By Michael Cruickshank, @MJ_Cruickshank
The center of the city of Fallujah has been recaptured by Iraqi forces following weeks of intense fighting and a months-long siege. Iraqi commanders today confirmed that their forces had captured the central urban area of the city, including the government complex and central hospital in a series of battles against ISIS.
Reportedly a significant number of ISIS fighters were killed in this most recent thrust into the city, both by the Iraqi forces and by Coalition jets which were providing continuous air support. Nonetheless, ISIS - despite being massively outnumbered - had managed to hold off this attack for many weeks and inflict significant casualties on the advancing Iraqi army. This prompted the decision to allow the predominantly Shia Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) forces to take part in the final phase of the operation.
The inclusion of Hashd Al-Shaabi in this operation was controversial due to the fact that the residents of Fallujah (a predominantly Sunni city) viewed these militias with deep suspicions, given that many took part in sectarian killings during the post-invasion period. As well, there was significant evidence of at least some of these Shia fighters abusing civilians who had fled the city. Regardless, mass sectarian killings or abuses did not occur, and the presence of these militias did not appear to significantly discourage civilians from fleeing the city.
While ISIS fighters have withdrawn to the north of the city, and fighting is ongoing, it is only a matter of time before they are defeated within Fallujah. This would all-but end the militant group’s presence in Anbar Province, and would allow the Iraqi government to pivot its forces towards Mosul, the largest ISIS-held city in either Syria or Iraq. Given the bloody fighting and months of siege tactics needed to take the smaller city of Fallujah, significant preparation may be required before any serious operation against ISIS in northern Iraq can begin. Should an operation be launched too early, it could end up in a demoralizing defeat, or worse still, an ongoing bloodbath, fueling sectarian divisions.
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