The battle for Fallujah typifies the complex problems underlying civil strife across the Middle East.
Iraqi forces battling for control of the key city of Fallujah declared victory over Islamic State on 26 June. The city’s remaining residents are unlikely to celebrate this development. Fallujah has been the site of stiff resistance to the central government since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. How Iraqi forces treat the city’s occupants in the wake of the ‘liberation’ will determine whether this battle marks the end of militarised opposition in Fallujah, or entrenches local hostility towards Baghdad.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized Fallujah in January 2014, six months prior to their surprise offensive that saw swathes of the country fall into the terrorists’ hands. After regrouping, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) besieged the city for months before their counteroffensive began on 21 May 2016. Aided by more than 100 airstrikes from coalition forces, the ISF gained a stunning victory over ISIS. Despite fierce insurgent resistance, explosive-rigged buildings and suicide bombers, ISF losses were minimal while more than 1,500 ISIS fighters were allegedly killed. But while Baghdad championed the success of the operation, Fallujah residents questioned whether their futures would be any brighter under central government rule.
Fallujah was a cornerstone of support for Saddam Hussein’s regime. Many residents of the Sunni Muslim-majority city were employed by the government and several senior members of the ruling Ba’ath Party were Fallujah natives. The US invasion ended their privileged existence. Consequently, the city became a hotbed for resistance to the US occupation, particularly after American troops opened fire on a group of protesters. Frequent clashes between US forces and former Iraqi troops in Fallujah led to the widespread destruction of infrastructure and war crimes, embedding resentment towards the central government.
With the withdrawal of US troops in 2007, life in Fallujah began to return to normal. However, Iraq is a predominantly Shi’ite state. After decades of Saddam Hussein’s oppression of Shi’ites and Kurds, the introduction of majority rule in the form of democracy has put Sunnis on the receiving end of discrimination. From 2012, the Shi’ite dominated government began cracking down on the Sunni tribes surrounding Fallujah, prompting demonstrations. The government responded by arresting protesters and detaining a local Sunni politician. The tribes then rose up in rebellion, prompting government forces to evacuate the city. An offensive to retake Fallujah was planned when ISIS took control instead.
The sectarian divide contributing to Fallujah’s devastation is not isolated to the city. It is no coincidence that ISIS’s territory in Iraq matches the country’s Sunni-majority areas. That locals prefer the terrorists’ extremist version of Sunni Islam to Baghdad’s rule is telling. It reflects the concerns of Iraq’s Sunni citizens about the state’s increasingly Shi’a orientation, as seen in the use of Shi’ite militia to augment government forces despite accusations they commit human rights abuses in Sunni regions, Baghdad’s close military cooperation with Shi’ite-majority Iran to defeat ISIS, and the rising influence of popular Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In the geopolitical background, the brutal Syrian civil war, now heavily divided along Sunni-Shi’a lines, and a regional power struggle between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Iran, loom large.
The ‘liberation’ of Fallujah is beginning to look like an occupation. After taking the city, ISF detained the city’s male residents on suspicion of supporting ISIS. ISF have now uncovered mass graves of its comrades, putting the detained men at risk of extra-judicial execution. Though some undoubtedly collaborated with ISIS, either out of ideological sympathy or fear, the government must uphold the rule of law or be seen as no better than the terrorists it evicted. Outside of the city, the controversial Shi’ite militia are accused of torturing some of the tens of thousands of people fleeing the city. For those who escaped unharmed, there is no safe place to go: Baghdad has refused to let them leave Anbar province, exposing the refugees to the sandstorms and heat of the Iraqi summer. Though Fallujah residents report of ISIS’ enduring brutal rule, the terrorist group’s defeat has not greatly improved their lives.
Baghdad cannot risk further inflaming sectarian tensions when the central government is just beginning to reclaim control of the country. Any further territorial gains it makes will be determined by the willingness of locals to support its rule. They will look to the treatment of Fallujah residents as a precedent. From what they have seen so far, Baghdad has offered them few reasons to embrace a return to government control. Without swift remedial action, Iraq’s precarious security situation will continue to deteriorate.
William Baulch is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
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Image Credit: United States Forces Iraq (Flickr: Creative Commons).