As the battle for ISIL-controlled Fallujah has intensified, so has the sectarian rhetoric.
Various militia leaders and officials have made comments of a sectarian nature.
“’Uproot this cancerous tumour,” one Shia militia leader said.
“Cleaning Fallujah means cleaning Islam and Iraq,” said another militia leader while addressing his fighters.
The media wing for the militias, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, has published videos showing its fighters chanting sectarian slogans while firing rockets on Fallujah.
Other videos show what seems to be indiscriminate firing by multiple rocket launchers.
Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is also the secretary general of the ruling Dawa Islamic Party, has said that “Fallujah represents the head of the snake which raised terrorists and takfiris”.
Up to 50,000 troops including army, police, counterterrorism personnel, Shia militia men and Sunni tribal fighters are taking part in the offensive that began on Monday.
More than 15 Shia militias are involved.
It’s a fact that some of these militias, which are armed and funded by Iran, are stronger than the Iraqi army.
The US-led coalition has in the past refused to allow these militias to participate, fearing sectarian reprisal attacks. It’s not clear if the coalition leaders think differently this time around.
Over the past two years, the Shia militias have captured many towns and villages from ISIL.
But in some areas they’ve been accused of looting, sectarian acts and refusing to allow the Sunni population to return to their homes.
This offensive is critical for the government for a number of reasons.
Securing Fallujah means securing the capital Baghdad.
But the government is also under pressure to restrain these forces from carrying out sectarian attacks and practices.
Fallujah is less than 30 minutes by car to the west of Baghdad.
The city was an al-Qaeda stronghold after the US-led occupation in 2003. Several other armed groups were also present in the city.
The US launched two major offensives on the city in 2004. More than 20,000 Marines were stationed there to pacify it.
In 2013, Fallujah and other cities in Abnar province witnessed anti-government demonstrations, calling for Maliki’s government to end what protesters said was marginalisation of Sunnis and sectarian policies.
And in 2014, ISIL got its grip on the city.
Around 100,000 people still live in the city and they are now caught between ISIL and the government forces.
It is crucial for the Iraqi government to win the hearts and minds of the people in Fallujah.
So far, the practices of the attacking forces are not promising.