Tens of thousands of lives – and the future of Iraq – are at stake as the country’s forces and Shia militias fight Isis for the city.
On a narrow dirt road in the village of Sijar, a column of green Toyota pick-up trucks carrying Shia paramilitaries and rocket launchers jostled for space with the Humvees of the Iraqi police. A platoon of exhausted snipers stood at the side of the road waving their guns in the air and taking selfies. A truck carrying a flag-draped coffin attempted to push through.
What was, until late last month, a quiet stretch of track twisting between fields and palm groves in territory held by Islamic State is now one of Iraq’s busiest military arteries, ferrying men and equipment to the frontline of the battle for Falluja.
Sijar, which lies just to the north-east of the city, was itself under Isis control until late last month, when two years of terrifying rule by the jihadi group was ended by the military advance of Iraqi forces aided by Shia militias. Now, the talk at the roadside is of whether Iraq’s fourth city, which became the first to fall to Isis in January 2014, can really be won back – and of the damage it will inflict on the jihadi group if it is.
At stake is not only the credibility of the Iraqi forces, but the lives of tens of thousands of civilians who remain trapped inside the city and the future of a nation whose sectarian divisions are becoming more visible with every assault on the terror group’s strongholds.
“Falluja is their heart,” said Hayder, the driver of a Humvee ushering Iraqi police commandos to the front. “If they lose it then Daesh [Arabic acronym for Isis] is finished.”
Refugees from Falluja and neighbouring villages receive aid in the camp at Amriyat Falluja.
That is far from certain: the group still controls key strategic territory, most notably Mosul, its northern Iraqi stronghold, and Raqqa, its de-facto capital in Syria. But, for the first time since the self-declared caliphate came into being, Isis is under serious pressure and facing significant territorial losses.
The battle for Falluja – the city that became a hotbed of Sunni insurgency in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s toppling and was the subject of two large-scale offensives by the US military – holds huge symbolic value.
For that reason, Isis is not giving up easily. Faced with the push to oust it from its redoubt just 32 miles west of Baghdad, it has mounted a violent fightback.
The police in the Humvee heading to the front told the Guardian that one of their number had recently been killed by a sustained Isis bombardment.
“They pinned us down here,” said Hayder, his hair thick with yellowish dirt, pointing at a clearing. “We sat in the car for three hours unable to move. Only when their ammo was over did we actually manage to move … Only one of us died; he sat next to me when a bullet hit him the back of his neck.”
Sitting next to him during the interview was a corporal sitting cross-legged on the seat, using the dead man’s flack jacket, still caked in dark dried blood, as a cushion. The rusted and pockmarked vehicle had been their home for two weeks – the roof scratched with memories, the floor thick with mud, food and empty plastic bottles, the armoured windows grazed by years of war.
On both sides of the road were houses flattened by artillery, charred wheat fields and the blackened stumps of palm trees.
This desolate landscape is what Bushra Ahmad and her family used to call home. For two long years, she, her husband and their five children endured Isis’s rule in Sijar, and the government siege on the area that was imposed as a result. They subsisted on a diet of dried dates, maize and garden vegetables.
Then, late last month, the night before the police commandos started advancing, Sijar came under rocket and artillery bombardment. One rocket fell on Ahmad’s sister’s house, killing her and her five-month-old baby.
Jihadi fighters fanned out through out the village and started rounding up the inhabitants, moving them back towards Falluja to prevent them from leaving and to use them as human shields. Ahmad and her family – including her 80-year-old father-in-law – cowered in a corner of their house and hid. But, as the shelling intensified, the family had to make a decision: stay put and risk death or arrest by Isis, or try to cross the frontline at night and surrender to the Iraqi army and Shia militias.
They decided to leave.
They walked in the pitch dark, among the maize and wheat, until they reached an irrigation ditch. “We crawled in the darkness,” said Ahmad. “Daesh were spread out in the fields.”
Bushra Ahmad with her five children outside her tent in the Amriyat Falluja camp.
