Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Anbar Provincial Council has formed a crisis unit ahead of a possible military raid on Fallujah in the hopes of resolving the conflict in the city peacefully.
Council head Sabah Karhout issued a statement Tuesday, saying: “Anbar has formed a crisis cell led by Governor Ahmad Al-Dulaimi,” adding: “The military solution will be the last resort if the ongoing negotiations between officials and tribal leaders fail.”
Militants from the predominately Sunni, Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have largely overrun Fallujah in the past few days and according to reports have begun imposing their own brand of Shari’a law on the city’s residents.
The Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi central government has thus far been using Sunni militias to combat the extremists’ presence and has left negotiations with ISIS to a small number of local tribal leaders. The government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has been adopting this approach largely to prevent an incursion by government security forces.
Speaking of the situation on the ground in Fallujah, Karhout said: “There are signs of an end to the crisis appearing on the horizon. Local police and tribes, supported by the Iraqi army, have been gaining ground on the insurgents’ hideouts in District 60, District 20, Al-Malaab, and on the outskirts in Boubali and Khalidiyah.”
He also denied reports that there were plans to replace the governor of Anbar, saying: “The Council is sticking with Dulaimi . . . This is not the time for political arguments because these days Anbar needs everybody’s help to preserve it.”
He added: “The governor of Anbar has been able to manage the current crisis with great skill and has not been faulted” for his handling of the situation.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risha, the head of the Iraq Awakening Conference, denied that any military operations were taking place around Fallujah, adding in a statement issued Monday: “The people of Fallujah are all against ISIS.”
He added: “The city was locked down with everyone inside, including ISIS, and we are eager to ensure they do not escape. We want to avoid seeing them in other cities east or west of Fallujah.” He said all residents of Fallujah, regardless of their political or tribal alliances, fell under the sovereignty of Baghdad.
He also said: “The sons of the Fallujah tribes will soon launch an effort in the city to clear it and destroy ISIS.” He insisted that victory would be achieved against those he called “terrorists,” and added: “There will be no interference by the army in the battle to clear Fallujah.”
Following widespread reports that ISIS groups had kidnapped several tribal leaders in the city, leading to a breakdown in negotiations with the militant group on Monday, Jamilah tribe leader Sheikh Rafea Al-Mishhen told Asharq Al-Awsat that no Fallujah tribal leader had been captured by ISIS. He called talk of ISIS “a fabrication” of the government. “If there were any ISIS presence, then it is not in Fallujah, where the tribal revolutionaries have risen up against injustice and exclusion,” he said.
He added: “The tribes have no problem with the Iraqi army, which is our army as well. We want them to go to the desert to pursue ISIS and other terrorists. Our problem is with the government, which failed to meet our demands.”
Mishhen added: “There is indiscriminate bombardment of Fallujah, but life has largely started to return to normal, except for the local police force which refuses to return [to duty].”
Sheikh Abu Jalal, another Fallujah tribal leader, told Asharq Al-Awsat that reports in the media about ISIS setting up Sharia courts in the city were untrue. He said: “No such thing has taken place. No ladies’ hairdressers were closed and men were not forced to grow their beards as was rumored.”
Abu Jalal said he was surprised at comments by the former under-secretary of the Ministry of Defense, Adnan Al-Asadi, about there being enough arms in Fallujah to invade Baghdad. He said: “This comment is in all cases a negative mark against the under-secretary, not a positive one. He has to say where these arms came from and how they entered a small city like Fallujah.”
Iraqi forces continued to pursue insurgents in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar governorate that has also been partially under the control of ISIS militants since December.
Speaking to French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), a major in the Ramadi police department verified “the continuation of operations to expel ISIS insurgents from the center of Ramadi.” He added : “Twelve police officers and tribal fighters were injured by ISIS sniper fire in the last few hours in the areas of Al-Malaab, Al-Dubbat, and central Ramadi.”
The UN Special Representative for Iraq, Nikolay Mladenov, warned that the crisis of displaced people in Anbar was likely to worsen, following UN estimates released January 14 that more than 70,000 people there had been displaced by the fighting.
An official UN statement said more than 22,000 displaced individuals and 150 displaced families had been registered, mostly from Anbar. Other families had migrated to Erbil, Karbala, Babel, Najaf and Baghdad. According to the UN, authorities in Iraq’s Kurdistan region reported that around 14,000 people have arrived there since the start of January from Anbar alone.