Previous week, the Iraqi army started a major offensive against armed groups in Fallujah, where there has been violent conflict since December 2013. Over the past few months, around 300 civilians have lost their lives in the fighting between the army and the various armed militia and terrorist organisations. Peace organisation PAX is extremely concerned.
PAX has called upon the Dutch government to work within a European framework on a structural solution in the form of a national dialogue and reconciliation process, in follow-up to a resolution from the European Parliament in February 2014. In this context, the European Union would have to press the Iraqi government to refrain from the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas. According to PAX, the supply of weapons by the United States, to a regime that deploys them in a indiscriminate manner, with many civilian casualties as the result, is also contrary to international arms trading agreements. These are set out in arms export agreements such as the Arms Trade Treaty, which has also been signed by the US. There is currently a European weapons embargo against Iraq.
The Iraqi army has distributed leaflets last week that call upon everyone to leave the city. Many civilians, however, are still situated in the conflict zone. PAX is extremely concerned about the increased violence and the numbers of civilian victims. Signs that Shiite militia are also involved, increase the threat of further escalation of sectarian tensions. The military option offers no structural solution for the conflict in the province of Anbar, where the Sunni population has been demonstrating since 2012 in order to draw attention to the marginalisation and stigmatisation of its community. The Iraqi government has made scant effort to find a diplomatic solution.
According to local doctors in Fallujah, various attacks have led to around 300 civilians dying and around 1,350 – including children – being wounded. Medicin sans Frontiers estimates that the number of refugees is now 380,000.
The army is using heavy explosive weapons in the offensive. Hospitals have also been targeted in air attacks in densely populated areas. The use of explosive weapons has led to the huge scale destruction of infrastructure, buildings, schools, mosques and drinking water facilities. In addition, there are strong indications that barrel bombs have also been used. These are barrels that are filled with explosives and dropped from aircraft or helicopters which have a devastating impact on the surrounding area. Insurgents also often use improvised explosive devices such as car bombs. The water dam that serves Fallujah has also been closed and this has led to a lack of drinking water in the city.
In 2013 and at the beginning of this year, the Iraqi government bought $ 10 billion dollars’ worth of tanks, assault helicopters, attack aircraft, drones, rockets and small and light weapons from the American government. In addition the Iraqi government is pushing for the acquisition of more weapons. Members of the American Congress have expressed their concerns about supplying weapons to Iraq, considering the indiscriminate use and the large amount of civilian casualties.
The situation in Iraq has been deteriorating since the withdrawal of American troops at the end of 2011. The Iraqi government, under the leadership of Shiite President al-Maliki, almost immediately embarked on a campaign against Sunni politicians under ‘de-baathification’ legislation. The Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria served as catalysts for Sunni discontent and mass protests began at the end of 2012. These demonstrations were initially peaceful and led by civilian activists, even though terrorist groups tried to impose their influence. On 23 April 2013, however, tensions rose. The Iraqi army attacked a protest base in Hawija in the province of Kirkuk with assault helicopters, resulting in around fifty fatalities.
In 2004, Fallujah had also been a target of a mass American offensive against Sunni insurgents. During this time, the city was surrounded and bombarded with heavy explosives. Banned methods, such as the use of white phosphor to ‘smoke out’ insurgents, were employed in densely populated regions at that time. During this attack, over 800 civilians lost their lives. Attacks on the surrounding chemical industries and other toxic remnants of war have also been identified by doctors as giving rise to a wave of birth defects.