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The Third Battle of Fallujah

The third battle of Fallujah is on.

The assault began in the early hours on Monday when the Iraqi Army and Iranian-backed Shia militias stormed the city in Iraq’s Anbar Province under British and American air cover to expel ISIS once and for all.

Brace yourself for atrocities.

More than 300,000 people live there. The vast majority have fled, but roughly 50,000 are still trapped inside. ISIS is holding hundreds of families and using them as human shields.

Human shields can work against Western armies that hold their fire when possible to avoid killing civilians. The Iraqi Army doesn’t care about killing civilians, and the Iranian-backed militias care even less.

ISIS is also deploying suicide bombers, including suicide car bombers.

Organizations and diverse as Human Rights Watch and the US Department of Defense are worried about war crimes, not only from ISIS—which commits war crimes as a matter of course and of policy—but also from “our” side.

Last year, Iraqi and Iranian-backed forces took back the ISIS-held city of Tikrit, and they’ve been under investigation for war crimes ever since. Allegations include the massacring of civilians, torturing and summarily executing captives, and displaying human heads.

The US and Britain are in a terrible spot here. There is no getting around this: we’re militarily assisting gangs of vicious murderous bastards. The only reason it’s even remotely defensible is because the guys on the other side are even more vicious—the most vicious, in fact, in all of the world.

It’s safe to say at this point that ISIS-held territory in Syria and Iraq is the most oppressive place on the face of the earth. Cities like Fallujah and Raqqa make even North Korea seem mild.

People have been eating grass to survive.Executions of civilians for “crimes” as minor as shaving and smoking cigarettes is rampant, and residents are forced to watch. One resident says ISIS videotapes the executions and personally delivers DVDs to every house in the city.

ISIS is even forcing men to commit domestic violence. “Our husbands and fathers were pushed to discipline us,” an Iraqi woman told Al Jazeera. “Husbands would be forced to hit their wives for not wearing the niqab properly. If our men did not obey the orders of ISIL, they would face punishment.”

“Our biggest fear was to be caught by ISIL fighters,” she added. “They have no mercy; they will execute anyone whom they catch or even suspect of trying to flee.”

This is the third time in twelve years Fallujah has faced all out war. It was relatively quiet for a brief period after the US invaded in 2003. There wasn’t much looting. The mayor was pro-American. Resentment simmered, though, and then exploded in 2004 when a mob murdered and mutilated four Blackwater security contractors and strung their bodies up on a bridge.

The US military went in to clear the city the following month, but for political reasons they pulled back before finishing the job. Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by the psychopathic Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, gained total control of the city and imposed Taliban-style rule on the populace.

If something like this was going to happen in only one place in Iraq, Fallujah be it. “Fallujah is strange, sullen, wild-eyed, badass, and just plain mean,” Bing West wrote in his book, No True Glory. “Fallujans don’t like strangers, which includes anyone not homebred. Wear lipstick or Western-style long hair, sip a beer or listen to an American CD, and you risk the whip or a beating.”

Fallujah has been Iraq’s no-go zone since at least the time of the British in Mesopotamia. Even back then, everyone was warned to stay out, and it’s where Saddam Hussein recruited many of his regime’s most brutal enforcers.

I spent a month there during the war, and the only thing I can say in its favor is that it’s only the second-most broken and hopeless place I’ve ever seen. (The first-most is Baghdad, which is better educated and more open to the world, but it’s also where adjacent Sunni and Shia neighborhoods can hardly stop car-bombing each other even when they’re separated by walls.)

After losing the first battle of Fallujah, American soldiers and Marines went back in and fought the massive epic battle known as Al-Fajr, or Dawn.

Al Qaeda in Iraq proved itself so monstrous that the residents of Fallujah, who surely ranked among the most anti-American people in the world, forged an alliance with the hated enemy superpower to vomit the terrorists out.

The Iraqis claim they are not going to stop until they expel ISIS completely. If they manage to pull it off—and at this point that’s still a big if—they’d better learn from their earlier mistakes. ISIS would never have managed to take over that city two years ago if residents didn’t initially see its fighters as lesser evils compared with Baghdad’s central government. That’s extraordinary in and of itself since Fallujans had plenty of experience already with Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was just ISIS under a different name and different management.

Fallujah is a Sunni Arab city in a country where Sunni Arabs makes up only around 20 percent the population. The previous Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki ruled Iraq like an Iranian-backed warlord hell-bent on subjugating the minority. Incredibly, compared to him, ISIS looked sort of okay and tribal leaders opened the door.

It was the worst decision in the long history of deplorable decisions in that city. Only in the feverish dreams of insanely bigoted anti-Shia reactionaries was Nouri al-Maliki even as remotely bad as ISIS, let alone worse.

Maliki governed badly. No question about it. He purged Sunnis from the government, jailed dissidents, spuriously accused his political opponents of being terrorist supporters, and aligned himself with Iranian-backed militias. We should all be glad he’s out of power. But more oppressive than ISIS? Please.

It’s not clear that any Shia-led government will ever seem legitimate in the eyes of many of Iraq’s Sunnis—especially not if Baghdad re-takes Fallujah with Iranian backing. What drives Sunni sectarianism more than anything else is the perception that Iraq’s Shias are in cahoots with Tehran.

On the other hand, ISIS is so unspeakably awful that the residents of Fallujah and other Sunni cities in Iraq may see how wrong they were when they thought they’d be better off oppressed by “their own” than by the other.

On the third hand, they should have known better already. The Sunnis of Anbar Province suffered under ISIS before, and apparently they learned nothing from the experience. 

So who knows where this is heading? I certainly don’t.

I will say this, though. If Baghdad and its Iranian friends manage to purge ISIS in Western Iraq, they’d better get the hell out and stay out when they’re finished or a fourth battle of Fallujah is all but inevitable.

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