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A member of Iraqi counterterrorism forces stands guard near Islamic State militant graffiti in Fallujah, Iraq, Monday, June 27, 2016. Thick clouds of black smoke billowed over northwest Fallujah Monday as dozens of homes continued to burn a day after the city was declared ‚Äúfully liberated‚Ģ from the Islamic State group. Iraqi special forces Lt. Gen. Abdel Wahab al-Saadi who led the operation to retake the city, said that IS militants torched hundreds of houses in Fallujah's north and west as they fled Sunday, just as the fighters did in many of the city's other neighborhoods over the course of the operation. Partial translation of Arabic writing on the wall reads, "patience honorable Fallujah, victory is near." (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
A member of Iraqi counterterrorism forces stands guard near Islamic State militant graffiti in Fallujah, Iraq, on June 27, 2016.  Hadi Mizban—AP

Iraq Liberates Fallujah From ISIS. Now the Hard Part Begins

When the Iraqi government declared victory on Sunday after routing Islamic State gunmen from the key city of Fallujah, it cleared a major hurdle on the way to a much larger and more complicated fight for the ISIS-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq.

The victory in Fallujah deprives ISIS of an important territorial asset, a city 40 miles west of Baghdad from which jihadists directed a lethal campaign of car bombings in the capital. Now all eyes turn north, toward Mosul, the largest city still under ISIS control and the most significant strategic prize in the land campaign against the terror group.

Read More: The Next War for Iraq

The recapture of Fallujah provides hints—some promising, some foreboding—about how the fight for Mosul might proceed. The operation demonstrated how rival U.S. and Iranian-backed forces can avoid conflict and even cooperate in the battle against ISIS, but major questions remain about how to secure and rebuild Fallujah, resettle the tens of thousands of civilians who fled the fighting and establish a sustainable peace in a city that has long been riven by sectarian divisions.

Aid agencies have expressed alarm about the ongoing plight of at least 84,000 people currently displaced from Fallujah. Without a safe pathway out of the city, civilians fleeing the recent battle were forced to brave gunfire and explosives in the streets. Some drowned while crossing the Euphrates River. Even those who managed to escape are now stranded in the searing summer heat in camps outside the city with limited supplies of food, water, and medicine.

Following the chaotic exodus of civilians from Fallujah, aid organizations say more needs to be done to prepare for the even larger flow of displaced people that will result from any battle in Mosul, where an estimated 600,000 people are currently living under ISIS rule. That means establishing a safe route for civilians to exit and ensuring a humanitarian infrastructure is in place before the battle begins.

“If we struggled to cope with Fallujah, then God help us with Mosul,” says Karl Schembri, a spokesperson in Baghdad for the Norwegian Refugee Council, a leading aid group. “Right now it’s just unthinkable. Right now with the current resources that all agencies have—it’s not just us, and the U.N. itself—nobody in his right mind can say that we are prepared for Mosul."

