This week the Iraqi Government announced with much fanfare the beginning of a large-scale operation to retake the city of Fallujah from ISIS. One major part of this announcement was the participation of a significant number of Sunni fighters, both those in the Iraqi Army, as well as units of local tribal fighters. Despite this however, the uncomfortable fact remains that a large number of sectarian Shia militiamen are taking part in the operation under the aegis of the Popular Mobilisation Units (Hashd al-Shaabi).
Fallujah, a Sunni-majority city located in Anbar province just 100km from the Iraqi capital Baghdad, has long been a hotbed of radicalism. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the city was twice taken by Islamist forces (among them the Al Qaeda in Iraq – an ISIS predecessor) and twice reclaimed in a series of bloody urban battles by mainly US forces. The city was one of the first to fall to ISIS, in late 2013, following months of protests. Since then it has remained a major base of operations for ISIS, from where it projected attacks into other areas of Anbar Province, as well as Baghdad.
Given the city’s history within the wider Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq, it stands to reason that Sunni forces within the Iraqi Army would be better received as the city’s “liberators” than Shia forces, and thus this is why the Iraqi PM Al-Abadi was keen to play up their role. The truth however is that the Iraqi Army and allied tribal fighters are simply not powerful enough to defeat ISIS in the city. Instead the government has been forced to rely on Shia paramilitaries in the Hashd al-Shaabi for support.
Evidence for this comes from videos released by the paramilitary groups themselves. Among the most prolific sharers of video footage from the (Third) Battle of Fallujah are Kata’ib Hezbollah, a group which fought extensively against the US during the Iraq War, and remains a designated terrorist group. This videos show large convoys of fighters entering the battle, as well as a wide range of highly-inaccurate improvised missile launchers being fired towards the city.
It would be unreasonable at this stage to speculate on the behaviour of these militia’s given the varying levels of professionalism they have demonstrated since their integration in the Popular Mobilisation. However, their inclusion in the operation could have a detrimental effect on civilians.
The pre-war population of Fallujah was over 300,000, however this has dwindled significantly due to continued fighting, and ISIS’s harsh rule. The UNHCR has stated that it has “grave concerns” for 10,000 civilian families still within the city. While the Iraqi Government has made overtures of safe passage should they leave the city, the fear of sectarian retributions from Shia militia groups, whether well-founded or rooted in ISIS propaganda, could make these civilians unwilling to leave. Given the massive use of rocket artillery on the city (as demonstrated in the video above) many of these civilians could be caught in the crossfire.
While the outcome of the battle is almost certainly to result in a defeat for ISIS (they are massively outnumbered) it is at this stage unclear how long this will take, and how destructive it will be. Unfortunately, if past battles for the city are anything to go back, the fighting will be vicious and will likely lay waste to whatever remains of the city. The Iraq Government can only hope that it can reconcile with the surviving residents and ensure that yet another battle for the city is not required further into the future.
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