In Iraq's battle for Fallujah, residents gird for long fight
BAGHDAD (AP) Five days into an Iraqi military operation to push Islamic State fighters out of Fallujah, residents still inside the city are preparing for a long battle, with some saying they fear being trapped between two forces they don't fully trust.
More than 50,000 people remain in the center of the Sunni majority city, which has been under control of the extremist group for more than two years. Those who want to leave describe deteriorating humanitarian conditions, but they also say they are wary of the Iraqi government forces who have pledged to liberate them.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the offensive late Sunday night. Backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi forces are tightening their grip around Fallujah and dislodging IS militants from key areas.
"The airstrikes are almost constant," one man told The Associated Press by phone from inside the city Thursday. The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns for his safety, said that after living for weeks on rice, canned food and processed cheese, those stocks were beginning to run low.
While many in Fallujah welcomed the takeover of the city by the Sunni-led Islamic State group as an alternative to what they considered their marginalization at the hands of Iraq's leaders, humanitarian conditions in the city have deteriorated under the extremists.
Located 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, the city has a history of anti-government sentiment in post 2003 Iraq.
After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein, the city's 250,000 residents initially supported a Sunni insurgency that rose up against U.S. forces and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Militants from al-Qaida in Iraq fought two bloody battles with U.S. troops in Fallujah in 2004 that killed more than 100 Americans and wounded more than 1,000.
In 2012, Fallujah was the heart of an anti-government protest movement that mobilized tens of thousands across Sunni areas. The demonstrations were sparked by then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's increasingly sectarian rule that many Sunnis felt had left them without a voice. Clashes between Iraqi security forces and protesters killed dozens in Fallujah, with thousands of young men arrested.
Shortly after a bloody raid on a Fallujah protest camp in early 2014, Islamic State militants moved in and took over the town. IS later captured the second-largest city of Mosul and then swept toward Baghdad in a blitz that seized nearly a third of Iraq territory.
As Iraqi government troops surrounded Fallujah in summer 2015, residents began reporting increased cases of malnutrition, with the siege preventing food and medicine from entering the city.
This week, as the fighting intensified, food and water are becoming even harder to find, residents told the AP by phone and the internet. The Iraqi forces don't want the militants to escape the city, and coalition officials estimated earlier this week that 500-700 IS fighters remain in Fallujah, nestled among the civilian population.
Iraqi military officials insist that safe "corridors" will be established to allow civilians to flee, but residents say IS-controlled checkpoints along the city's main roads have made that nearly impossible. The United Nations said nearly 800 people have fled in the past week, but most were from the outskirts where IS control is weaker.
A 21-year-old former resident, who identified himself only as Ahmed out of concern for his family's safety, said he fled Fallujah more than a year ago but even then, the militants' tight grip on the city made it nearly impossible to get out. He said he had to walk for hours through farmland and dirt roads to make it to Baghdad.
When this week's operation was announced, one of his cousins tried to flee, but the man, who is in his 30s, was caught and killed, Ahmed said.
"He waited until night and used an old bridge to try and cross the river, but still he got caught by Daesh," Ahmed said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
"After they caught him, they killed him and dumped his body in the street" to deter others from trying to flee, he said. Ahmed's family retrieved the body and buried him in the garden next to their home.
Ahmed's family also suffered under al-Maliki. Another cousin was arrested in a nighttime sweep of dozens of young men from Ahmed's neighborhood, he said. After months of pleading and paying bribes of more than $100,000 to different police officials, the cousin was released.
"These are the reasons we don't trust these forces now," Ahmed said, referring to the various Iraqi security forces that are massed on the edge of Fallujah.
Those fighters include Iraqi federal police, Sunni tribal fighters and Shiite militia fighters under the government umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Ahmed and other Fallujah residents say they most fear abuse at the hands of the Shiite militias. In past operations, Shiite forces have been accused of human rights abuses against Sunni civilians.
Iraqi military officials say the Shiite militias will not be entering Fallujah in the current operation. That task will go to Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces, who say they will eventually clear it block by block.
The large number of civilians is already complicating the operation. IS fighters have used civilians as human shields in the past, in some cases forcing families to flee with retreating fighters. The tactic makes airstrikes more difficult.
When the Iraqi military retook Ramadi, IS militants could withdraw to Fallujah, said Christoph Wilcke, an Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch. But for the militants in Fallujah, "there's no withdrawal route."
Wilcke worries that could lead to more civilian casualties.
Gen. Saad Harbiya, head of Fallujah operations for the Iraqi army, said keeping civilians safe is a priority.
"Our plans are humanitarian plans," Harbiya said. "The most important thing is to get the civilians out unharmed."
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Tariq Base, Iraq, contributed to this report.