I accompanied Iraq’s elite counterterrorism force and other units from the Iraqi military and the federal police into Falluja at the end of June, during the final days of their long battle to wrest back control of the city from the Islamic State.
Falluja was the first Iraqi city to fall to the Islamic State, more than two years ago, and the militant group had all that time to learn the city, sowing traps everywhere. It was only after a long siege that the Iraqi forces moved to take the center.
In the last stages of the battle, members of the counterterrorism force, in coordination with other Iraqi units, fought their way into the neighborhood of Al Jolan in Falluja, where Islamic State fighters were making their last stand. As we moved through the bombed-out streets, gun battles raged, and the insurgents’ improvised mortars exploded among the narrow alleyways and rubble in a last-ditch effort to halt the advance of Iraq’s security forces.
What, exactly, the Islamic State fighters were holding out for was lost on me. The city had been surrounded for months. Nearly all the civilians were gone, either driven out by their rulers’ brutality in the early days, or escaping during breaks in the fighting as the Iraqi forces approached.
The Iraqi Army, special forces and the federal police relied on heavy artillery, close air support from United States aircraft and a patient advance through the city.
The remaining Islamic State fighters were forced to be opportunistic. During one visit with the Iraqi special forces, I saw a soldier who had been shot through his right calf, either by a sniper’s round or random gunfire.
Gruesome markers of the battle dotted the roads leading into Falluja.
A charred body of an Islamic State fighter had been left on the side of a road that the Iraqi forces had bulldozed through a small field south of the city as they began the assault. A metal cable was tied tight around one of the body’s legs, and the head had been lopped off.
A police commander chastised two Shiite militiamen who were taking cellphone pictures of each other stomping on the corpse triumphantly.
Much of the heavy fighting in Falluja was done by the American-trained counterterrorism forces.
The units were designed for high-speed night raids and targeted extractions. Instead, as the fight to retake Iraq has turned into a series of urban battles and checkpoint fights, the small, specialized units have been called on for brute-force infantry assignments.
For the counterterrorism units, Falluja was the latest in a long string of assaults. They have been sent wherever the fighting was heaviest and the target most critical while the government has struggled to reconstitute its failed and deserted regular army.
It has left the elite units threadbare, run down.
Islamic State fighters had built underground bunkers in homes they had commandeered. When the Iraqi counterterrorism forces moved in, they discovered steel doors covering holes cut in the marble and tile floors of the houses. In other buildings in the city center, storage bunkers held caches of weapons.
As the Iraqi forces advanced block by block, courtyards and rooftops became vital vantage points, sniper nests and, despite the brutally hot weather, crash pads under the sun.
During one of my final days in Falluja, Islamic State fighters hiding out in the city showered us with large mortar shells, probably made in a makeshift factory set up in someone’s kitchen.
The unit I was traveling with discovered large stocks of crudely made mortar rounds: improvised rocket-assisted mortars, or IRAMs.
In one house, ordnance, including explosives, was piled in the kitchen. Other deadly ingredients — bags of ball bearings, rusty screws, nails and other shrapnel — were strewed about.
Other homes in Falluja had been converted into torture chambers and, according to some of the security forces, dormitories for the Islamic State’s sex slaves.
Iraq has been at war since some of the soldiers were in grade school. But evidence of the Islamic State’s brutality took aback even some of the most battle-hardened soldiers.
One officer, who spoke openly only on the condition of anonymity, citing military protocol, told me that the Islamic State was different from the insurgents he was used to fighting. You can negotiate with insurgents, he said in English laced with military jargon he picked up from years of working with United States Special Forces, but the Islamic State fighters seemed to have embraced unbridled and inflexible savagery.
Another officer, Lt. Hassan Almosawi, from Iraq’s Emergency Response Brigade, took me to an Islamic State prison his unit had discovered in a once upscale neighborhood in central Falluja.
Homes in the area were outfitted with bars on the doors and grated metal sheets welded over the windows. Some of the rooms — possibly for the female slaves — were furnished with fans, carpets, pillows and blankets.
Nearby, we discovered a burned-out two-story home where the Islamic State had established a torture operation. A heavy chain with a hook at the end hung from the ceiling of a second-floor parlor, and car batteries were arrayed on the floor near the wall, connected to an AC/DC transformer.
Across the street from the prison and torture chamber, in a former school, decomposing bodies were tangled in a hastily dug grave, left to rot in the 120-degree heat.
The victims had been blindfolded and appeared to have been killed as the Islamic State fled the city.
Almost 60,000 Iraqis who managed to escape Falluja were now stuck in the desert in Anbar Province. Though Falluja is on the doorstep of Baghdad, only 40 miles away, the authorities were limiting access to the capital for fear that retreating militants might try to infiltrate the city.
The fleeing families have been forced to live in wind-battered camps in the desert, like the one I visited in Amiryat Falluja, south of the Euphrates River. Women and children sleep in the open, exposed to heat and gusts that whip the fine desert dust through the frames of unfinished trailers.
Aside from a few older men, there are few men or boys in the camps. They have been taken to screening where the government tries to weed out possible Islamic State fighters. After weeks, some of the displaced families still have no word about what has happened to their men.
Most of the forces securing Falluja and the surrounding area are Shiite. But the families, and the detained men, are Sunnis. And though there have been few verified reports of extrajudicial killings or abuse, the people’s resentment and fear are being carried in whispers.
Victory is never the end of the story here.