An explosion in Sinjar, Iraq, May 13, 2016, near Mount Sinjar, Nineveh Province, Iraq. Kurdish forces retook the town from ISIS in Nov. 2015. Its population in 2013 was estimated at 88,023.
An explosion in Sinjar, Iraq, May 13, 2016, near Mount Sinjar, Nineveh Province, Iraq. Kurdish forces retook the town from ISIS in Nov. 2015. Its population in 2013 was estimated at 88,023.Yuri Kozyrev—Noor for TIME
An explosion in Sinjar, Iraq, May 13, 2016, near Mount Sinjar, Nineveh Province, Iraq. Kurdish forces retook the town from ISIS in Nov. 2015. Its population in 2013 was estimated at 88,023.
Iraqi Army commanders survey the front line in the villageof Kharbardan, south of Mosul, May 18 2016. The Iraqi military seized the village from ISIS in March, as a part of a grinding march toward the city of Mosul, a major city that has been under ISIS control since June 2014.
The Iraqi army at a front line position in the village of Kharbardan, south of Mosul, May 18 2016.
An Iraqi soldier prays south of Mosul, May 18, 2016. The Iraqi military is preparing for a major offensive to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS control.
View from Inside a Humvee on the front line in the village of Kharbardan, south of Mosul, Iraq, May 18 2016.
A member of the Hashid Watani (National Mobilization Force), a group of Sunni Arab Iraqi fighters opposed to ISIS, stands along the front line south of the city of Mosul, May 18 2016.
Qubad Miqdad Murad, a police officer in his thirties, stands in a camp for internally displaced people near the Iraqi town of Sinjar, May 13, 2016. Murad returned to Sinjar after Kurdish forces recaptured it from ISIS in November 2015, but he since decided to move to the IDP camp in the mountains above Sinjar, fearing for the safety of his family as ISIS continues to shell the area
Men and boys from a camp for internally displaced people (IDP's), May 17, 2016, Makhmour Kurdistan Iraq, south of Mosul.
Internally displaced people (IDP's) appear in a camp in the mountains above the Iraqi town of Sinjar, May 13, 2016. Thousands of people remain displaced since ISIS' 2014 capture of the town. U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters reclaimed the town in November 2015, but destruction and fighting in the area prevent most residents from returning.
Kurdish fighters take a break while standing guard along the front line against Islamic State forces (ISIS) outside the town of Sinjar, in northern Iraq, May 12, 2016. Reclaimed by Kurdish forces in November 2015, Sinjar is a strategic point between Syria and the ISIS-held city of Mosul.
A small Peshmerga outpost outside in Makhmour, Iraq, May 8, 2016.
A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga armed forces sits atop sandbags, overlooking the ISIS-held city of Mosul, northern Iraq, May 9, 2016. The Kurdish fighters holding the line against ISIS are so close to ISIS positions that they can even pick up the jihadists' radio broadcasts, including propaganda and religious programing. Days earlier, the Kurdish fighters at the Bashiqa front repelled an attack that left at least two dead among their ranks.
Buildings lay in ruins in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, May 13, 2016. Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, Kurdish forces retook the town from ISIS in November 2015.
Kurdish fighters hold the front line against Islamic State militants outside the town of Sinjar, northern Iraq, May 12, 2016. Backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led military coalition, Kurdish forces retook the town from ISIS in November 2015.
Kurdish Peshmerga at a small outpost near Makhmour, Kurdistan, northern Iraq, May 8, 2016. These fighters, many armed only with Russian AKs, blocked the ISIS advance into Kurdistan in 2014 after tens of thousands in the Iraqi Army that were trained and equipped with U.S. tanks and artillery fled, abandoning equipment and shedding their uniforms. In late 2015, the Peshmerga quietly opened their base in Makhmour.
An Iraqi Kurdish fighter exhales tobacco smoke at the front line facing ISIS militants outside the town of Makhmour, northern Iraq, May 8, 2016. Makhmour is one of the key fronts in the battle between Iraqi forces and the jihadists of ISIS. But as a result of disagreements and distrust among rival factions, the overall campaign against ISIS is proceeding slowly. A long-anticipated operation to retake the nearby city of Mosul has been delayed for months.
Makhmour Kurdistan Iraq May 08 2016Kurdish Peshmerga at front at Dogherkan, a small Peshmerga outposts near Makhmour.Makhmour Kurdistan Iraq May 08 2016Kurdish Peshmerga at front at Dogherkan, a small Peshmerga outposts near Makhmour.
Men and boys dig a grave for a man named Ahmed Mohamed Ali, in a camp for internally displaced people (IDP's) near the Iraqi town of Makhmour, May 17, 2016. According to camp residents, Ali had been injured during the Iraqi military's offensive on ISIS-held villages in the area, and later collapsed at a local mosque in Makhmour, Kurdistan, Iraq, May 2016. The United Nations said in April that as many as 30,000 people could be forced to flee instability in the Makhmour area, as the Iraqi military pursues an offensive against Islamic State militants in the district.
