Iraqis Take Fallujah, Triggering Massive Refugee Crisis

Iraqis take Fallujah after almost a month of fighting to reclaim the town formerly controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL, or ISIS.

The ancient mosque town of Fallujah, in Al Anbar province of Iraq, was one of the first towns to be occupied by the ISIS, in early 2014. The reclamation of Fallujah by the Iraq Security Forces comes as the culmination of a series of attacks on Islamic State bastions in the town, launched by the Iraqi government on May 23.

Iraqis take Fallujah Iraqi army personnel pose for the camera after the victory [Photo by AP Images]After conquering most of Fallujah on Saturday, government fighting forces have now set their eyes on the recapture of Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city and the ISIS stronghold.

While Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced the “return” of Fallujah and the subsequent identification of the target of Mosul in the path to defeating ISIS, their Defense Minister, Dr Khalid Al-Obeidi, tweeted a series of announcements from his travels with the troops, essaying the army’s movement towards Mosul, through Qayyarah.

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Residents of Fallujah have been trying to flee the city in the past two days in large numbers, with an aim of setting up camps in the desert areas surrounding Fallujah, triggering an escalating need for humanitarian aid. Nasr Muflahi, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Erbil in Iraq, spoke to Al Jazeera about the crisis.

“In the last 24 hours, more than 2,300 families have actually managed to leave Fallujah, and to be honest, there’s very little space for them in Amariyat al-Fallujah, Habbaniyah Tourit City and Khaldiyah, which is where they are escaping to. We are now finding it difficult to cope with the numbers that are coming out of Fallujah, especially in terms of delivering safe drinking water. We’re down to the bare minimum of three litres per person, and we’re not really sure how long we can continue to do that.”

A flash report and plea for help published by the UNHCR identifies the grand total figure of Iraqi people displaced after the attack at Fallujah as 150,000. Most of them have fled a two-year long oppressive regime. The settlement camps are already stretched to the limit. As more and more on-spot journalists and aid-workers take to social media to report the situation of desperation, the report also point to the fact that there are reports of the ISIS shooting people leaving to discourage others from following suit. Families, desperate to flee the ravage, have reportedly been swimming across the Euphrates to reach safer shores.

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The raising of the Iraqi flag in Fallujah is a significant breakthrough in the Iraqi government’s efforts to defeat the IS. It is the fourth IS-held city to fall, after Ramadi, Hit and Rutbah. As the Iraqi ISF is locked in struggle to weed out pockets of IS control in Fallujah, most of the main buildings, including the city center and the hospital have been “liberated” by the army, which was once actively trained by the U.S. army and enjoys its support now.

Iraqis take Fallujah U.S. Navy SEALS show proper weapons handling to Iraqi army scouts at Fallujah in 2007 [Photo by John Moore/Getty Images]Fallujah lies 70 km to the west of Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad, and its people are wracked not only by oppressive control of the ISIS, but also by Sunni extremism, and the reaction to it by the Shia units that have now joined ranks with the Iraqi governments counter-terrorism forces.

The re-occupation of Fallujah comes at the price of concern over torture tactics employed by both the ISIS — members of which have been trying to flee along with residents of Fallujah — and the Shia forces whose treatment of people has moved Sunni politicians to plead to the Prime Minister for a look into the matter. The overall picture of Fallujah is that of wreckage and ruin, as evident in the video tweeted by Loveday Morris, the Washington Post’s Baghdad Bureau Chief.

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[Photo by AP Images]