"iraq" courtesy of [The U.S. Army via Flickr]
In Fallujah, Offensive Stalls As Civilian Lives Are Threatened
Amid machine gunfire and plumes of smoke, the Iraqi military halted its push to retake the city of Fallujah from the grip of the Islamic State on Wednesday. The pause is due to a confluence of factors: to protect civilians still inside the city, and to weather a fierce Islamic State, or ISIS, counterattack.
The Fallujah offensive began on May 22. In the days since, the outskirts of the city have been pounded by American led airstrikes and Iraqi forces on the ground. The city proper, a dense urban sprawl with 50,000 civilians still trapped inside (20,000 of which are children, according to UNICEF), has yet to be directly attacked. The Iraqi army and American forces are reluctant to attack the city proper because of the deep roots ISIS has planted there during its two year occupation and the high risk of civilian casualties.
Deepening the dicey situation in Fallujah is the fact that sectarian divisions that have long been present in Iraq are heightened by the warring factions as well as the non-fighting citizens. ISIS is largely comprised of Sunnis, as are most civilians in Fallujah, and the Iraq military is dominated by Shiites. The two Islamic sects have been at the center of violent clashes in the country since its inception in 1920.
Despite the sluggish pace of the offensive, The Associated Press reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi remains confident, noting the “remarkable advance” by his country’s forces against ISIS. “The main goal of the military operation now is to reduce civilian and army casualties,” he said.
Fallujah is the last city held by ISIS in western Iraq, though the group still controls Mosul, the country’s second-largest city to Baghdad, which is 40 miles east of Fallujah. Preparations for an offensive there are currently being made, with a full-scale attack expected sometime next year.
According to the United Nations, 3,700 people have already fled Fallujah for nearby cities that are not about to be shelled. Still a massive concern for the Iraqi army, the U.S. air force, and international aid groups is the thousands of children still within the city.
A statement by UNICEF–the U.N.’s child rights arm–expressed hope that both sides will recognize the danger this conflict poses to the children in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq:
“Children face the risk of forced recruitment into the fighting, strict procedures for security screening and separation from their families. Children who are recruited see their lives and futures jeopardized as they are forced to carry and use arms, fighting in an adult war.”
It added, “According to reports, food and medicine are running out and clean water is in short supply.”
A total of 867 people were killed in Iraq in May. Over half of those were civilian deaths.