The new arrivals say ISIS are no longer seen in the city, yet the army continues shooting rockets. A possible target may be the local militia that protect civilians in the neighborhoods and are possibly mistaken for ISIS. Photo: AFP
Sectarian violence is sending thousands of civilians from the Iraqi towns of Ramadi and Fallujah to Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish authorities have granted them a temporary stay.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – “Many more people from Fallujah will come this way,” predicts Abu Seif, who has just arrived from Fallujah with his 26 family members. They crowd the stairs of one of the motels in the center of the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil.
Women in black abbayas, part of their faces hidden behind a niqaab, are urging children to move on. Their sons are bringing in matrasses and blankets that have covered them during the long ride in an open truck from Fallujah. Now, they are needed to let the whole family sleep in the small apartment.
The Iraqi town of Fallujah has once again turned into a battlefield. After militants of the al-Qaida affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) occupied the city, the army has been shelling it from outside, hitting neighborhoods and forcing civilians to flee. The same happened when the Americans almost flattened the town during their quest against Sunni rebels in 2004.
“We left everything behind,” says Abu Seif. Like others who fled, he is too scared to reveal his full identity. The driver from Fallujah arrived just before dark in Erbil. In his green dishdashe and Islamic knitted hat, he seems dazed when he sits down in the motel lobby. “Our neighborhood is being bombed. Everybody is fleeing.”
He is one of over 13,000 civilians from the Anbar province who fled to the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan, even though they know of the mixed Kurdish feelings toward Iraqi Sunnis. Many Kurds remember their role during the rule of Saddam Hussein, who killed many thousands of Kurds.
The Kurdish authorities now are locked in non-violent conflicts with the new, Shiite government in Baghdad and have opened the doors to the former enemy, at the same time stating that their stay can only be temporary. The strict controls at the checkpoints since the bomb attack in Erbil in August, which was claimed by the same al-Qaida group that this week occupied Fallujah and Ramadi, have been eased.
In Fallujah, the Iraqi army now is trying to hit the “Daish” by using rockets, says Abu Seif, using the Arabic name in use for ISIS. “They fire blindly at civilian areas. Many houses are hit.”
“Nobody knows who is hitting us,” says Abu Haidar, who seems to be in shock. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he says, while keeping an eye on the Iraqi TV channel that is reporting about the violence.
When asked, he agrees there were many militants in the city. “But I don’t know if they were Daish. They drove through the neighborhood in private cars. Yes, they had automatic guns and RPG’s (rocket-propelled grenades). But people were not threatened. We fled from the bombings.”
When a chemistry lecturer from Fallujah University states he has recognized Saudis, Algerians and Tunisians from their accents amongst the militants, Abu Haidar points to a group of armed men on TV. “How can you see where they are from?”
The new arrivals say ISIS are no longer seen in the city, yet the army continues shooting rockets. A possible target may be the local militia that protect civilians in the neighborhoods and are possibly mistaken for ISIS.
For the chemistry lecturer the case is clear: The army and ISIS are working together. The militants were entering the city during a curfew, he says. “If the army has circled the city, how can they? It was all done so Prime Minister Maliki could bring the army into the city.”
The army and the government are Shiite, while Fallujah is Sunni. Iraqi Sunnis have been protesting for over a year against what they consider to be discrimination by the government. Fleeing civilians claim that the Shiite prime minister is using the sectarian differences for his own political gain. He wanted to create chaos, they claim, to be able to postpone the April elections and stay on.
Chaos was created, indeed. Next to the fighting, there is no electricity in Fallujah, with even the generators stopped. There are serious shortages of food and cooking gas. Hospitals have trouble coping, staff have left, medicines are scarce or spoiled without cooling. Yet, hundreds of civilians got wounded and dozens died, so those who left report.
For many, it is the second time they flee, but the situation is very different from 2004, they say. “Then, we did not have sectarian violence,” says the chemistry lecturer. Then, he fled to Baghdad. But the capital has become predominantly Shiite since.
“Because I am Sunni I cannot go to Baghdad,” confirms Abu Seif. “My uncle was killed there last month. Our whole province is being targeted only because we are Sunni.”