Why the battle for Fallujah matters

Why the battle for Fallujah matters

By Luke Vargas   
Popular Mobilization Unit soldiers conduct military operations near Fallujah. Credit: Iraq Popular Mobilization Units Media
Popular Mobilization Unit soldiers conduct military operations near Fallujah. Credit: Iraq Popular Mobilization Units Media

Political, not military, victories in Anbar Province will dictate the future fight against the Islamic State in Iraq.

UNITED NATIONS (Talk Media News) – A military operation is underway to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah from the Islamic State (ISIS).

A campaign once viewed as a mere prelude to Mosul is proving far from straightforward, from the risk of high civilian casualties to potential sectarian clashes between Shia militias and the city’s Sunni population.

Here is an overview of the Fallujah campaign, what the U.S. can do to maximize the chances of success and what might go wrong.

Who’s fighting whom in Fallujah?

The enemy in Fallujah is the Islamic State, which seized control of the city in early 2014. Military leaders are not forthcoming about the estimated ISIS troop strength in the city, but a portion of the city’s population backs ISIS and will fight alongside its enthusiastic foreign soldiers, at least in the early stages of the battle.

Iraq battle map. May 2016.

The groups hoping to dislodge ISIS are diverse and may, to varying degrees, be operating with different objectives in mind.

The Iraqi armed forces, commanded by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, are leading the offensive into Fallujah. The U.S. is supporting that offensive with airstrikes that analysts agree lend the Iraqi armed forces a strong battlefield advantage.

Meanwhile, predominantly Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are tasked with ridding ISIS fighters from Fallujah’s rural environs and cutting off the group’s resupply and escape routes.

The PMF is comprised of tens of thousands of Iraqis who responded to a June 2014 appeal from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, to wage jihad on the Islamic State, though the group enjoys outside help as well, receiving backing from Iran and Hezbollah.

The PMF lacks the American air cover provided to the Iraqi army, but it remains a formidable fighting force.

Footage released by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense shows an airstrike on a suspected Islamic State position near Fallujah.
Footage released by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense shows an airstrike on a suspected Islamic State position near Fallujah.

Is a military victory likely?

Most analysts believe so, but ISIS fighters aren’t making things easy.

“This is a very difficult kind of warfare, and it looks to me that the Iraqis fighting the Islamic State right now are doing a hell of a lot better than they used to,” said Daniel Serwer, a professor of conflict management at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced and International Studies.

Hassan Mneimneh, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, considers military success a guarantee:

“It is undoubtful that Fallujah will fall. The issue is to which forces the city falls, when and how. What comes next is a test of preparedness for the Iraqi government.”

Analysts familiar with Iraq’s western Anbar Province have reason to be on edge.

The largely Sunni province played host to vicious sectarian fighting following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, and there is a widely acknowledged risk that military victory in Fallujah could give way to political setback if sectarian agendas are not kept in check.

Civilians flee a liberated community on the outskirts of Fallujah. Credit: Popular Mobilization Unit Media
Civilians flee a liberated community on the outskirts of Fallujah. Credit: Popular Mobilization Unit Media

What could cause a political setback in Anbar, even if the battle in Fallujah is won? 

“The big nightmare scenario is that we get uncontrolled Shia militia elements that move into the city,” said Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow and security policy analyst at the Washington Institute.

If Shia militias come into contact with the bulk of Fallujah’s population – civilians and ISIS sympathizers alike – Knights and others see a risk of “score settling” or reprisal killings.

ISIS is preventing Fallujah’s residents from fleeing the city, so high civilian casualties are likely if both the Iraqi armed forces and the PMF don’t advance carefully. The Iraqi military reportedly ordered such a pause on Wednesday, but the campaign is far from over.

Many Sunnis in and around Fallujah who battled al-Qaeda in the 2000s may wish to fight the Islamic State in the weeks and months ahead, so amicably integrating them into local police forces and the majority Shia Iraqi army will be a test in political leadership and military command.

If the armed forces spend too long in Fallujah without expanding their ranks, Knights said the city’s Sunnis could lash out at the Iraqi military directly, turning liberators into targets.

Are the Shia militias comprising the Popular Mobilization Forces playing nice?

Mostly yes, so far.

Ayatollah Sistani is urging PMF fighters to exercise moderation in Anbar, yet reports of the mistreatment of civilians are already circulating. The Popular Mobilization Units have demonstrated a capacity for such behavior before.

Iran’s goal, Mneimneh said, is to make Iraq a client state, and the threat of the Islamic State helps coax out the very Shia militias that threaten sectarian unity in the country.

