ON JUNE 18th Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, declared that his forces had regained control of Fallujah, a stronghold seized by Islamic State (IS) two and a half years ago that lies just 60km (40 miles) from the capital, Baghdad.
Yet the next day the thud of mortars and rockets could still be heard inside the supposedly liberated city, and armoured convoys were still rumbling into the fray. “Daesh is still here,” said Qusay Hamid, an Iraqi special-forces major, using the Arabic acronym for IS as he waited on a sun-baked Fallujah street to move his men into battle near a mosque.
Lieutenant-General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, dressed in a T-shirt and black trousers, commands the battle from a plastic table on the concrete floor of a construction site that has been turned into an improvised command post. Officers radio back grid co-ordinates to Australian counterparts, who then guide American Hellfire missiles to strike IS positions in the city.
Fallujah appears to have been damaged far less than Ramadi, the provincial capital, was during a much longer battle earlier this year. In neighbourhoods cleared by special forces and now being handed over to an emergency local police force, most buildings are intact. But it will be at least six months before civilians are allowed to return home. Pockets of IS fighters remain. Neighbourhoods will have to be swept house by house for weapons and explosives. Reconnecting electricity and water will take time.
Handling refugees will be another huge problem for the Iraqi authorities. Tens of thousands of civilians fled Fallujah as IS retreated last week. Dozens of people died in the process, either from drowning in the Euphrates river or from being hit by shells or bombs. One traumatised family being evacuated by the security forces tells of seeing three of their daughters and their mother torn apart by shelling as they tried to escape on foot.
Despite months of planning by the Iraqi government and foreign aid organisations, the thousands who have managed to flee have been left to fend for themselves in the desert. “There was nothing here two days ago,” said Karl Schembri, of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), looking out at a dusty field that is now home to hundreds of displaced families. The NRC, one of the few aid groups working in Anbar province, has described the relief effort as chaos. And these are people who have been living on dried dates for weeks, as IS fighters seized and hoarded food for themselves. “It was the only thing we could afford,” says one woman, explaining that she would grind the date stones as a substitute for flour to make bread.
As families leave Fallujah, Iraqi security forces, relying on information from local committees, are taking their young men and older teenage boys for screening to determine whether they belonged to IS. “They have people with their faces covered come and point out who was Daesh,” says one displaced Fallujah resident, who said he was spared the investigation because he was too old.
Some of the investigators are intent on revenge rather than justice. Human-rights groups say dozens of the young men taken for questioning have been beaten or tortured; and that some have been killed. Notably absent from the scene are Anbar’s politicians and religious leaders, many of whom waited out the conflict in the comfort of Kurdistan in the north, or in neighbouring Jordan. “We will never again trust our politicians or tribal leaders or imams,” said one Fallujah resident bitterly. “They left us here with this.”