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Humanitarian crisis looms in Fallujah after ISIS defeat

Displaced residents of Fallujah are finding little to celebrate after Iraqi forces finally ousted Islamic State fighters this week. The city is empty — tens of thousands who were held by ISIS as human shields fled to desolate camps — and there is no electricity or water. Refugee workers call the situation a “catastrophe” and are hoping for more aid. Special correspondent Jane Arraf reports

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to Iraq, and an exclusive look at the Iraqi city of Fallujah, from the side of Iraqi troops who reclaimed it from ISIS militants this week.

    But even with the government victory, thousands of people now languish in the summer desert heat, with almost nothing to sustain them.

    Special correspondent Jane Arraf reports.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    This is Fallujah the morning Iraqi security forces took back the city from ISIS.

    Months before ISIS declared an Islamic State in Mosul two years ago, it seized this city. Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, recaptured Fallujah. It took a month of fighting. The U.S. tried to make sure Iraq's Shia militias backed by Iran were kept on the sidelines of the battle for this Sunni city.

    But as Iraqi government forces moved on after securing the Jolan neighborhood, militia fighters moved in. They scrawled graffiti on walls to make sure everyone knew they were there, and in some places insults, accusing Fallujah of being in bed with ISIS.

    "Don't take pictures of this," a fighter tells us, near a burning house. They tell us to go back to the Iraqi special forces we have come to see.

  • MAN:

    PBS.

  • MAN:

    PBS.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    U.S.-trained Iraqi special forces led the assault into the south side of Fallujah.

    First Sergeant Amar Ahmed Jassim says the elite forces are grateful for their U.S. training.

    1ST SGT. AMAR AHMED JASSIM (through interpreter): America, since the fall of Saddam until now, has not abandoned Iraq. Up until now, they provide air support. After all, they are our friends. They won't abandon us.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Although the main battle is over, Iraqi helicopters are still attacking remaining ISIS fighters.

    This is just a couple of hours after Iraqi security forces have declared Fallujah completely liberated. Two weeks ago, they said they had taken back complete control of the city, but it's clear that there have been still large pockets of ISIS fighters.

    It's also clear that, even though the city has been spared a lot of the destruction of Ramadi, the provincial capital, there are still neighborhoods that are heavily damaged.

    The city is empty. ISIS had kept more than 80,000 civilians as human shields. They fled when ISIS withdrew. The only civilian we see is Bushra Daud. There hasn't been electricity or running water here for months and there's hardly any food. She can't explain why she stayed.

    ISIS controlled Fallujah for two years, running a city of almost 100,000 people. "We wage jihad to dedicate the region to Allah," they wrote in this public square.

    Fighter Ali Sami Hadi tells us the bridge above is now dedicated to a wounded Iraqi soldier hanged by ISIS.

  • ALI SAMI HADI (through interpreter):

    ISIS slaughtered those who opposed them or wouldn't join them. Here was their court, and this was their execution site.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Celebratory gunfire rings out across the city, and fighters who clearly aren't professional soldiers flood the streets.

    Abu Raed, the fighter from Basra, has borrowed a bicycle. As dusk falls, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrives for a victory tour.

  • HAIDER AL-ABADI, Prime Minister, Iraq:

    This was quite a challenge, but we were prepared at the outside. Once we broke their defenses, it was easy to move in.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Fallujah looms large in the history of the Iraq War. Abadi notes the American military suffered many of its casualties here in 2004. He says reconciliation with the country's Sunni population, and giving more power to the provinces, is the only way forward.

    Asked about the militias, he tells us:

  • HAIDER AL-ABADI:

    The Hashd is I think they were providing some support to the federal police in terms of engineering equipment. And if you look around all these forces are uniformed forces – in Fallujah.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Nearby, a commander of the mostly Shia paramilitary forces is mobbed by supporters. Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis is on the U.S. list of wanted terrorists. Here, he is a celebrity. He tells us his forces refuse to be kept out of the much bigger fight ahead in Mosul.

  • ABU MAHDI AL-MUHANDIS (through interpreter):

    We gave thousands of martyrs as casualties because of the bomb factories in Fallujah and Mosul. We will go to Mosul, and we will meet in Mosul, God willing.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    It's an important victory for the Iraqi government and an important step in pushing back ISIS. But it has come at a cost. Everyone who lived under ISIS has come under suspicion. Iraq security forces have detained for investigation 20,000 men and boys who fled the city. They are still holding 9,000 of them.

    An American organization has arrived with its Iraqi partner to deliver aid to some of those held at a detention center three hours from Baghdad. But officials say they will confiscate the toothbrushes which can be used to stab people. And they're afraid some will hang themselves with the towels.

    "Tell my family I love them," says this man.

    Another says the militias handed him over to the Iraqi army 15 days ago over a personal quarrel. Samir Salman has been here much longer.

  • SAMIR SALMAN, Detainee (through interpreter):

    I have been here for seven months. I know nothing about my family. They brought me from Baghdad to here, and I don't know why.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Day after day in desolate camps in the desert, families wait for news of their husbands and fathers. More than 30,000 of the 80,000 civilians who fled the city two weeks ago have ended up here, near the town of Amiriyah al-Fallujah.

    A day after the Iraqi government announced it retook the city, we can't find anyone who has heard the news. There is no electricity here. There isn't even enough water or toilets. And there are few aid organizations. U.N. officials say the U.S. is focusing on the military fight against ISIS, while underfunding humanitarian aid.

    The Norwegian Refugee Council, the NRC, is one of the few international organizations here.

    Regional director Carsten Hansen says it's a catastrophe.

  • CARSTEN HANSEN, Norwegian Refugee Council:

    Horrible. So, for us, it's — first of all, we would like and we are appealing to our colleagues in the NGO community and the U.N., we need to scale up.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    On this day, they are distributing mattresses, but there aren't enough for everyone.

    These are some of the people who didn't get the mattresses. They either live in other camps or are they aren't registered or they don't know how or register. A lot of the them are here without their husbands or sons, who are being investigated for ties to ISIS.

    And it's left thousands of women and children here in these camps. This is said to be one of the better ones, actually. Today is the first time a lot of them are getting mattresses. And up until now, they have actually been sleeping on the ground in the sand and the dust and the heat. A lot of the people here paid ISIS everything they had to leave the city. They were already poor and now they have nothing left. The Iraqi government considers them potential security threats and won't let even those with relatives in Baghdad leave the province.

    Hakeem Yassin is livid. He insists we follow him to see his tent.

    "Come with me," he says. "Look, there's no water. There's nothing."

    He says corrupt Iraqi businesspeople are making money from these desolate camps.

    Mustafa Ahmed is one of those who didn't get a mattress. He was a baby during the 2004 battle for Fallujah, when he was badly wounded by shrapnel during a U.S. air attack. He lost a leg and a kidney. Four years later, he was taken to Oregon to be fitted with a prosthetic leg. But he's long outgrown it.

    When he and his family fled Fallujah, he walked eight miles on crutches. Here, he can't even get catheter tubes.

    People here wait in misery just 20 miles from Fallujah, unable to go forward or return home.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jane Arraf.

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