Snipers line the rooftops across Falluja, waiting for a chance to shoot at government soldiers, should they try to invade. Homes have been wired to explode, too, just in case the government rushes the city. And roads have been studded with countless steel-plated bombs, of the type that killed so many American soldiers here.
Falluja — and the rest of Anbar Province — perhaps more than any other locale in Iraq, embodies the lengths the United States went to tame a bloody insurgency unleashed by its invasion. But now, much of the region is again beyond the authority of the central government and firmly in the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a jihadist group that is so radical it has broken with Al Qaeda, in part because it insisted on being allowed to indiscriminately kill Shiites.
That reality, which the government appears powerless to remedy, offers a sobering postscript to the American war and a volatile backdrop to national elections scheduled for Wednesday. The vote will be Iraq’s first nationwide election since the withdrawal of United States forces at the end of 2011, and it is clear it will he held amid spiraling violence and sectarian bloodletting. On Monday, six suicide bombers struck polling sites around the country as security force members voted in advance, killing at least 27 people, officials said.
The greater fear, though, is that there is no way back this time, that the sectarian division of the nation will become entrenched as the government concentrates its forces on protecting its seat of power in Baghdad. With fighting in Abu Ghraib, on the western edge of Baghdad and less than 20 miles from the city center, the government recently shut down the local prison. Insurgents have gained strength in Salahuddin Province, to the north of Baghdad, and in Diyala Province, northeast of the capital.
“All arrows are pointing toward Baghdad now,” said Jessica D. Lewis, research director at the Institute for the Study of War, who has closely followed the fighting in Anbar.
Iraq’s security forces, trained by the United States at a cost of billions of dollars, have been unable to dislodge the militants. In trying to help, the United States may unwittingly have made matters worse when it pressed the government to arm the tribes to fight the radicals, a strategy that worked the first time the United States struggled to tame the region.
Since January, Washington has rushed guns and bullets to the fight — including 14 million rounds of ammunition and more than 250,000 grenades. But arming the tribes did not work, and some of those American-supplied weapons are now in the hands of militants, having been captured during clashes, officials and tribal leaders said.
“Arming the tribes in Anbar was a big mistake,” said Sheikh Laurence al-Hardan, a tribal leader in a village named Karma, near Falluja, who said he is opposed to both the central government and the radical Islamists controlling his villages. “That allowed the tribes to fight other tribes. And large numbers of weapons were taken by the armed groups.”
With the residents that remain in Falluja, the militants have taken a slightly lighter approach than the harsh Islamic rule extremists aligned with Al Qaeda established a decade ago, before being dislodged by American Marines in bloody fighting that claimed hundreds of lives.
The insurgents have set up free garbage collection. Men are allowed to smoke cigarettes and are not required to grow beards. Women, though, need to be covered in a full veil, called a niqab. “I can only show my eyes and nothing else,” said a 24-year-old woman who only gave her first name, Sawsan. “And no makeup is allowed.”
Sawsan was looking forward to graduating from a local university this year, but the school is closed. “We have an unknown future waiting for us, with no hope left inside us,” she said.
Adding to the bleak landscape, with the militant gains in Anbar, the insurgency in Iraq has increasingly converged with the civil war in Syria, and experts and officials are beginning to speak of a vast territory that stretches from Aleppo in Syria through Anbar Province and up to the doorstep of Baghdad that is controlled by Islamist extremists.
As the Iraqi security forces have lost territory, and suffered casualties rumored to be in the thousands but are undisclosed by the government, militants have destroyed bridges, and seized a dam, cutting off an important supply of water to the south, and flooding areas of Falluja. To flout their gains, insurgents have even held military parades in Falluja, driving down a central street in trucks seized from the Iraqi special forces.
The fighters in Anbar, now a mix of extremists and local tribal fighters, are better trained than the ones who faced the Americans. And the local Sunni population, including some tribal sheikhs, are now — after months of seeing the strength of the insurgents on the battlefield, and the authority they have wielded within communities — more inclined to side with the extremists than with the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Tribal militias are also fighting one another in some places, adding to the complexity of the battlefield.
Maria Fantappie, Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization, said that in the face of an impossible fight in Anbar, Mr. Maliki is likely to put more resources into defending Baghdad. “My fear, as an analyst, is that Anbar and Falluja will shift to Syria, and more and more the Iraqis will focus on protecting the Green Zone,” she said, referring to the fortified center of the capital where most important government buildings are.
The election is largely seen as a referendum on Mr. Maliki’s eight years in power, but it will also be a crucial test of the Sunni community’s commitment, or aversion, to the political process.
There will only be a limited number of polling stations within Anbar, which will affect Sunni turnout in the election. Officials say those who have been displaced from Anbar will be able to vote in the places where they have sought refuge, such as in the northern Kurdish region.
The Islamist State of Iraq and Syria has actively tried to dissuade Sunnis from voting, threatening violence through leaflets and postings on social media.
“Those groups have the power to kill me and they are controlling many parts of Anbar,” said Belal al-Jubori, who is 32, unemployed and lives near Ramadi, the capital of Anbar. “So it’s not worth putting my life at risk. After all, we got nothing from previous elections.”
The election is equally risky for candidates in Anbar, some of whom have withdrawn because of threats. One former candidate from a village near Falluja, who was too terrified to give his name, said he was recently abducted by armed men who showed up at his house in a sport utility vehicle. “They told me, ‘You should withdraw from the elections or we will kill you, your family and burn your house. The Islamic State has given its orders.’ ”
When militants capture Iraqi soldiers, they are usually executed on the spot. But local policemen, who are Sunni and are from the area, are given a chance: if they repent for their service to the government and pledge loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, they are given a gun, a salary and a new job as a foot soldier in the war against the government.
Still, recent interviews with residents inside Falluja painted a dystopian portrait of fear, uncertainty and lives interrupted. Schools have closed, marriages have been canceled. The few local journalists who remained have been threatened with death.
Muhammed Anmar, a carpenter, used to earn a living selling furniture. “Now I am just sitting, waiting for what’s going to happen next in this city that is dead,” he said. “We used to have life here. Now, no work, no sound of life.”