A Hollow Victory in the Battle for Fallujah?

For two years, Fallujah has been occupied by the Islamic State. The city of 300,000 is situated just 40 miles outside of Baghdad. For the past month, Iraqi security forces and allied militias (along with American backing) have mounted a military campaign to route ISIS from the city. That campaign has made significant gains in recent days, and the city is on the cusp of being liberated from ISIS.

But amidst the tactical gains made by the forces, there are reports of horrific human rights abuses being committed by the government backed groups that are freeing the city. From the UN News Center: 

At the regular bi-weekly press briefing in Geneva earlier today, Cécile Pouilly, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said her Office is “deeply concerned” about continuing allegations of serious human rights violations and abuses against civilians fleeing Fallujah by armed groups operating in support of Iraqi security forces.

“We’ve received shocking footage showing the body of a man being dragged at speed by a military truck while a man wearing a military uniform hits his disfigured and bloodied head,” Ms. Pouilly said.

“Another video shows people being struck with a rifle and kicked in the head by men wearing military uniforms while they exit a truck. Although we are not in a position to authenticate these videos, they depict violations which have been reported to us by several sources and which we’ve previously condemned,” she added.

The spokesperson said that on 12 June, a committee set up by the Anbar Governor to investigate violations perpetrated against civilians during the military operations in Anbar stated that 49 people had been killed and that at least 600 men had disappeared after being taken into custody by armed groups operating in support of Iraqi security forces.

It also found that the people taken into custody by these groups were ill-treated and/or tortured. These violations allegedly occurred from 2 to 4 June near a cemetery in the Saqlawiya area, northwest of Fallujah, and in the al-Mazra’ah area, east of Fallujah, Ms. Pouilly said.

The government forces and their Iran backed allies are largely Shia. The areas under ISIS control — Fallujah in particular– is predominantly Sunni. Two years ago, at the outset of a burgeoning sectarian civil war, ISIS positioned themselves as the defenders of the sunnis against the Shia majority. Now, the rampant abuse of sunni civilians and captured fighters may confirm to the sunni minority that they are no better off being “liberated” by Shia militias than acquiescing to ISIS rule.

The abuses committed by the shia forces will certainly complicate, and possibly undermine, the most important task after victory, which is to reduce a key driver of sectarian conflict by finding political accommodation with the sunni minority. If these abuses continue, the liberation of Fallujah from ISIS control may yet turn into a hollow victory.