A 16-year old boy at a camp for displaced people outside the city of Dohuk in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, May 19, 2016. The teenager was taken captive by ISIS fighters in the summer of 2014 and underwent months of forced military training before escaping in 2015.
Men pray outside a camp for internally displaced people (IDP's) near the Iraqi town of Makhmour, May 17, 2016. The United Nations said in April that as many as 30,000 people could be forced to flee instability in the Makhmour area, as the Iraqi military pursues an offensive against Islamic State militants in the district.
The front line near the village of Sultan Abdullah, northern Iraq, May 15, 2016. Kurdish forces are defending their lines against ISIS in northern Iraq, rather than actively pushing into ISIS held territory.
A U.S. Army soldier John Crowmer, 23, from Noblesville, IN, guards the U.S. military base at Camp Swift, near the Iraqi town of Makhmour, May 17, 2016. As of April, at least 4,087 U.S. military personnel were deployed in Iraq, many of them backing Iraqi forces in the drive to reclaim territory from ISIS.
Members of the U.S. Army relax inside a makeshift barracks at Camp Swift, a U.S. forward base near the Iraqi town of Makhmour, Iraq, May 17, 2016. As of April, at least 4,087 U.S. military personnel were deployed in Iraq, many of them backing Iraqi forces in the drive to reclaim territory from ISIS.
U.S. Officers and soldiers from the U.S. military, Iraqi armed forces, and Kurdish forces, participate in a U.S. transfer of authority ceremony in Erbil, in northern Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, May 17, 2016.
Hearts, the insignia of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, are painted on the fortifications at Camp Swift, a U.S. forward base near the Iraqi town of Makhmour, May 17, 2016.
Children peer from a window in a tent in a camp for internally displaced people (IDP's) outside the city of Dohuk, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, May 19, 2016.
A displaced child sits in a tent in a camp near the Iraqi town of Makhmour, northern Iraq, May 2016. The United Nations said in April that as many as 30,000 people could be forced to flee instability in the Makhmour area, as the Iraqi military pursues an offensive against Islamic State militants in the district.
Displaced families at a camp near the Iraqi town of Makhmour, northern Iraq, May 15, 2016. The United Nations said in April that as many as 30,000 people could be forced to flee instability in the Makhmour area, as the Iraqi military pursues an offensive against Islamic State militants.
Displaced families at a camp near the Iraqi town of Makhmour, northern Iraq, May 15, 2016. The United Nations said in April that as many as 30,000 people could be forced to flee instability in the Makhmour area, as the Iraqi military pursues an offensive against Islamic State militants.
Khero Elias Khalad, 50, sits in an apartment in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, May 13, 2016. Khalaf fled with his family when ISIS fighters overran the town in August 2014. A shopkeeper, he has returned to live in Sinjar since it was recaptured by Kurdish armed forces in November 2015.
Nasima Abdo, 35, a member of the Yazidi religious minority, appears in a camp for displaced people outside the city of Dohuk, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, May 19, 2016. Abdo and three of her children were taken captive by ISIS fighters in August 2014. After months in captivity, she escaped, while two of her children remain in ISIS' hands.
Displaced people in a camp outisde the Iraqi town of Makhmour, near the front line where the Iraqi Army is fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). According to the U.N., at least 3.4 million people have been displaced in Iraq since Jan. 2014.
Displaced people share food in a camp near the Iraqi town of Makhmour, northern Iraq, May 2016.
A young girl walks by a wall in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, northern Iraq, May 20, 2016. Walls have been installed in the city as a result of recent fighting between rival Kurdish and Shiite Turkmen factions. The deadly clashes signaled tension among among two groups nominally united in the broader fight against ISIS.
An explosion in Sinjar, Iraq, May 13, 2016, near Mount Sinjar, Nineveh Province, Iraq. Kurdish forces retook the town f
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Yuri Kozyrev—Noor for TIME
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Among the many challenges facing Iraqi authorities is keeping ISIS operatives from infiltrating government-held territory by slipping in among fleeing civilians. But doing so carries major human rights risks—Iraqi forces routinely separated men from women fleeing Fallujah, leading to the reported disappearance of hundreds of men. According to Human Rights Watch, there is also evidence that pro-government forces also tortured detainees and in one case summarily executed more than a dozen civilians.

