BAGHDAD — On a good day, the drive from Fallujah to Baghdad takes less than an hour. On Sunday morning, with his city under siege, its morgue filled with bodies and people running low on food, water and generator fuel, Osama al-Ani packed his family of seven into his car and set off for the capital. The trip, with its constant checkpoints and vehicle searches, took more than 12 hours, he said.
Yet, even after being forced to flee for his family’s safety, Ani remains more sympathetic to the militants who have set up checkpoints across his city and are largely aligned with al Qaeda than he is toward the central government.
“We had no food, no electricity and no water, and mortar shells were falling all around us,” said Ani, who is staying with relatives in the Sunni neighborhood of Ameriya here. “But many of us would rather support al Qaeda than the army that has led to this massacre.”
Sunni militants, some members of the Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and some armed tribesmen angry with the government set off days of fighting when they took control of Fallujah last week. On Tuesday, fierce clashes erupted again while government forces with tanks and heavy weapons circled the city, waiting for orders from the prime minister.
In Baghdad, officials held off calling for an offensive, heeding pleas from local leaders inside Anbar, who warned that civilian casualties would end any amount of support the government could count on from local tribes in routing al-Qaida.
While the government gave time to civilians to leave the city and for tribesmen to try to expel the Qaida fighters, Ani’s comments, as well of those of many other Fallujah residents and tribal leaders interviewed recently, highlight the complexity of the struggle. In Fallujah, many people say they hate the government even more than al-Qaida, underscoring the difficulty facing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he seeks to put down an escalating Sunni insurgency in Anbar with a forceful military offensive that he and his advisers have suggested could begin at any moment.
Now in its second week, the fighting in Anbar has focused on its two major cities, Fallujah and Ramadi. In Ramadi, the province’s largest city and seen as less of a hotbed of Sunni extremism than Fallujah, the government has made significant gains in recent days. Security forces fought alongside tribal militias to reclaim much of the city from al-Qaida fighters, officials say.
But Fallujah is a different story, and while al-Maliki, at the urging of the United States, has sought out the help of tribes — giving them guns and cash — he has been less successful in securing their support.
In a telephone interview in which he spoke in the swaggering tone that is usual in this region, Sheik Mohamed al-Bachary, a tribal leader in Fallujah, warned that the army would face stiff resistance from tribal militias if it sought to enter the city.
“The tribes in Fallujah are the real tribes,” he said. “We have real men, and just as we showed the Americans what kind of men we have, we can show Maliki and his army.”
Al-Maliki has labeled nearly any expression of Sunni grievance as terrorism and the work of al-Qaida, an approach that has made it harder to secure the support of moderate Sunni citizens and tribal leaders.
What had been a largely peaceful uprising in Syria has evolved into a civil war, whose bloodshed is increasingly converging with Iraq’s unrest, and analysts worry that Iraq could once again find itself in the midst of a full blown civil war.
“We are going to fight for our city,” said Saif al-Jumaily, a resident of Fallujah, who said he did not want to live under al-Qaida rule, but would, nevertheless, fight against the Iraqi army should it try to retake Fallujah.
The government’s tactic of shelling Fallujah in recent days and its previous, heavy-handed response to Sunni protests in the province, which prompted the recent fighting, has exacerbated the animosity among Sunnis toward the central government. For many Fallujah residents, the shelling — and the sense of siege it has created — has also evoked painful memories of the early years of the American occupation of Iraq, when U.S. forces fought two big battles for control of the city, with heavy civilian casualties.
“We are sick and tired of wars in Fallujah,” said Mohamed Hameed, a 35-year-old resident of the city. “Every time, we think this is the end of the battles. We want to live a normal life. We have had enough wars in the previous years, and we saw al-Qaida, the Americans and the Iraqi army destroying our city.”
Hameed added: “Today, when I leave my home, I cry. I see the flags of al-Qaida again. I see damaged buildings. I see masked men with guns. It’s like walking in to Fallujah of 2005. I remember all those bad days and ask myself, what was the fighting about then? Why did so many Iraqis and Americans die for this city? Now we are in the same situation.”
In the current fight for Fallujah, many ordinary citizens would rather see their city in the hands of plain-clothed and masked militiamen — even if the citizens do not understand the true allegiance of the militiamen — than soldiers loyal to the Shiite-controlled federal government.
Scenes of Shiite men — some of them waving the flag of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group — as they lined up at army recruiting stations in Baghdad to volunteer to fight in Anbar have only heightened the sense of sectarian grievances among Sunnis here. An offer from Iran to give military aid to al-Maliki has also added to the sectarian tensions.
“I wonder, if one of the Shiite cities were controlled by gunmen, would Maliki give orders to shell the city, regardless of the families and the women and children?” said Shaker Nazal, a Fallujah resident. “Maliki and his army are taking the pretext of the existence of gunmen to raid our city and humiliate our people.”
Some residents who recall the harsh and rigid codes of behavior imposed by al-Qaida fighters who terrorized their communities in the last decade say the current fighters occupying their city are more accommodating, bringing fuel and opening bakeries and giving bread away.
Mostly, though, ordinary citizens say they do not really know who is in control.
“Everything is confusing for us,” said Hajji Mahmood, 60, who lives in Fallujah. “We see gunmen in the streets, and we don’t know if they are trying to protect us or kill us.”