy of exploiting the sectarian divisions in Iraq in favour of the Shia population was pursued, divisions that had exploded into a brutal conflict during which “every morning brings its terrible harvest of bodies”. This policy was so damaging that the longest continually serving US official in Iraq, a confidante of Al-Maliki for over a decade, warned that if he stayed in office, he would create a “divisive, despotic and sectarian government that would rip the country apart.”

In 2012, people began to demonstrate against the government, with Fallujah becoming the epicentre of Sunni-led protests. When Al-Maliki ordered the arrest of ten bodyguards working for Sunni Finance Minister Rafi Al-Essawi, it enflamed grievances around the marginalisation of the Sunni population in political life. Before long, Human Rights Watch was calling for investigations into the shooting of unarmed protestors in Fallujah.

By early 2014, Daesh had gained control of Fallujah and things went from bad to worse for the city’s residents. After recapturing Ramadi in the Anbar province in late December 2015, government forces cut off supply routes into Fallujah. In late March, a medical source in the city told Human Rights Watch that starving children were arriving at the local hospital every day. On 23 May, a full-scale offensive to retake the city from Daesh was launched by Iraqi government troops, with the help of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces, a predominantly Shia group of militias. “The people of Fallujah are besieged by the government, trapped by ISIS, and are starving,” warned Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for HRW. Reports from rights groups detail incidents of men and boys being tortured and otherwise ill-treated by government-backed militias as they try to flee Daesh, which is shooting those trying to escape.

Meanwhile, Qasem Soleimani, the commander of an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has been sent to help oversee the battle in Fallujah. Combined with the use of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, journalist Jared Malsin has highlighted fears that sending the Shia militias into Sunni Fallujah is “a recipe for sectarian violence.” This could lead to support for Daesh out of fear what could happen to Fallujah’s Sunni residents. While the retaking of Fallujah might be a success for the Iraqi army in the short term, the manner in which it is being carried out risks sowing the seeds of sectarian violence for decades to come.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.