Up to 40,000 civilians are estimated to remain inside Falluja, about half of whom are thought potentially able to leave and the other half of whom are feared to be trapped, with scarce access to water, food and healthcare. Isis fighters are holed up in a network of tunnels and bunkers, and are believed to be preventing many inhabitants from leaving.
“Daesh are holding the population as hostages, not allowing them to escape, and they are putting up a tough fight there,” the Iraqi finance minister, Hoshiyar Zebari, was quoted as saying on Friday. Earlier in the week the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said the pace of the offensive had slowed because of fears for the civilians’ safety – although it is unclear how many will be able to escape even if the assault is delayed.
In the past week, about 3,700 people are estimated by the UN to have fled, many of them, like the Ahmad family, on foot and through disused irrigation pipes.
The journey is fraught with risks – and, for many of the Sunnis fleeing Falluja, they do not always cease once it is over.
When Ahmad and her relatives finally reached the other side, for instance, they were met by the deep suspicion of a state that has always questioned the loyalties of Sunnis living under Isis control.
“We reached the army and they started firing over our heads; we shouted and waved white cloth,” said Ahmad. “When we came out of the ditch they [Shia paramilitaries] started beating the men; they handcuffed my husband, started dragging him around. I fell on their feet, begging them, then an officer came and stopped the beating. In the morning the army brought us to the camp, but my husband and his 80-year-old father and my eldest son are still detained.”
Days later Ahmad was with her other children in a UNHCR tent at the refugee camp at Amriyat Falluja, 19 miles (30km) from the city. Her youngest, a toddler, clutched at her black robe as she crouched on the floor.
Hundreds of similar tents are spread for miles. Outside one, a man who gave his name as Abu Asa’ad recounted his own terrifying escape. He had fled the city a month ago when he heard of the approaching battle. He hid in Sijar, and then, like Ahmad, he walked through the fields and irrigation canals.
Abu As’sad outside his tent.
“I walked for two nights; we were nine men and 58 women and children, a caravan!” laughed Abu Asa’ad, his head wrapped in a red scarf against the thrashing sandstorm.
He too was detained, for several days, by Shia paramilitaries. “They didn’t beat us, but they kept taunting us, telling us: ‘Why didn’t you revolt against Isis?’ Who am I to revolt against Isis? If the whole state had collapsed in front of them, how can I, a farmer, oppose them?”
Back on the dirt road running through Anbar province between Sijar and Falluja, the sectarian dynamic of the looming battle was clear.
Shia civilian volunteers served food to the fighters from a long line of large pots. The flags of various Iranian-backed militias, along with those of the Iraqi police and army, were planted along the road. Someone had scrawled: “May Allah damn America and the Saudis” on concrete barriers.
Closer to the front, some of the men commandeering the federal police force’s armoured vehicles said they had previously fought in Syria as part of the Shia Badr brigade. With green ribbons around his wrist, their commander, Ali Abdulah, 27, said he had been in the area for 10 days. “Our job is to wade through the fields ahead of the main attack force looking for booby traps or hidden Isis fighters,” he said.
Standing in his undershirt on the patio of a house commandeered by his men, Colonel Thair Kana’an, of the federal police, claimed with grim pragmatism that the Iraqi forces were learning better how to take the fight to Isis. “We are losing more men, but it’s more effective,” he said.
“In general they are much weaker now. I have been fighting them for two years. They used to conquer the land; now they can’t hold the area … And we also have changed; we don’t depend on armoured vehicles. We started using their techniques of infantrymen spreading through the high grass.”
Thair had just been assigned as commander of his unit after the death, the night before, of his predecessor. A large belly protruding over his tight belt, he did not flinch when booming artillery fire passed above.
And neither did he hold back from giving voice to the sectarian prejudice that has dominated post-2003 Iraq – and has only been exploited and exacerbated by the arrival of Isis.
“The Sunnis haven’t yet realised that they have lost power,” said Thair, alluding to perceived grievances since the fall of Saddam, under whom the Sunni minority held power.
“They are like a rich boy who can’t face poverty. Look at their fertile land: why did they need to bring all that destruction? But I tell you, it’s [been] one continuous battle for 1,400 years.”
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad