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The battle for Fallujah

Kersten Knipp / kl
June 7, 2016

For two weeks now, Iraqi troops have advanced against the IS-held city of Fallujah. Militarily speaking, victory appears to be in sight. But new challenges await.

Irak Falludscha Regierungssoldat vor der Stadt
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/M. Alleruzzo

Shots ring out from an ambush: a terrorist detonates a bomb from amidst of a group of refugees. With astonishing brutality, combatants from the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) terrorist group wage war in Fallujah against civilians who are simply trying to survive. Around 50,000 civilians are currently detained in Fallujah, according to estimates by humanitarian organizations such as the Norwegian Refugee Council. Those who attempt escape run the risk of being killed by IS militants. Terrorists abuse the civilians as human shields. Their own families, however, have long since left of the city.

Since they took the city in early 2014, IS militants have installed a reign of terror that has intimidated civilians with violence and garnered little support. Over the weekend, the Iraqi military discovered a mass grave where IS buried scores of victims.

Irakische Sicherheitskräfte entdecken Massengrab nahe Falludscha
Iraqi soldiers discovered a mass grave of more than 400 victims near the cityImage: Reuters/Th. Al-Sudani

The beginnings of Jihadism

After the US invasion in 2003, the city became the center of jihadist resistance. Many fighters operated from Fallujah, including numerous militants loyal to top terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In November, after months of endless explosive traps, kidnappings and suicide bombings, the Americans launched a major offensive. 6,500 Marines, 1,500 American and 2,000 Iraqi soldiers were deployed. Step by step they worked to conquer the city though house-to-house fighting.

But in the following years Fallujah remained the center of Sunni resistance to the post-war order in Iraq. The Sunnis resisted the systematic discrimination that they suffered during the reign of Shiite leader Nouri al-Maliki. The jihadists around terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - from whose group IS is believed to have developed – first acted as allies. But soon the Sunnis realized that the jihadists were pursuing quite different aims, as they initially suspected.

Irak Falludscha Zivilisten versuchen die Stadt zu verlassen
Civilians attempting to escape the besieged cityImage: Reuters/Th. Al-Sudani

Political challenges

The military battle for Fallujah, as journalist Ali Mamouri has presumed in the internet magazine Al-Monitor, is likely to be won right now - despite the explosive traps, ambushes and snipers with which the IS has opposed the Iraqi military since the offensive began two weeks ago.

But that's when the real challenges begin, including questions of how local forces should be trained in order to create public security.

"Islamic State" beaten but not defeated

Despite several defeats in Iraq and in Syria, IS remains a threat, according to Middle East expert Günter Meyer. Many fighters have left the two cities already in the direction of Libya, “where IS clearly sees its future.” Through its presence in North Africa, the danger of terrorist attacks within Europe grows. “Neither a complete destruction of IS in the Muslim countries nor a reduction in the risk of terrorism in Europe can be expected.”

In Fallujah, the Iraqi military offensive continues. Between 500 and 1000 IS militants are still residing in the city. They are unlikely to be able to stop the advancing Iraqi army - assuming the terrorists want that at all. The first of them, according to eyewitnesses, have already begun to shave their beards and to mingle with the refugees from Fallujah.

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