INTERNATIONAL aid agencies are warning that the Iraqi army’s liberation of Fallujah does not signal an early end to the humanitarian catastrophe in and around the city. The Iraqi Ground Forces, backed by Shia militiamen, announced on Sunday that IS fighters had been forced out of all districts of Fallujah after an offensive that lasted five weeks.
The next day, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said it was “very concerned about the extremely dire conditions” being experienced by more than 85,000 people who had fled for safety. The agency, through its partners, has so far distributed enough immediate-response food rations to feed almost 75,000 newly displaced people arriving at the two main camps in Habbaniya Tourism City and Amiriyat al-Fallujah.
During the weeks of fighting, the WFP said, waves of people left the city, which lies 40 miles west of Baghdad. People were gathered “in dozens of small camps where conditions are very harsh and many families are forced to share already overcrowded tents.” Others are stranded in the desert or are sheltering in mosques and schools. WFP’s deputy country director in Iraq, Maha Ahmed, said that the agency was “working with humanitarian partners to ensure comprehensive and rapid relief is provided for affected families, who have already been through enough.”
Not all families living in Fallujah were able to escape the five weeks of bombardment. IS prevented many from leaving, forcing them to become human shields, as living conditions deteriorated. The residents of Fallujah, Ms Ahmed said, “have been suffering under siege for many months without access to food or medical care. Reaching them now with life-saving food and other priorities is the absolute top priority.”
As the exchanges of fire intensified last week, the IS presence gradually decreased, allowing still more Fallujah residents to flee. Ms Ahmed described the state of affairs as “heart breaking. We met a young mother this week who escaped the violence with her new-born baby in her arms. He was only four days old when they fled.”
Over recent weeks, aid agencies have reported worsening conditions both inside the city and in refugee camps. The head of the Iraq office of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, Bruno Geddo, said the “speed and size of the population displacement from Fallujah has been overwhelming”. UNHCR is building camps as fast as it is able; but the intense summer heat, with temperatures in the mid-40s Celsius, is contributing to the challenge of keeping poorly nourished refugees alive. A spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, Karl Schembri, told the Daily Telegraph that “people are going to die because they are exposed to the elements and the searing heat”
The Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, visited Fallujah on Sunday when victory was declared. He said that the government wanted “the people of Fallujah and its outskirts to return to their homes as soon as possible. We have huge numbers of displaced people living in tents.” He said that the authorities were prioritising the provision of the necessary services to them. He was confident that they could “return to their areas after we make sure that the areas and the houses are safe”.
The country’s defence minister, Khalid al-Obeidi, estimated that about 90 per cent of Fallujah was safe and habitable “because we caught Daesh [IS] off guard, preventing them from destroying the city, as they did with Ramadi and Sinjar.” Nevertheless, traumatised refugees are unlikely to start returning before guarantees about their safety can be provided and basic services restored.
The Iraqi army’s successful operation to retake Fallujah means that attention will now focus on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which was taken over by IS exactly two years ago. Any military attack on Mosul will have to be on a much bigger scale than the Fallujah offensive. Mosul is central to IS’s vision of an Islamic caliphate encompassing the whole of Iraq and Syria, and so the jihadists will put all their resources into holding it.
At the same time, political and military consultations will be required to achieve coordination among Iraqi army units, Iranian-backed Shia militiamen, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and the United States and other powers providing air support. The Iraqi authorities are hoping to launch the attack on Mosul before the end of this year. But it seems increasingly unlikely that all the various elements will be in place to meet that deadline. In the meantime, the inhabitants of Mosul, having seen the civilian suffering in Fallujah, are fearful for their own fate when the battles start, with the expectation that IS will do its best to stop a civilian exodus.