by Ali Ameri (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 5, Ramadan, 1437)
Has the central government in Baghdad realized that merely liberating physical space from the clutches of the takfiris is not enough? It has to win the hearts and minds of people that found the demonic notions of the takfiris appealing. A good starting point would be to treat citizens equally above tribal or sectarian considerations.
“Fallujah has returned to the nation and Mosul is the next battle, Da‘ish will be defeated,” declared Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi in a triumphant announcement on television, June 17, flanked by top army commanders.
The campaign to liberate Fallujah had begun nearly four weeks earlier on May 23 but progress was slow. The takfiri terrorists occupying the city barely 50km west of the capital Baghdad had laid many mines and booby traps along the way as well as inside the city. Early in the day on June 17, Iraqi forces announced they had entered the centre of Fallujah. “The counterterrorism service and the rapid response forces have retaken the government compound in the centre of Fallujah,” the operation’s overall commander, Lieutenant-General ‘Abd al-Wahab al-Sa‘adi, told the AFP news agency. The Iraqi flag was raised on top of the main city building to indicate government control.
Iraqi commanders leading the assault said their forces had met little resistance from the terrorists during the push into the city centre. “The enemy is collapsing. They have lost control of their fighters. They are on the run now,” Lt. General ‘Abd al-Ameer al-Shammari said. Special forces commander Brig. Haider al-Obedi told AP that his troops controlled 80% of the city.
Matthew Henman, from the Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, however, seemed less confident about the victory claims by government forces saying that even with the “breakthrough,” it would take “much longer” to completely get rid of ISIL (the name usually preferred by the West for the terrorists) in Fallujah, and prevent future attacks. While there may be small pockets of resistance in the city, the fact that the terrorists did not put up a strong fight indicates their lack of resolve, exhaustion, and perhaps the realization that their case is hopeless. There have been a number of reports of defections from the takfiri ranks.
In announcing the liberation of Fallujah, the Iraqi government also said Mosul was next in the drive to cleanse the country of all takfiri terrorists. In a sign that the government is sensitive to the concerns of the largely Sunni population of Fallujah, Shi‘i militias were not used in the final push on the city. In the past, there were allegations of abuse by such militias against civilians. Unfortunately, these are true.
Allegations were again floated in Western media reports, more to tarnish the Iraqi army than to reflect current reality on the ground. Even so, media reports started to highlight “thousands” fleeing the city and the surrounding areas as the military made progress against the takfiris. The UN also jumped into the fray revising its figure of the number of people trapped inside the city from 50,000 to 90,000. The UN had seldom, if ever, expressed any concern for the well being of these people when the takfiris controlled the city. Are we to assume that they treated the civilian population with kindness and compassion?
Nevertheless, the plight of civilians should not be taken lightly or underestimated. The UN has alleged that many of the people escaping the city have been detained and kept in detention facilities that lack basic services including food and medicine. While this may be true, it is pertinent to ask, what is the UN doing to help alleviate their suffering, a crisis hyperbolically dubbed “one of the worst in the world.” Since the beginning of 2014 when the takfiris erupted in the region, 2.6 million Iraqis have fled the country while another 3.4 million have been displaced internally. These are certainly huge numbers but not as high as those in neighboring Syria.
Fallujah’s liberation will resonate far beyond its borders. It had been under the terrorists’ control longer (since January 2014) than any other Iraqi city. When the terrorists took control, they found a largely eager population welcoming them, thanks to the mishandling of the Sunni tribes by the Baghdad regime. Fallujah has been in struggle mode since the US occupation of Iraq in 2003. In that sense, it is the frontline of resistance to foreign occupation as well as the centre of Sunni tribal resentment to the heavy-handedness of the central government in Baghdad. Into this explosive mix entered the takfiris playing on the grudges — real and imagined — of the Sunni tribes.
Instead of being sensitive to the legitimate concerns of the people in order to alleviate them as part of state building efforts, Iraqi politicians have resorted to their own sectarianism. The failure — or inability — to control excesses by Shi‘i militias played into the hands of the takfiri terrorists who exploited the situation fully. The Iraqi army may have physically liberated Fallujah but winning the hearts and minds of the people will be a much more challenging task. This is where statesmanship comes in, a quality severely lacking among most politicians in Baghdad who act with little regard to the rule of law or respect for people’s rights. Corruption and nepotism are rampant amid gross incompetence.
More than any other Iraqi city, Fallujah will be the test case of whether the government in Baghdad can represent all the people without considerations of sectarianism or tribal interests and affiliations. If the central government succumbs to the temptations of sectarianism or is motivated by revenge this will make the task of state building not only difficult, but virtually impossible. It was precisely the sense of alienation among the Sunni tribes that the takfiris exploited so skillfully to advance their nefarious agenda.
It is widely known and even acknowledged that Iraqi security forces indulge in the torture of detainees. This may not be the result so much of sectarianism as it is the product of a culture of impunity. Torture has always been widely practiced by security forces in the region. This is as true of Iraq as it is of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or any other Arabian regime. In Iraq’s case, since the Ba‘thist regime of Saddam Husain indulged in torture as well as other horrific crimes, those who replaced him felt that they could continue the practice or even intensify it because they had suffered so much under Saddam.
While Saddam was a criminal and monster and it is also true that he gave preferential treatment to the Sunnis over the majority Shi‘i population, it would be wrong to assume that all Sunnis were implicated in Saddam’s crimes. He brooked no opposition from anyone, be it Shi‘i, Sunni or even members of his own family. He had his own sons-in-law executed for attempting to overthrow him (actually, their families killed them!). But the former tyrant met his well-deserved punishment. It behooves Iraq’s new rulers not to repeat the horrors of Saddam’s era that they so much despised. Similarly, the well-documented crimes of the takfiris should not be repeated either, regardless of how horrific they may be.
There needs to be realization that the central government in Baghdad represents all the people regardless of sectarian or tribal considerations. Further, the culture of impunity and torture rampant among security forces should be brought under control and ended. To carry out reforms both in the security services as well as the judiciary would require a major effort. Many courts are dysfunctional and judges are known to act in an arbitrary manner much like those in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. This does not inspire much confidence in people.
While the Iraqi army may be able to liberate physical space — although even that is not assured given the level of their amateurish performance — the much more difficult task is to liberate the minds and hearts of the people. This can only achieved by inspiring confidence in them and ensuring that the state is there to represent and serve all the people.
That is the challenge awaiting a post-liberation Fallujah.