Iraqi forces say they have completely liberated the first city the Islamic State (IS) seized in the country, in 2014.
Iraqi troops recaptured Fallujah on Sunday, a strategic victory that could provide the government with momentum to retake Mosul, the largest city of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.
In addition to the military significance of the victory in Fallujah, the retaking of the city marks a path to restoring normalcy for the more than 80,000 civilians the battle displaced, and for Iraq's hopes of "becoming a civic state in which democracy and national pride help quell sectarian divisions," as The Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board wrote Thursday.
“The global campaign to defeat Islamic State and end its influence over lone-wolf terrorists depends to a large degree on a grand moral reckoning inside Iraq. Can the country’s majority Shiite Muslims ever treat Sunnis as equal citizens rather them drive them to rely on IS for protection?” wrote the board.
“A possible answer to that question came with the recent retaking of the city of Fallujah from the militant group by Iraqi forces.”
Fallujah, about 40 miles west of Baghdad, has a history of militant insurgency. In 2004, American soldiers saw the deadliest urban combat since Vietnam, as more than 100 American soldiers were killed there. And in January 2014, it was the first Iraqi city to fall to IS, as the Islamic State spread its caliphate across Syria and into Iraq.
After about a month of fighting, Iraqi forces, with help from US air strikes and intelligence support, were able to liberate the city after a month-long fight.
Iraqi forces now have their sights set on Mosul. Following the victory in Fallujah, Iraqi Prime Minster Haider-al-Abadi said, “God willing [the Iraqi tricolored flag] will soon fly in Mosul." Iraqi leaders have pledged to liberate Mosul this year, but US officials and analysts agree that might be too soon a timeframe.
"Mosul can be a nastier fight than what we saw in Fallujah," US Army Col. Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the American-led military coalition, told the Associated Press. "If that's the Iraqi capital of the caliphate one would expect them to fight hard to maintain that."
IS controls swaths of northern and western Iraq.
Much of Fallujah is also in rubbles, with buildings either completely decimated or blown apart. And trenches and earthen berms have been cut into many of Fallujah’s roadways.
To escape the fighting, an estimated 85,000 civilians fled the city. They have set up a makeshift camp in the desert.
“The camps, just across the river from Baghdad, have little shelter, few toilets, and so little drinking water that children scramble for water bottles thrown from pickup trucks,” wrote the Monitor’s Jane Arraf on June 21.
The failure of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and international aid to help the estimated 80,000 Fallujah residents who have fled – 20,000 of them in just two days last week – is raising alarm over the prospect of reconciliation with the central government seen as essential to Iraq’s stability.
And the conditions have shocked even seasoned aid workers, wrote Ms. Arraf.
“There was nothing here two days ago,” says Karl Schembri of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), stunned by the sight of hundreds of families in what had been an empty field near the town of Amariyat al-Fallujah. “We supply them with packaged food and water bottles but you can see they are sleeping wherever they can … mostly they are on their own.”
But Mr. Haider al-Abadi, the leader of the country’s majority Shiite Muslims, and international groups are providing aid to the displaced civilians, many of whom are Sunnis.
“This compassion by his Shiite-dominated regime follows a pattern in which fleeing Iraqi Sunnis, driven from their homeland by IS since 2014, have found refuge in mainly Shiite areas,” writes the Monitor’s editorial board. “This inclusiveness may help the government in its planned retaking of an even larger city, Mosul.”
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.