Losing hearts and minds in Fallujah

Losing hearts and minds in Fallujah


Not all wars are won purely by victories on the battlefield. Another important way to defeat an enemy army is by winning the hearts and minds of the civilians around it. The people of Fallujah have spent two years under the heel of the terrorists of Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS).

It is clear that some of the population initially welcomed the ouster of a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government that was indulging in ever-more blatant discrimination against the predominantly Sunni population of the city. But the blasphemous brutality of the terrorists put paid to any idea that they offered an alternative to the authorities in Baghdad. Of the 50,000 locals trapped inside Fallujah, only a small proportion could have been expected to have embraced the bigots of Daesh. The remainder, longing only for peace and security, will have been anticipating the fighting return of the Iraqi army with trepidation but almost certainly the secret hope that at last their agony of repression was on the horizon.

It is thus as inexplicable as it is reprehensible that there is clear evidence the Shiite militias who are accompanying the Iraqi regular army are torturing and murdering Fallujah citizens who fall into their hands during the slow advance on the city. A Norwegian charity has produced credible witnesses to the machine-gunning of residents as they sought to flee the city by crossing the Euphrates. There are also apparently reliable reports, backed by video footage of the subsequent injuries, that citizens have been rounded up and tortured in the suburb of Saqlawiya by Shiite militiamen. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is being urged to mount an immediate investigation. It can be expected with some confidence that even if such an enquiry ever actually takes place, its findings will be anodyne and if any human rights crimes are admitted, precisely nothing will be done about them.

Such behavior by these ill-disciplined thugs is completely deplorable. It is also insane. Fallujah, which once had a population of 300,000 now has around 50,000 frightened and starving inhabitants. If the Iraqis wish to win this key battle, they are going to have to rely on the cautious support of the locals. They need people in embattled neighborhoods to give them intelligence on Daesh positions and personnel. They need advice on the local topography, on who are die-hard supporters of the terrorists and who in the streets and blocks ahead, are likely to be able to offer help to the advancing troops.

Nothing could be more likely to lose this support than these bestial displays of revenge. Clearly the encircling Iraqis will be suspicious of anyone who manages to flee the city. It is perfectly probable that some terrorists will seek to escape by mingling with legitimate refugees. Thus some sort of screening process is necessary. But such checks should not involve torture or the cynical gunning down of people fleeing, without having any idea of who they are.

The blood lust of the Shiite militias and their hatred of Sunnis is bound to make many in Fallujah think in despair that maybe after all, the terrorists offer them great safety than the authorities. This will make the taking of the city even tougher and it will cost more government lives. Hopefully some who perish will be the Shiite militia torturers who brought this about.