KUWAIT CITY, June 27, (Agencies): His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah sent a congratulatory cable Monday to Iraqi President Fuad Masum and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi on liberating the city of Falluja from so-called Islamic State (IS) militants.
In the cable, His Highness the Amir wished success and prosperity to the government and people of Iraq and more security and stability. His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al- Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and His Highness the Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah sent the Iraqi leadership similar cables.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s army sought on Monday to eliminate Islamic State militants holed up in farmland west of Falluja to keep them from launching a counterattack on the city a day after Baghdad declared victory over IS there.
Backed by air strikes from a US-led coalition, Iraqi artillery bombarded targets as troops closed in on up to 150 insurgents in areas along the southern bank of the Euphrates river, an army officer participating in the operation said. The government’s recapture of Falluja, an hour’s drive west of the capital, was part of a broader offensive against IS, which seized large swathes of Iraq’s north and west in 2014 but is now being driven back by an array of forces.
Falluja’s recovery lent fresh momentum to the campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the biggest anywhere in the jihadists’ self-proclaimed caliphate and which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pledged to retake this year. Colonel Ahmed al-Saidi, who participated in Monday’s advance, said ground forces were moving cautiously to avoid triggering roadside bombs planted by Islamic State. “They (holed-up militants) have two options: either they surrender or they get killed. We want to prevent them catching their breath and attacking our forces with car bombs.” Saidi said radio intercepts suggested the militants were running out of ammunition and he expected them to fold shortly.
The insurgents mounted limited resistance to Iraqi forces earlier this month inside Falluja before scattering after some commanders abandoned the fight, according to Iraqi officials. The military’s swift advance surprised many who anticipated a protracted battle for Falluja, a bastion of Sunni Muslim insurgency where some of the fiercest fighting of the US occupation of Iraq took place in 2004 against Islamic State’s forerunner, al-Qaeda. Control of Falluja is now shared between the army, elite counter-terrorism forces and federal police.
Some fighters from Shi’ite Muslim militias, which have held several outlying areas for months, are also present inside Falluja proper. The army along with local police are expected to take full control in the coming days, a military source said. Central districts of Falluja, which in January 2014 became the first Iraqi city to fall to Islamic State, were mostly quiet on Monday as bomb-removal operations along roadways and in buildings began in earnest.
Military sources said the city had been heavily mined by IS but the extent of damage to infrastructure and property could not be assessed easily. Dozens of buildings across the city have been torched, something blamed by government forces on fleeing militants, though Reuters could not verify their accounts. Some officials estimate that as little as 10 percent of Falluja had been destroyed, comparing that favourably with Ramadi and Sinjar, cities recaptured from Islamic State last year but widely devastated in the process. A spokesman for the governor of Anbar province, where Falluja is located, said the worst damage had occurred in the southern industrial district where Islamic State had assembled car bombs used in attacks in Baghdad.
More than 85,000 civilians displaced by the fighting in the past month are waiting in government-run camps to return home; at least twice as many people fled Falluja during IS rule. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Iraqis who survived a harrowing flight from Falluja now find themselves in sprawling desert camps with little food, water or shelter. The growing humanitarian crisis less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad has reinforced the region’s deep-seated distrust of the government, and could undermine recent gains against the Islamic State group. As Iraqi forces battled their way into the city and Islamic State militants melted away, Khaled Suliman Ahmed fled in a wheelchair, joining hundreds of others fleeing on foot into the desert.
When the wheelchair broke down after 10 kilometers (six miles), his sons and wife took turns carrying him over their shoulders, and when they saw the tents in the distance, they assumed their nightmare was over. “I thought we were going to be saved from hell and brought to heaven,” Ahmed said, “but we were surprised by what we found here.” What they found was a sprawling camp in the desert with little food or water, and nowhere near enough tents to shelter the tens of thousands of civilians who had descended on it. They joined thousands of people living out in the open, where midday temperatures approach 50 degrees Celsius (120 F). Iraqi forces declared Falluja “fully liberated” on Sunday.
Months of planning went into the military operation to retake the city, which had been held by IS for more than two years and was the group’s last stronghold in the vast Anbar province. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has hailed a recent string of victories against IS in Anbar, and last week proclaimed that Falluja had “returned to the embrace of the nation.” But the government was ill-prepared to deal with the humanitarian crisis now unfolding less than an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, where the UN estimates that 85,000 people have fled their homes in the past month.
The conditions in the camps are reinforcing perceptions of a government that is hopelessly corrupt and ineffective. That could fuel unrest in the overwhelmingly Sunni province, which has a history of rebellion against the Shiiteled government going back to the 2003 US-led invasion. A government spokesman acknowledged that authorities had been surprised by the wave of displaced, and said an emergency allocation of another $8.5 million in aid was approved earlier this month. “Given the high population density inside the city, we prepared four camps before the operation,” government spokesman Saad al- Hadithi told The Associated Press. “But the large number of displaced people and the quick movement has made it very hard to meet their needs.” Ahmed, who escaped Falluja in a wheelchair, described the harrowing final days of IS rule, when his family huddled indoors as the city was bombarded by airstrikes and artillery.
They lived off stale bread and dates, and prayed for liberation. After months of fierce clashes on the city’s southern edge, Iraqi forces punched into central Falluja last week as IS defenses crumbled. Tens of thousands of civilians — who had previously been used as human shields — fled south. In just three days, more than 30,000 people had descended on a cluster of already overcrowded camps on the edge of Amiriyah al-Falluja. Now, days after their dramatic escape, Ahmed and his family are once again living on little food or water. A few dozen families huddle in the shade under the frames of half-finished caravans.
Hundreds more spend the daylight hours in the courtyard of a mosque before unrolling bed mats to sleep out in the open once the sun sets. “We saw it as a good sign that the government came to liberate Falluja,” said Bayda Mohammad, who walked through the desert for six hours with her four young children after fleeing the city a week ago. Now they share a tent with 10 other people in an open plot of desert fenced off with razor-wire. “What kind of a government treats its people like this?” she asked, holding a scarf up to cover her face as a hot gust of wind whipped up dust and garbage.
Behind her a crowd of women waving identification documents formed around a group of aid workers distributing water. “It’s the same as always,” she said. “This is a rich country, but our politicians only look after themselves.”