Despite an army siege, fighters and weapons have been flowing into
the city, where U.S. troops fought some of their fiercest battles
during their 2003-11 occupation of Iraq.
In an embarrassing setback for a state that has around a million men
under arms, the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
(ISIL) and its tribal allies overran Falluja and parts of the nearby
city Ramadi on January 1.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, seeking a third term in a
parliamentary election in April, deployed troops and tanks around
the city of 300,000 and funneled weapons to anti-Qaeda tribesmen,
but has ruled out a full-scale military assault.
He was quoted by the Washington Post on Thursday as saying that 80
soldiers and police had been killed so far, as well as more than 80
civilians and double that number of insurgents.
Ramadi, the provincial capital of the vast western province of
Anbar, is mostly back under state control, but Maliki's calls on
local tribesmen to evict the militants from Falluja, just 50 km (31
miles) west of Baghdad, have so far come to nought.
Instead, scores more ISIL fighters have sneaked into the city along
with an array of weaponry ranging from small arms and mortars to
Grad missiles and anti-aircraft guns, according to security and
local officials, residents and tribal leaders.
"Our sources in Falluja indicate that militant numbers have
increased to more than 400 in the last few days and that more
anti-aircraft guns were received," said a senior local official who
declined to be named. His figure could not be confirmed.
The weapons and fighters are reaching Falluja mainly from its
southern environs, an area entirely under the sway of tribes hostile
to the government, security officials said.
"The tribes scattered around Falluja have zero loyalty to the
central government," Sheikh Mohammed al-Bajari, a tribal leader and
negotiator in the city, told Reuters by phone.
"Now they (the army) are not controlling anything and no roads can
be closed," he said of Falluja's southern approaches.
ISIL, which is also playing an aggressive role in Syria's civil war,
is greatly outnumbered by armed tribesmen in Falluja, a symbol of
Sunni identity and resistance in Iraq, many of whom lean towards the
militants or other insurgent factions.
Since the city fell out of government control, various rebel groups
have loosely aligned with ISIL or are asserting their own influence,
officials, tribal leaders and residents said.
These include Islamist factions such as the 1920 Revolution
Brigades, the Islamic Army, the Mujahedin Army, the Rashidin Army
and Ansar al-Sunna, as well as the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi
Order, a Baathist militia created by Izzat al-Duri, a former
lieutenant of Iraq's deposed leader Saddam Hussein.
Despite its limited numbers, ISIL dominates by its zeal and fearsome
reputation on and off the battlefield, frequently using suicide
bombers in Iraq and in Syria — where it has even turned them on
rival rebel factions in a bitter power struggle.
In Falluja, it distributed leaflets on Thursday announcing a new
"Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice" to
enforce its strict Islamic code, residents said.
That recalled memories of the harsh Islamic courts set up in Falluja
when the city was dominated by an umbrella group known as the
Mujahideen Shura Council from late 2005 to 2006.
Dozens of youths accused of collaborating with the U.S. occupation
were executed on the orders of these courts.
[to top of second column]
A leader of that council, Abdullah al-Janabi, who was also prominent
in an ISIL precursor called the Islamic State of Iraq, returned to
Falluja two days after its takeover this year.
"Blood is on the hands of all policemen. Police buildings were used
to torture and to extract confessions ... and must be cleansed," the
Sunni cleric told worshippers at the Saad bin Abi Waqas mosque in
northern Falluja on Friday.
"We swear by God almighty and the blood of martyrs that the Safavid
army will not enter the city except over our dead bodies," he said,
in a derogatory reference to the Iraqi army.
About 200 masked militants using looted police vehicles guarded the
road leading to the mosque, where worshippers were checked for
weapons before Janabi's sermon at weekly prayers.
Many residents ignored a call from Sunni clerics involved in a
year-long anti-government protest movement to gather for mass
prayers at al-Furqan mosque in the city center. Instead most
worshippers prayed at neighborhood mosques where gunmen were absent.
Many people in Falluja loathe Maliki's government, which they see as
oppressive and provocative towards minority Sunnis, but also fear
the revival of Islamist militant rule.
Last week Falluja community leaders nominated a new police chief and
mayor. The militants responded by blowing up the police chief's
house on Tuesday and briefly kidnapping the mayor. Both men have
since fled north to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Two days later, they set up checkpoints in several districts and
rummaged through people's wallets in search of identity cards that
might reveal links with the security forces or government-backed
Sahwa (Awakening) Sunni militias.
Fear of ISIL, as well as frequent bombardment by the army, which
says it is responding to militant fire, prompted hundreds more
families to flee the city in the last few days.
Eliana Nabaa, spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Iraq, said more
than 14,000 families — at least 80,000 people — had left Falluja and
Ramadi since the crisis erupted in late December.
That figure does not include many displaced people not registered by
the government or relief agencies, or those who have fled from
Falluja since Thursday, she said.
Negotiations for the peaceful removal of ISIL from Falluja are
continuing, but have yet to bear fruit.
"We don't expect ISIL fighters to respond positively," said a local
official and negotiator, who declined to be named.
"They have come to impose their control on the city...so there is no
way to drive them away without fighting."
(Editing by Alistair Lyon and Sonya Hepinstall)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.