Evidence compiled by rights groups suggests that some of the abuses were carried out by government forces such as the Federal Police. Others were the fault of government-allied, Shiite-dominated militias called Popular Mobilization forces. Organized in 2014 as a bulwark against ISIS after the Iraqi national army collapsed, the Popular Mobilization groups now play a central but controversial role in the civil war. Critics accuse the Shiite-dominated militias of punishing ordinary Sunni civilians. The leaders of the militias deny those charges, but there's no doubt that using Shiite militias to fight the Sunni jihadists of ISIS risks alienating ordinary Sunni Iraqis.

In Fallujah, Iraqi leaders can look to some positive signs. Pro-government forces retook the city after nearly five weeks of fighting. The battle ended more quickly than expected as ISIS forces abandoned the area. Some observers had feared a repeat of the intense urban warfare experienced by U.S., Iraqi, and British troops fighting a Sunni-led insurgency there in 2004, one of the deadliest battles in the nearly decade-long U.S.-led occupation.

Analysts say the fight for Fallujah was also an example of coordination among rival forces, including U.S.-trained troops and pro-Shiite militias that lean toward Iran. In Fallujah, Iraqi police, special forces and Popular Mobilization forces all participated in the battle—and in a surprisingly harmonious way.

Before the launch of the operation in May, massive protests against the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi spurred the competing forces toward coordination, according to Maria Fantappie, a senior analyst with International Crisis Group. “When the domestic crisis unfolded, there was, I think, a renegotiation in an indirect way between the two sides over this issue,” says Fantappie, speaking by phone from Iraq.

A rough division of labor emerged, with Iran-backed forces deployed on the northwest outskirts of the city and U.S.-backed forces in the south. “There was a sort of understanding of who should be where, and that actually allowed the operation to unfold,” she says.

But in Mosul the political puzzle is even more complicated, with the Iraqi national army, U.S. military and pro-Shiite militias all expected to play different roles. Adding yet another layer of complexity, Mosul is flanked on three sides by Kurdish forces who do not answer to the central government in Baghdad. Before the battle for Mosul can begin in earnest, the government must reach an understanding with the Kurdish regional government based in the city of northern Erbil. The two leaderships have yet to decide the exact role Kurdish forces will play in the battle, including how close they will get to the center of the majority Arab city. Because Mosul lies close to Kurdish-controlled land, any negotiations over the future of the city will trigger delicate questions of Kurdish aspirations for greater autonomy or even full independence.

The battle for Mosul will also be far larger than the effort to liberate Fallujah, and the Iraqi government’s current military campaign in the north is unfolding at a halting pace as the army recaptures villages one by one along the Tigris River south of Mosul. With some exceptions, Kurdish forces are holding static front line positions, awaiting orders for the final battle. Officials and analysts say an attack on the city of Mosul is months away at least, if not longer.

Ultimately defeating ISIS in Sunni-majority cities like Fallujah and Mosul will also require reestablishing a social contract with Iraq’s minority Sunni Arab citizens, many of whom feel neglected by the Shiite-dominated central government in the years since the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein in the U.S. invasion of 2003.

“ISIS emerged as a matter of an intra-Sunni leadership problem. A Sunni leadership that was increasingly less legitimate was pushed out by another Sunni leadership,” says Fantappie. “You can reconstruct infrastructure. You can deal with the humanitarian problem, but it should also be thought through, how you can solve this intra-leadership problem.”

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