Civilians fleeing Fallujah have been tortured and abused by Shiite militias, inflaming further the country’s sectarian divide. Iraqi government troops recaptured the city in June, driving Islamic State fighters from the city.
Fallujah was a symbolic centre of Sunni opposition to the US occupation. The US stormed the city in 2004, bombing hospitals and killing at least 800 civilians in an effort to crush resistance fighters.
The city had been held by IS since January 2014, longer than any other city in Iraq.
IS is now steadily losing territory, as the combined weight of US air-power, Iraqi troops and Iranian-back militias grind down. It has now lost half the area it once held inside Iraq.
But Iraq itself remains just as divided. The military victories over IS are further entrenching the sectarian hostilities that produced its rise in the first place.
The Iraqi army’s weakness was shown in 2014, when it simply crumbled in the face of an assault on Mosul by a vastly smaller force of IS fighters. So the government has relied heavily on Shiite militias in the war to drive it out.
These sectarian militias have looted and destroyed recaptured Sunni areas, in a reign of terror against civilians. In Fallujah, there were further atrocities.
Over 80,000 people have fled the city in the last few months as the fighting worsened. Those who survived faced torture at the hands of the militias.
Eyewitnesses reported that, “armed groups operating in support of the Iraqi security forces are intercepting people fleeing the conflict…detaining the males for ‘security screening’, which in some cases degenerates into physical violations and other forms of abuse”, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’d Al Hussain.
One man captured by the militia, Abu Muhammad, described how, “They would beat us with water pipes; they would take turns to torture us. My hands were tied behind my back, and one of the militants sat on my chest after he got tired of beating me. He just threw himself on me. I felt my ribs breaking.”
Human Rights Watch says it has, “received credible allegations of summary executions, beatings of unarmed men, enforced disappearances, and mutilation of corpses by government forces”.
Sohaib al-Rawi, the governor of the province where Fallujah is found, al-Anbar, told Al Jazeera that he believed that, “more than 49 civilians have lost their lives under torture”, with over 600 more missing.
Things were little better for those who avoided the militias, with nothing like adequate preparations to assist the tens of thousands made homeless. “People are sleeping out in the open and waiting for tents to be given to them,” Karl Schembri, working with the Norwegian Refugee Council to provide aid, said.
“The scenes are straight from an apocalyptic picture, where there is a sandstorm every day, the heat is unbearable, up to 50 degrees centigrade”.
Food and water are in short supply, in an area just one hour’s drive from the capital, Baghdad.
This treatment of Sunni civilians will only breed more anger and disgust at the Iraqi government, still run by a sectarian Shiite party, and inflame the country’s sectarian divisions.
But the sectarian system is under renewed challenge.
In both April and May, mass protests stormed Baghdad’s “Green Zone”, the fortified administrative centre established by US occupation forces after 2003.
Hundreds of people took over the parliament building, driving out MPs. The Green Zone symbolises the corruption and wealth of the Iraqi elite, as a city within a city where there are mansions, well paved roads and manicured grass, far removed from the life of ordinary Iraqis.
The wider population is fed up with the country’s constant electricity shortages and unemployment. Around 2.5 million people in Baghdad live in shanty towns.
Iraq’s oil wealth, instead of providing decent services and rebuilding the country, has been pilfered to benefit the political elite.
Demonstrators called for an end to the government “quota system”, which sees ministries and jobs distributed on the basis of ethnicity and religious sect. This arrangement was set in place by the US occupiers as they tried to establish American control. The protests called for a technocratic government, run by Ministers independent of the corrupt, sectarian parties.
Islamic State may eventually be defeated militarily. But unless the mass of ordinary Iraqis are able to break the sectarian political system, the sectarianism and poverty that produced it will continue.
By James Supple