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Far from defeated

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Rainer Sollich
June 21, 2016

Despite continued fighting, the city of Fallujah has been declared 'liberated.' Next, the Iraqi government wants to drive 'IS' from Mosul. Is this the end of the jihadists? Rainer Sollich doesn't think so.

Iraqi soldiers in Fallujah
Image: Reuters/T. Al-Sudani

For over two years, the people of Fallujah have had to live under the rule of religiously clad bands of murderers that terrorized them with beheadings and mass executions. In the end, the terrorists even used them as human shields. Still, when Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi somewhat prematurely announced that the city had been liberated militarily from the grip of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS), residents were in no way jubilant.

One reason might well be that in some neighborhoods firefights between Iraqi armed forces and "IS" militants are still ongoing. It would be suicidal to take to the streets in celebration. Indeed, something very different has happened: many residents have decided to make use of their own personal "liberation" - and leave town.

Fleeing 'liberation'

It is said that as many as 80,000 people have left Fallujah since the Iraqi army began its offensive on May 23. According to estimates by Norwegian observers, 300,000 of them departed after the official "liberation" announcement last Friday, June 17. These people are awaiting their fate in tent camps with deplorable hygienic conditions outside the city.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abadi has set his sights on the last "IS" bastion in Iraq. The target of the army's next attack: the metropolis of Mosul - a city of some 2.5 million residents.

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DW's Rainer Sollich

If there is a positive message in all this, it is that the "caliphate" is crumbling - at least as far as its original core is concerned. It seems likely that "IS" will be largely driven from Fallujah within the coming days or weeks. The Islamists were already driven from two other cities, Tikrit and Ramadi, a few months ago. Areas under "IS" control in neighboring Syria and in Libya are also coming under increased pressure militarily.

Nevertheless, "IS" has been able to counterattack at times, and their full military defeat remains a long way off. Even if "IS" loses control of certain geographical areas and smuggling and arms supply routes, it will still be able to spread fear and horror with terror attacks - not only in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in the USA and Europe.

The military fight against "IS" - especially one involving ground troops - is undoubtedly necessary, and every victory that the troops produce is worthy of praise. Yet, such military victories are of limited value as long as the conflicts behind the fighting are not addressed and dealt with. For instance, it is likely that most of those people that have fled the Sunni city of Fallujah were not only fleeing "IS" or the fighting going on in the city. Many will have fled for fear of reprisals and arbitrary attacks perpetrated by Shiite militia groups. Such groups are thought to be no less brutal than "IS," and despite their questionable reputation, they were openly supported by Iran and allowed to play an important role in the march toward Fallujah, flanked by US air power. It was only during fighting within Fallujah proper that the Shiite militias remained outside the city gates.

Iranian and Saudi Arabian agitation

Prime Minister Abadi - himself a Shiite - has thus far failed to build trust among the country's Sunni minority, a group that enjoyed privileges under ex-dictator Saddam Hussein and was then politically marginalized after his fall. Abadi lacks the political clout for the task, and possibly the will for it as well.

At this point, it seems a foregone conclusion that the march toward the "IS" bastion of oil-rich Mosul will only serve to further exacerbate tensions between the country's ethnic groups. This also includes the Kurds, who sent units to fight in the offensive and will therefore demand a political and economic say in the region's future. Thus, the world can count on further human suffering and new waves of refugees.

That all goes to show that the situation is about more than just "IS." It is about clear-cut conflicts over power, resources and revenues - and how the parties involved in the conflict are at times intentionally stoking religious or ethnic sentiments in order to cement the support of certain groups or tribes.

The Syrian government, various Syrian opposition groups, Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militias in Iraq are all living off of this mechanism, to various degrees, much as "IS" is. The regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia are also playing an especially unsavory role in this dangerous game. Rather than exerting a moderating influence on the situation, they themselves regularly fan the flames of inter-denominational conflict.

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