Middle East

IS conflict: Iraq's Falluja remains a battleground

Collapsed building in Falluja, 18 June Image copyright AFP

We drove into Falluja on a road that snaked through what was once a wealthy suburb but is now deserted. Many homes have been destroyed. On the rooftops of those buildings left standing were soldiers positioned behind sandbags.

The Iraqi army and its allies may have retaken most of this city from the so-called Islamic State, but militants are still active in some areas.

By the side of the road, unexploded shells showed how dangerous these streets remain for civilians if they are allowed to return.

Many tell harrowing escape stories. Some have been caught in crossfire, others drowned in the Euphrates as they tried to swim to safety.

Most of the men have been detained for screening by security forces hunting militants. Women and children have been staying in camps around the city.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Tens of thousands of Falluja residents have fled to camps near the city

The battle for Falluja, 50km (30 miles) west of Baghdad, began in earnest last month, after a seven-month siege by government forces.

The assault has been swift compared with previous operations to retake key cities like Ramadi, Rutba and Tikrit.

The Iraqi commander leading the Falluja operation, Gen Abdel Wahab al-Saadi, explained how his forces - backed by US-led air strikes - managed to recapture key districts in just four weeks.

It was down to "experience and proper planning", he said.

"The militants' strategy was based on entrenching their defence lines on the edges of the city, but they suddenly collapsed in the face of our massive force," he told me.

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Media captionJonathan Beale joined the Iraqi army's quick reaction force on the edge of Falluja

The Shia brigades allied with the government have been conspicuous by their absence in the districts we drove through - unlike in surrounding areas.

Gen Saadi says his orders from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi are that "only government forces enter the inner neighbourhoods".

The presence of the mainly Shia volunteer units, known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, is very sensitive in predominantly Sunni cities like Falluja, as it stokes sectarianism amid allegations of abuses committed by some Shia fighters.

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Booby traps

We heard the sound of artillery and gunfire wherever we went.

"There are few resistance pockets around the city centre but we will finish them off," said Gen Saadi.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Military commanders said they had faced little resistance from IS

Asked whether it was safe for our team to visit the government compound, the commander replied: "Of course you cannot."

"There is no longer a government compound," he said. "It is flattened. The militants dynamited it alongside many buildings in the city before their escape, and the area there must be full of roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices."

Many homes we saw in districts like the southern districts of al-Shuhada and al-Hayakel were destroyed.

Officers say most of the destruction has been caused by the booby traps placed by Sunni rebels and IS militants.

It is not possible to determine whether the US-led air strikes or the army shelling have also played a role in the destruction.


Most of the civilians in Falluja have been forced to live under IS's harsh rule. They would not dare to revolt.

Sunni Muslims suffered marginalisation under the Shia-led government of former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

But they never imagined that life would be like a nightmare under IS, which took over the city in January 2014.

The United Nations estimated that 90,000 civilians were trapped there when the assault began last month.

Since the start of the operation, as many as 40,000 people have taken advantage of IS' retreat to flee.

Meanwhile, aid workers and volunteers have warned of an unfolding humanitarian crisis because of the severe shortage of food supplies, water and medicine.