Screenshot from a video showing Sunni militia fighters in Fallujah.
For more than a week, clashes have been taking place between the regular Iraqi army and Sunni fighters – some of whom have links to Al Qaeda – on the outskirts of Fallujah, in central Iraq. Residents have chosen to flee the city for fear of being caught in the middle of the vicious fighting.
The death toll from the conflict so far is 32 civilians and 62 Al Qaeda fighters. The violence erupted following an ‘anti-terrorist’ operation launched by the Iraqi army in the Al-Anbar region, between the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. The operation infuriated the residents of this primarily Sunni area, who felt discriminated against by a Shiite-dominated government. In response, militias have been formed, supplemented by Al Qaeda fighters implanted in the region.
The fighting is mostly in Fallujah and occurs primarily in the eastern part of the city along the highway connecting Baghdad to Ramadi. Iraqi military convoys operating in Al Anbar province use this road, where several attacks targeting the Iraqi army have taken place in the last few days. Gunfights have also broken out in neighbourhoods along the road.
Fighting also occurred in small villages on the outskirts of the city where combatants from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have taken refuge.
Footage showing fighters from Sunni tribes in Fallujah.
“The people of Fallujah do not want to relive the war of 2004”
Raad al-Kshashee is an Iraqi journalist. He works for the Al-Baghdadiya channel in Fallujah.
Many families living in Fallujah have left the city over the last week. They are mostly women, children, and the elderly. Men often choose to stay behind to protect their homes.First, the residents of the eastern neighbourhoods of the city started to flee the fighting. But last Friday, the ISIS declared that Fallujah is now an ‘Islamic province’ and wholly in their control, even though they only control certain neighbourhoods. This declaration has only strengthened the Iraqi army’s resolve to enter the city and reclaim these neighbourhoods, which will undoubtedly lead to violent conflict. The people of Fallujah do not want to relive the war of 2004, when the American army tried to take control of the city [editor’s note: three large battles pitted the US army against Sunni militias, including Al Qaeda members].
“Leaving the city in your own car is complicated because the army still fears car bombs”
There are four exits that lead out of Fallujah, two of which are controlled by the army, and the remaining two by the ISIS. Civilians are choosing to leave through the exits controlled by the army because there is no fighting in those areas. Families are leaving on foot and occasionally in army or police vehicles, which belong to tribal chiefs. Leaving the city in your own car is complicated because the army still fears car bombs and will rarely allow private vehicles to go through.Wealthier families are leaving for Kurdistan or the capital. The rest are going to take refuge in neighbouring cities while waiting for things to quiet down. The poorest will seek sanctuary in the city’s mosques in the hopes that these holy sites will be off-limits for the fighting.Those who are staying in the city, often in order to fight against the army, are facing a deteriorating situation. There is insufficient gasoline and the power plant doesn’t always work, which makes it hard to keep warm. Food supplies are barely trickling through. The Red Crescent sent two trucks this morning, but it’s far from enough. The army blames this scarcity on the difficulty of securing roads and access points to the city, but many feel that the government is in no hurry to help a region whose population partially revolted against them. All of the conflicts here have political and religious dimensions, and it’s hard to separate the true from the false. I fear the worst for the city of Fallujah.
A deserted Al-Arba’in Avenue in eastern Fallujah. Video sent by Yasser al-Anzy.
Post written in collaboration with FRANCE 24 journalist Sarra Grira (@SarraGrira).