Middle East

Fight to drive 'IS' from Iraq far from over

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

Falluja may mark another turning point in the fight against so-called Islamic State (IS). And yet, as a potential humanitarian crises unfolds, defeat could still be snatched from the jaws of victory.

Iraq's security forces are, at last, reversing IS gains.

Falluja was the first Iraqi city IS captured and the start of a rout.

But the Iraqi forces that fled, offering barely any resistance, are finally turning the tables on their enemy.

Over the past 90 days, they have been retaking territory almost as fast as they lost it.

The recapture of Ramadi took eight weeks, the city of Hit eight days, and Rutba just eight hours.

We watched the Iraqi army's quick-reaction force first enter Falluja last week.

Their commander, Gen Abbas, was confident of success.

As his forces battled IS positions just a few hundred metres away, he told me he was "100% sure" they would defeat the extremists.

Such certainty while under fire is, in part, down to the help they have been getting from above.

As Gen Abbas ordered his tanks and troops forward, he was able to talk directly to coalition warplanes and call in air strikes.

The Iraqi army itself is also better equipped and trained.

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Yet Fallujah is also a reminder of the huge struggles ahead.

It has history.

It is a Sunni city in a majority Shia country.

Image caption Gen Abbas is confident of success

Twelve years ago, the US Marine Corps lost almost 100 men in Falluja, with hundreds more wounded, as it tried to crush an insurgency that existed long before the arrival of IS.

More recently, it has been a base from where extremists have launched suicide attacks in Baghdad.

Those sectarian divisions have once again been exposed in the efforts to liberate Falluja from IS control.

We heard Sunni civilians fleeing the fighting bitterly complain their homes had been targeted by Shia militia helping the Iraqi security forces surround the city.

There is evidence too that men of fighting age have been abused and tortured by some of those same Shia militia.

Aware of the danger of a widening sectarian gulf in taking the city, the US-led coalition has consistently warned the Iraqi government it will withdraw its military support if those Shia forces enter the city itself.

The fighting has already left much of Falluja in ruins and tens of thousands of its citizens displaced.

If the Iraqi government wants to return order, it will have to show quickly it is making efforts to rebuild.

Without homes, hospitals and schools, there will be plenty of lingering resentment.

Any so-called "victory" will be hollow without a dividend for peace.

Image caption Maj Gen Gary Volesky faces significant challenges

Maj Gen Gary Volesky is the second most senior US military commander in Baghdad.

This is his fifth deployment to Iraq.

Every time he has been here, he believes, he has left Iraq "better than when I got here".

Not everyone might agree.

But he says what is different this time is Iraq has been facing an enemy "that plants flags and takes terrain".

The coalition has had to retrain the Iraqi army to fight a more conventional war.

And this time, unlike his previous deployments, it is the Iraqis leading the fight on the ground.

But this could easily return to being another insurgency.

Hundreds of IS fighters have already fled Falluja - possibly to fight another day.

Defeating IS in battle is not the same as defeating its twisted ideology.

And there are still deep divisions in Iraq between Sunni, Kurd and Shia.

Even an optimist such as Gen Volesky admits there are "significant challenges" ahead.

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