“The success of Fallujah is extremely important,” he said, “because a well-conducted Fallujah battle means a Sunni Iraqi population that rejoins the national force,” thereby minimizing the, “instability in Iraq that Iran would thrive on.”

Sunnis helped the U.S. push back Al-Qaeda in the 2006 ‘Anbar Awakening.’ Can we count on them to do the same now? 

“It hasn’t happened in several years, I don’t know why it would necessarily happen now,” Serwer said.

Beginning in 2006, dozens of Sunni groups banded together across Anbar Province in a largely successful effort to defeat al-Qaeda insurgents. What became known as the “Anbar Awakening” coincided with a U.S. troop surge overseen by General David Petraeus, and he later took credit for nurturing the “Awakening” as a part of his emphasis on promoting “reconciliation among sects, tribes, and factions.”

Brendan O’Leary, the Lauder professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said the Petraeus project in Anbar ultimately failed because Sunnis were not integrated into the Iraqi military after defeating Al-Qaeda.

U.S. officials pin blame for that on former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but even with new leadership and Baghdad and the urgency of the Islamic State threat, O’Leary isn’t confident that Iraq is better positioned now to learn from past mistakes.

“It’s not at all clear that there’s any worked-out political strategy on the part of the Baghdad government,” O’Leary said of a new reconciliation plan in Anbar.

A Popular Mobilization Unit commander speaks to civilians in a liberated town near Fallujah. Credit: Popular Mobilization Unit Media
A Popular Mobilization Unit commander speaks to civilians in a liberated town near Fallujah. Credit: Popular Mobilization Unit Media

Even if Anbar’s Sunnis are disaffected with the government in Baghdad, surely the Islamic State’s brutality is enough to convince them to rejoin the Iraqi national experiment. Right?

Not necessarily.

“The brutality of the Islamic State is not something that’s new to Iraqis. Saddam was incredibly brutal,” Serwer said. “We have to learn that we’re in a governance competition.”

The Islamic State does provide services with varying degrees of efficacy, from food to justice. It’s a formula that Mneimneh describes as “terror and services,” compared to the Iraqi government’s, “some services and plenty of corruption.”

If Baghdad wants to pull Anbar back under its control, it will have to convince a skeptical public that their interests overlap.

“The test today is whether, over the past couple of years, there has been really a paradigm shift in Iraqi military doctrine, one that says, we do not treat our own citizens as occupied populations, we treat them as citizens we are to serve,” Mneimneh said.

Knights said the Iraqi government is very much in control of its own fate, but he also said the U.S. can help shape dynamics, whether by insisting that Sunnis earn jobs in police forces in liberated areas or by leading an international effort to rebuild damaged cities and helping to improve life in Anbar.

Credit: Operation Inherent Resolve
A graphic circulated by the U.S. military highlights a reconciliatory message from Iraq’s Defense Minister.

Who and what fills the void if the Islamic State is driven from Fallujah?

Depending on who you ask, either a government structure drafted up by leaders in Baghdad or a more devolved form of self-rule that places Anbar’s Sunnis in charge of their own destiny.

The latter theory is popular among those who say Iraq’s colonial-era boundaries force together disparate populations and all but ensure disunity.

O’Leary is squarely in that camp.

“American policy is set in a rut,” he said. “It still appears, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that American policymakers believe that the best policy is the recentralization of Iraq and the strengthening of the federal government in Baghdad.”

Serwer is more optimistic.

“This is an art more than a science,” he said, “but it makes a difference whether you’re trying or not.”

What does the delicacy of the Fallujah campaign say about the timeline for recapturing Mosul and the broader effort to defeat the Islamic State?

The Iraqi army and the U.S. have their sights set on the recapture of Mosul later this year, a battle that’s already been postponed before and will likely take months to complete.

The Fallujah campaign was envisioned as something of a placeholder to hold the military over until Mosul and to demonstrate the activity of the Iraqi government, but the aftermath of the battle could have far reaching consequences on the Mosul offensive.

“If the conduct of the war in Fallujah leads to Fallujah being savaged by Shia militias, I don’t think the offensive could continue,” Mneimneh said, citing the presence of connected Sunni communities stretching from Fallujah north to Mosul.

“Naturally there would be a postponement,” he said of the Mosul campaign, “not out of simply rethinking [strategy], but out of necessity.”

“You cannot carry through in liberating the rest of Iraq if the population that you’re intending on liberating fears you and is not interested in your ‘liberation.'”

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