The battle for Fallujah: Fighting returns to Iraqi city as al-Qa’ida-linked rebels gain stronghold

Civilians are deserting the city amid heavy fighting. They fear an all-out assault by the Iraqi army seeking to root out al-Qa’ida-linked rebels, which have gained control of the Sunni city

Thousands of civilians are fleeing Fallujah as the rebel-held city just west of Baghdad comes under heavy bombardment amid fears that the Iraqi army might launch an all-out assault. Some 42,000 Iraqi security forces are reported to be taking part in operations in the Fallujah area where there has been heavy fighting over the last four months.

Refugees from Fallujah expect a repeat of the assault by the US Marines in November 2004 when much of the city was destroyed by artillery and air attack. Some 60,000 families or about 300,000 people have fled on foot, mostly making for the western part of Anbar province according to a local council member.

As government ground forces face difficulties fighting their way into Fallujah against an entrenched resistance, officials have told agencies that they are relying increasingly on bombardment from conventional artillery and “barrel bombs”, which are large quantities of explosives packed into containers and dropped from helicopters. The use of barrel bombs, which have become notorious because of their use by government forces in Syria, is denied by government spokesmen in Baghdad, but residents are quoted as saying that they are causing heavy destruction in Fallujah.

A mid-level security officer is quoted by Reuters as confirming that barrel bombs have been used in Fallujah. He said: “It’s the scorched earth policy – the destruction of a whole area. The army is less experienced in house-to-house fighting which the rebels have mastered. That’s why they’ve resorted to this.”

The army has five divisions in Anbar province which should mean 100,000 soldiers, but the real figure is lower because of casualties and desertions, said an Iraqi source.

Some 6,000 soldiers are reported to have been killed and 12,000 deserted during the months of fighting in Anbar. The mid-level officer said “the commanders are telling their leaders what they want to hear not what they should hear, only to keep their positions and further their greed.”

Fallujah has come increasingly under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), formerly al-Qa’ida in Iraq, since it took over the city in alliance with Sunni tribal fighters in early January. Since then Isis has grown in strength as it expands its power in a swathe of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria. It has even held a military parade in Abu Ghraib on the western outskirts of Baghdad, forcing the hasty evacuation of the famous prison. Isis has carried out car bomb attacks in Baghdad in retaliation for the army operation, killing 21 people Isis has carried out car bomb attacks in Baghdad in retaliation for the army operation, killing 21 people

Isis says it has carried out bomb attacks in Baghdad in retaliation for bombardment of Fallujah using car bombs, at least 10 of which exploded in the capital last week, killing 21 and injuring 73 people.

These were detonated in predominantly Shia areas and an Isis statement said they were the beginning of operations called “Revenge Campaign for Fallujah”. Isis, which regards Shia as heretics who should be killed, says it is targeting “the headquarters and gatherings of the apostate government, its parties and militias”. In practice, Isis bombs are most usually directed at civilians in markets and bus queues in Shia areas.

Isis acted with greater moderation in Fallujah when its fighters first arrived and when it still had to act in concert with the Sunni tribal militias. But residents say that Isis is now the dominant party in its alliance with other groups and can prevent them from negotiating. Fighting is increasingly ferocious with 22 soldiers kidnapped 10 days ago being killed the following day. However, Iraqi police who pledge allegiance to Isis are allowed to keep their weapons.

Isis, which was a much depleted force in 2010, has successfully rebuilt its military power over the last three years. The two main reasons for its growth are the Sunni uprising in Syria since 2011 and the protest movement of Iraqi Sunnis, who make up a fifth of Iraq’s population, against political and economic discrimination. After a peace camp was attacked by the army in Hawijah in April 2013 and some 50 protesters killed the protests have mutated into armed resistance.

The Sunni armed groups are dominated by Isis to an extent that was not true in 2006-7 when it was previously at the height of its influence. It contains many former members of Saddam Hussein’s security forces who have military training and experience of fighting a guerrilla war.

In a well-planned attack on Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons last year it succeeded in freeing many militants. It has also stepped up its suicide bombing campaign making an average of one attack a day.

The escalation in the war in Anbar dates from a successful Isis ambush on 21 December last year in which a number of senior Iraqi army officers, including Gen Mohamed al-Rawi, the commander of the 7th Division, was killed.

Isis was not only able to take over Fallujah but to gain control of Fallujah dam on the Euphrates enabling it to flood areas further south and prevent the army occupying them.

The blowing up of an oil pipeline at Baiji on the Tigris has polluted the water of the river making it impossible for water treatment plants to clean it so it can be used as drinking water in Baghdad.

Despite its current success Isis will find it impossible to expand outside areas where there are Sunni Arab communities. The government is relying increasingly on Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a Shia militia group.

The main oilfields, on which Iraq relies for its $100bn in annual oil revenue, are in the south of the country far from the fighting, though even these may be vulnerable to raiders coming across the desert from Anbar province.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition