Fallujah: Progress Against ISIS Reignites Hope for Relatives and Survivors of Iraq War

Fallujah offensive Iraq
Iraqi government forces advance in the south of Fallujah during an operation to regain control of the area from ISIS on June 10. Iraq's elite counterterrorism service moved to within three kilometres of central Fallujah and consolidated positions in the south of the city, the operation's commander said. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Shirley Parrello is an American Gold Star mother, and has been for 11 years. Her son, Lance Corporal Brian Parrello, died on January 1, 2005 when an IED killed him as his platoon patrolled near the Haditha Dam in Iraq. The images of 9/11 had spurred the New Jersey native into military service.

"He believed in what he was doing initially; I don't know if he would feel that way now," she says, lamenting the overthrow of Fallujah by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in January 2014, just under three years after the U.S. completed the troop withdrawal. She blames President Barack Obama and Iraqi incompetence for ISIS's brutal brand of Islamism taking hold in the city where her son lost his life.

"I'm not a military expert but I just felt right from the get go as soon as they started pulling the troops out that it was just going to go back to the way it was and that's exactly what happened," she continues. "It never stopped being a war as far as I'm concerned."

Fallujah was the U.S. military's deadliest arena throughout the eight-year conflict in Iraq. Almost 100 soldiers died in two battles in the city as Washington attempted to root out Sunni extremists, including many aligned to ISIS's earlier incarnation, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), from the city.

Fallujah Iraq ISIS
Smoke billows from Fallujah's southern Shuhada neighbourhood following shelling during an operation by Iraqi government forces, backed by air support from the US-led coalition, to regain control of the area from the Islamic State (IS) group on June 10, 2016. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Fast forward two-and-a-half years from ISIS's capture of Fallujah and Iraqi forces are now clearing the city of ISIS fighters, holed up in several remaining neighborhoods after Baghdad reclaimed the central government building last week. The offensive is reigniting the hopes of relatives and survivors of U.S. military involvement that the American sacrifices made in the city were not in vain.

The offensive on the city some 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, which Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi launched a month ago, has seen elite Iraqi forces recapture at least three-quarters of the city and liberate thousands of civilians, with only pockets of ISIS fighters and the remnants of the group's booby traps remaining as the final resistance in the claustrophobic urban environment.

The city is strategically important due to its proximity to the Iraqi capital, in the neighboring Sunni extremist hotbed of Anbar province, the country's largest region and where ISIS also captured the provincial capital, Ramadi, in May last year. The full recapture of the city could be just hours away, and it would provide some comfort to those who have felt such stark pain in connection to the place.

"I get angry; I don't watch a lot of the news anymore when it's about Iraq. It's just upsetting to me. My son died over there trying to help them and, you know, for what?" says Parrello. "I guess I would feel better knowing that they overcame ISIS or Al-Qaeda or whoever is occupying the area now."

Iraqi forces in the battle for Fallujah
A member of the Iraqi pro-government forces fires a rocket propelled grenade during clashes with ISIS fighters as they try to enter the eastern Askari neighbourhood of Fallujah on June 19. Haidar Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images

The feeling is mirrored among the soldiers who served in Fallujah, who put their lives at risk or witnessed their comrades losing their lives in the battles for the city. Sean Barney, a veteran running for Congress who served in the city for the U.S. Marine Corps in 2006, almost died when a sniper shot him through the neck, severing an artery.

The actions of his colleagues saved his life, evacuating him from the "Pizza Slice" district of the city (so called on account of its shape) to its outskirts within minutes for emergency surgery. He believes the U.S. backing of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who governed on a sectarian basis, was the key factor in the city's fall to ISIS but says that the liberation will bring relief to not only those who served there, but the Iraqis who call it home.

"For those of us who served and lost friends in Fallujah, it's salt in the wounds that the city fell into the hands of ISIS. I think we all want to see ISIS removed from that city ultimately," he says. "I hope, if there is a victory here and ISIS is pushed out, that the outcome can be sustainable and civilians can return to some sense of normal existence."

A U.S. soldier from Kansas who served in the Second Battle of Fallujah, speaking on condition of anonymity as he remains on active military duty, says the ISIS capture of Fallujah was "a kick in the stomach, a blow to the gut" but the imminent liberation of the city means that the lost "American treasure" in the city was not for nothing.

"It doesn't feel good. It feels like it was in vain. It's always possible for the enemy to come back but when you throw in the personal part, being there, it just makes it a very hard pill to swallow," he says. "But if [the Iraqi forces] can come back and take it and hold it, then we will still have achieved our goal of what we achieved back in 2004.

"[The Iraqis] just regressed a little bit. It's like we took them three steps forward, they took a couple of steps back and now they are going forward again."