Interviews with soldiers who survived the siege of Fallujah reveal the immense human cost that the battle extracted.
Propped up by pillows with his legs immobilised in a cast, held together by large ugly stainless steel needles, it is apparent that the man in the white-walled, spartanly furnished room in a Delhi hospital has seen death. Ahmed*, was a soldier in the Iraqi army, whose legs were shattered by artillery fire during the recent recapture of Fallujah, Iraq, from the ISIS. He had been flown in from Baghdad for treatment the night before. Ahmed still seems to be bewildered about where he was.
His brown, tear-filled eyes reflect deep sorrow, pain and the physical dislocation of war and, the subsequent hospital confinement which follows. He spoke slowly in Arabic to the questions posed by the interpreter, “I was hurt by an artillery shell two days before Fallujah was liberated. After that, I was moved to Baghdad and later I was brought here.”
The Iraqi government announced Fallujah’s liberation on June 26, 2016, after a month-long operation in which the ISIS initially put up a big fight, before they were encouraged to slip away in an 11 km long convoy that had 700 trucks. US air force had refused to bomb the ISIS convoy claiming it was chock-a-full of civilians, but the Iraqi army’s intel suggested otherwise. They ended up destroying the trucks and as a result, killing thousands of militants. According to Iraq’s department of defense, about 12 civilians died as well. The description offered of the battle by the website Bellingcat is different than that of the US department of defense.
Ahmed could shed light on the battle of Fallujah and the capabilities of Daesh, as preparations are afoot to free Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. An infantryman of the Iraqi army, he says that they were earlier fighting on the outskirts of Fallujah.
“We were directed to head towards areas that were under the control of the Daesh, based on the reports that our unit was getting from drones.” He further said that it was tough to deal with it as there were many civilians who were trying to escape ISIS. Fallujah was seen as an unfolding humanitarian disaster as thousands tried to escape the stranglehold of Daesh. Hundreds of ISIS terrorists had also tried to escape by cross-dressing as women. A vast multitude of civilians had to wade through the waters of Euphrates to reach safety in the Iraqi army. “ It was a very difficult operation”, remembers Ahmed.
“Were you supported by the US army in the Fallujah operation?” Ahmed was categorical that he did not see any US troop with them. “It was an entirely Iraqi army operation. I did not see anyone from the US army”. This is an important observation coming from someone who was right in the middle of one of the fiercest fights that have taken place in Iraq in recent memory, after the capture of the town of Ramadi. The US department of defense has often claimed to help Iraqi troops through their timely air operations. This is corroborated by Ahmed who says, “When we moved into the areas that were earlier captured by Daesh, we found that the food supplies had US stamps on it.”
When asked about his views about the fighting capabilities of the Daesh fighters, Ahmed does not pause to reflect even for a moment. Displaying a mixture of anger and awe he states, “They came at us as if they were crazed or possessed. They looked like they were on drugs. They refused to give themselves up and fought on till they were killed, sometimes even fighting on despite suffering bullet wounds.”
Ahmed’s observation squares with much of the writings that have emerged on the fighting style of Daesh fighters. Authorities in the Middle East and elsewhere have seized large consignments of a drug called Captagon that makes these fighters completely oblivious to physical pain. The largest seizure of these illicit drugs was at the Beirut airport where a Saudi prince was stopped for carrying 2 tonnes of Captagon in his private jet. Users of Captagon can not only work for long hours without any sleep, but they also display levels of fearlessness unusual amongst ordinary people.
He seemed fatigued after talking for such a long time and he told us to leave. “Will he able to walk after these injuries”? The interpreter was candid, “Cases worse than him have gone walking out of this hospital door. Don’t worry he will walk”.
Another Iraqi soldier under treatment next door seems like he was run over by a train. One of his limbs are missing, he is severely emaciated and it would not stretch credulity to believe that he saw action. He has been under treatment for little over a month, and his attendant says he is better than before.
“How did he get hurt?” Hasan*, who had fought in Tikrit, said, “I stepped on a mine on the second day of the Fallujah operation and lost my legs.” His attendant who is also his brother is a bit suspicious about how much he should speak with us, but is keen to tell us how Fallujah was conquered. He, too, is candid that the Iraqi army could only win the Fallujah battle with the help of the Popular Mobilisation (Al Hashd Al Shaabi) or just plain Hashd. Without Hashd, he says that all of Iraq would have been overrun by Daesh after Mosul fell in 2014. Hasan’s brother, who is playing with his smartphone, is categorical just like Hasan that the Iraqi army did not get any assistance from the US troops who had in fact delayed the operation. When asked whether Hashd was a Shia armed force that had contributed to violence in Fallujah after its take over from Daesh- he said that it was just plain propaganda and that the sectarian narrative was an western exaggeration. This point of view is increasingly finding space in the policy community.
A recent article in ‘War on the Rocks’ written under a pseudonym brings up poor policy choices by the US government due to “exaggerated western characterisation of Sunni persecution and Shia excesses.” It is the same- largely flawed narrative that gives legitimacy to the spread of Daesh in different parts of Iraq and Syria and places the ascendancy of Shias in the context of increased Iranian influence in the region. It would not need much effort to ascertain from where this aggressive sectarian hyperbole is coming from, if we try to analyse the vicious game playing out in the middle east.
In the last few years, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been extremely wary of Iran after the P5+1 deal. Till recently, the Turks and the Israelis were on board, but after the botched coup in Ankara, there has been a shift in strategy. Turks are working closely with the Iranians and the Russians, and want peace to return to these parts, which means not giving precedence to sectarian identities and returning to a strengthening of the nation states. It is because of this reason that the Turks are saying that they would preserve the territorial integrity of Syria and thus foil designs of regional powers who are using the Daesh to meet these objectives.
Hasan’s brother also claims that there is no animosity between Shias and Sunnis as they prepare for the final battle with Daesh to liberate Mosul, which is inhabited by 2 million people.