Photographer: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Inside Fallujah's Siege: Trapped With Islamic State

A defeat for Islamic State would be a blow to its jihadist narrative. But residents fear sectarian violence may follow the city's recapture.

Abu Anas al-Falluji gives each of his three children a 5-milligram tablet of Valium at bedtime to help them sleep through the thud of rocket and mortar fire as Iraqi forces battle Islamic State. And, he says, to dull any pain if the family’s home is hit.

Life in Fallujah — the first Iraqi city to fall to the extremists and now a major test of their staying power — is full of grim routines. Each night, al-Falluji says goodbye to his wife, just in case. She wears trousers to bed. “Should we die and people have to dig us out of the rubble, her body and legs won’t be exposed,” he explains in a phone interview from the city.

The U.S.-backed fight to recapture Fallujah is in its third week. Victory there would open the way for a campaign to liberate Mosul and eject Islamic State from its last major stronghold in OPEC’s second-largest producer. But any setback could deal a fatal blow to Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government, already beset by popular protests and sectarian strains.

Sectarian Strife

Fallujah has been central to more than a decade of violence in Iraq. It was the first city to rise up against the U.S. occupation after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In March 2004, four American Blackwater contractors were burned to death by extremists, their charred bodies dragged through Fallujah’s streets and hung from a bridge. U.S. forces bombed the city for months.

A decade later, sectarian tensions made it easy prey for Islamic State. The jihadist group benefited from the alienation and rage that Fallujah’s Sunni Muslims felt toward the new Shiite rulers in Baghdad.

Islamic State also has a lot at stake in Fallujah, and that’s clear from the way it’s reporting the battle, according to Charlie Winter, senior research associate at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict & Violence Initiative. In other cities where it was under attack, the group barred members from discussing operations. This time it’s practically live-blogging the unfolding siege.

“It can’t be seen to abandon Fallujah,” said Winter, who studies the group’s propaganda. “To give up without a fight would fatally damage its narrative.”

A member of the Iraqi government forces walks amid the rubble of a destroyed building on the front line near the village of al-Azraqiyah, northwest of the city of Fallujah, on June 5, 2016.
A member of the Iraqi government forces walks amid the rubble of a destroyed building on the front line near the village of al-Azraqiyah, northwest of the city of Fallujah, on June 5, 2016.
Photographer: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate is under attack on several fronts. In Syria, government troops and Kurdish forces are advancing toward Raqqa, its de facto capital. The group’s Libyan affiliate has suffered reverses.

But in each country, the groups fighting against Islamic State are divided among themselves.

Preparing to Storm

In Fallujah, Shiite militias backed by Iran are playing a key role alongside the Iraqi army in the fight to recapture a largely Sunni region. That’s raised concerns about a sectarian killing spree if the city is freed, since some Iraqi Shiites see all the country’s Sunnis as being Islamic State collaborators.

In a video widely circulated on social media, Aws al-Khafaji, head of the Abu Fadhil al-Abbas militia, declared: “There are no patriots, no real religious people in Fallujah, it’s our chance to clear Iraq by eradicating the cancer of Fallujah.”

Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that it had received “credible allegations” of summary executions, beatings and enforced “disappearances” by government forces since the battle for Fallujah began.

Restraint Urged

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has urged restraint, while Abadi has ordered the arrest of fighters accused of abuses. In other towns captured from the jihadists, the worst fears mostly haven’t been realized.

Still, the lack of unity among the different groups working to free the city is delaying its advance, said Sheikh Majeed al-Juraisy, a tribal leader from Garma near Fallujah in interview from Erbil. “No one on the ground can tell you how long this battle will take,” he said.

Iraqis walk towards a military point as they flee the violence in their village of Saqlawiyah, north west of Fallujah, on June 3, 2016.
Iraqis walk towards a military point as they flee the violence in their village of Saqlawiyah, north west of Fallujah, on June 3, 2016.
Photographer: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Iraq’s soldiers and militiamen face an enemy that, according to residents, spent the past two years digging elaborate tunnels and underground bunkers from which it can stage surprise attacks.

Iraqi forces reached the outskirts of the city last week, then ran into fierce resistance and called in reinforcements. The U.S. is supporting the campaign with airstrikes against Islamic State positions.

Inside the city, clashes intensify at about 8 p.m. every night. Some shells land but don’t explode, and Islamic State fighters scramble to save the TNT, al-Falluji said.

Residents like him — his name has been changed to prevent retribution — are trapped. They’re left hoping that a government victory won’t be followed by a resurgence of the sectarian bloodshed that gripped Iraq after the U.S. invasion.

Twisting Narrative

There are as many as 90,000 people stuck in the city, according to the United Nations, even after thousands escaped in the past week. The UN says militants may be using human shields.

Iraqi pro-government forces and Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units fire rockets from the village of al-Azraqiyah towards Islamic State (IS) group positions in the city of Fallujah, on June 4, 2016.
Iraqi pro-government forces and Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units fire rockets from the village of al-Azraqiyah towards Islamic State (IS) group positions in the city of Fallujah, on June 4, 2016.
Photographer: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Winter, the Georgia State scholar, says Islamic State is highlighting the danger of Shiite militias overrunning Fallujah “to scare people into acquiescence. It’s a key way for them to perpetuate their hold.” And if a government victory was followed by the feared bloodbath, Islamic State could exploit that for propaganda and turn “a potential defeat into something useful,” he said.

Islamic State is also using plain force to keep the city’s population from fleeing, al-Falluji said. “If they catch men trying to escape they hit them with sticks. And they order the women to go back.”

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