Iraq: will Fallujah fall before the government?

The operation to wrest the city of Fallujah from ISIS has begun, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi:

A statement from the military said counterterrorism forces, police, tribal fighters and popular mobilization units — which include an array of Shiite militias — will be involved. U.S.-supplied F-16 jets already have begun bombing targets in the city, the statement said. Civilians were urged to stay away from Islamic State headquarters.

Few expect an easy fight. Islamic State militants have dug in and built defenses in the city since capturing it more than two years ago, the first in the country to fall to the extremist group. Fallujah has long been considered a hotbed of rebellion and extremism, with even the heavy-handed Saddam Hussein struggling to control its tribes. U.S. Marines fought Sunni insurgents during two battles for the city in 2004, the second of which marked the heaviest urban combat for U.S. troops since the Vietnam War, killing nearly 100 service members.

For some reason there seems to have been a clear feeling in the US camp that Mosul should have been targeted before Fallujah, but that makes very little sense for several reasons. First, Mosul is going to be harder to take than Fallujah, and any experience the Iraqi army can gain before that assault would be important, particularly if gaining that experience involves also weakening ISIS. Second, Fallujah sits a scant 40 miles outside of Baghdad, which makes it a threat to the capital as well as a possible staging ground for the wave of violence that’s been sweeping Baghdad lately. Third, Fallujah was already being besieged by those Shiʿa Popular Mobilizations Units acting independently of the government. If they’d taken the city on their own, the bloodbath among Sunni civilians remaining there could have been extreme. It could still be extreme, but at least with the Iraqi army in charge of the operation there’s a chance that reprisal attacks will be kept to a minimum.

Speaking of reprisal attacks, the Iraqi army is advising civilians inside Fallujah to invite some upon themselves, by raising white flags outside their homes in order to alert Iraqi forces that they are not with ISIS. There’s just one teeny problem with that plan:

A former US military adviser in Iraq, Michael Pregent, questioned the wisdom of urging civilians to raise white flags.

“The problem with them [the Iraqi military] saying, ‘raise a white flag so we don’t shoot you’ – IS is going to shoot them when they raise a white flag.”

Hopefully the rest of the offensive is better conceived than this part.

The situation in Iraq as of May 1; note Fallujah, the island of black (ISIS control) in the sea of red (government control) west of Baghdad (Wikimedia | Absalao777)

As it is, retaking Fallujah may not take that long to accomplish, and the real question is what the city will look like when the operation is finished. Ramadi, the last major Iraqi city to be liberated from ISIS, is a bombed-out husk, so the question is whether that kind of destruction is inevitable when reclaiming a city from ISIS or if the collateral damage can be contained somehow. Needless to say, that’s the kind of issue that will come back again in a big way when the Mosul operation finally takes shape. Taking the city without destroying it will probably mean a slower-moving offensive, but the end result may be worth it.

Meanwhile, protesters calling for government reform once again entered Baghdad’s Green Zone on Friday, and this time there were reports of live ammunition being fired by Iraqi police and security forces. Hospital sources said that four protesters were shot and killed and dozens more shot and wounded, but the Iraqi government denied that live ammo was used and said that those reports about the shootings were false. Witnesses said that the security forces fired live ammo in the air, but then started shooting into the crowd. If they’ve graduated to live ammo, even to fire in the air for whatever reason, that represents a serious escalation in the protest situation and may be a sign that Abadi is losing his hold on things in an irreversible way.


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