The long-expected battle for Anbar has begun in Iraq, but there are huge concerns about its aftermath, writes Salah Nasrawi
For weeks, Iraqi security forces and Shia paramilitaries have been encircling the city of Ramadi, where the government is planning a major offensive to dislodge Islamic State (IS) terror group militants who captured the city, the capital of Anbar Province, some three months ago.
The Iraqi government has now announced the start of a campaign to retake the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province west of Baghdad on 13 July. The offensive includes plans to liberate Fallujah, which has been an IS stronghold since its seizure by extremists in January 2014.
There has been little information about the operation amid a government blackout and increasing concerns about the military and political strategy to fully pacify Anbar and other Sunni-populated provinces after taking them back from IS.
IS militants captured vast amounts of territory in Iraq, including the country’s second-largest city of Mosul, last year, following an uprising by Sunnis protesting against what they claimed was their exclusion and marginalisation by the Shia-led government.
With the Anbar campaign gaining momentum, thousands of Iraqi fighters have joined in the battle, with much of the main thrust of the offensive seemingly directed at Fallujah, some 60 km west of the capital Baghdad.
Iraqi officials say government forces, mainly Shia Popular Mobilisation Units and Sunni pro-government fighters, are taking part in the onslaught to retake this rebellious city. Fallujah was the scene of major battles with American forces following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
After the US troop withdrawal in 2011, Iraqi security forces fought the rebels as the city turned into a bastion of Sunni resistance against the Shia-led government. With the flare-up of the Sunni uprising in December 2012, the government gradually lost control of Fallujah to IS-led rebels.
Government spokesmen now say that Iraqi forces are making major strides in areas near Fallujah and that the city has fallen under a tight siege from four directions and leading to its centre, which they expect to soon fall.
Fallujah’s proximity to Baghdad makes it strategically important for the Iraqi government. While its liberation will drive IS militants far from the capital, Fallujah’s capture is also key to securing Ramadi and the rest of Anbar Province.
In the past few weeks, Iraqi security forces, Shia militias and local pro-government Sunni tribes have been moving to cut the militants’ supply lines and to surround and isolate Ramadi and Fallujah.
Last week, Iraq closed its border with Jordan until further notice. The closure is intended to choke off one of the militants’ sources of finance, depriving them of the taxes they impose on trucks driving through their territory.
But as the coalition of Iraqi forces takes up strategic positions closer to Fallujah and Ramadi, the key question is when will the major offensive to retake the two cities be launched.
Since the seizure of Ramadi in May, the Iraqi government has many times announced an operation to liberate Anbar, but there have not been any major advances on the ground. This could mean that there are disagreements about what strategies should be adopted in the battle for Anbar. The campaign could determine not only the course of the war against IS but also the tide of historical events in Iraq.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said the push in Anbar was being conducted according to plans made some time ago. Like other government officials, Al-Abadi did not set a specific date for the start of the offensive, but he promised the province will eventually be liberated.
Leaders of the Shia militias, however, have announced that the decision to retake the two key cities should be taken by the government, highlighting difficulties in forging a unified strategy against IS.
The United States, which is taking part in the campaign by carrying out air strikes against IS targets, does not appear to support elements of the Anbar offensive, as planned by the Iraqi government.
Strategically, Washington has offered a timeline for the fight against IS that could be years long. Tactically, US generals have opposed a simultaneous operation to recapture both Ramadi and Fallujah, suggesting instead a speedy offensive in Ramadi in order to prevent IS from establishing itself in the city.
Operations against IS in Anbar may have begun to yield some results for Iraqi troops, which have been able to besiege IS militants in Ramadi and Fallujah and force them to slow down their advance. The Iraqi coalition may also be able to push back the militants to the desert or into neighbouring Syria.
But in order for the Iraqi government to regain control of the one third of its territory lost to the jihadists it needs a comprehensive strategy that can defeat IS and hasten its demise.
Recapturing Ramadi and Fallujah would change the situation dramatically in favour of the Iraqi Shia-led government, but Iraqi troops will still face further battles in Anbar on their way to take back Mosul, Iraq’s second city.
Baghdad needs a military approach that does not alienate the Sunni population and create further communal divisions in the divided and war-torn country. While the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Units have proven to be a powerful partner in the war against IS, the government should be careful in deploying militias that have been known for heavy-handed actions and sometimes brutality against the local populations in liberated areas.
The army should also avoid collateral damage while conducting its operations in Anbar. The international human rights group Human Rights Watch has alleged that the Iraqi government has been dropping barrel bombs and may also have targeted a hospital in its battle with militants in the conflict-hit province.
Fear of both the militias and scorched-earth tactics have triggered a mass exodus from Anbar. Tens of thousands of civilians now find themselves trapped between IS militants ready to use them as human shields and a government suspicious of their loyalties.
Military means on their own will also never be enough to destroy the terror group. IS militants have been driven from many areas in Iraq, but they are still fighting on several fronts. In recent weeks IS sleeper cells in Baghdad have carried out a series of devastating bomb attacks targeting Shia areas and disrupted security forces defending the capital.
On Friday, an IS suicide bomber detonated a small truck in a crowded marketplace in Khan Bani Saad, east of Baghdad, killing some 130 people and wounding dozens of others in one of the deadliest single attacks in the country in years.
Retaking Anbar will certainly be a strategic victory over the IS militants, but Iraqi Shia leaders should start thinking of long-term successes rather than transitory gains. The campaign against the terror group will only be successful over the long term if the Iraqi government pursues an approach that overcomes the sectarian split and opens up towards the Sunnis.
With millions of Sunnis leaving areas under IS control amid reports that the terror group is using residents of Fallujah as human shields, the insurgents are losing the strategic depth they need to defend their territory.
Efforts should also be made to find solutions to the sectarian war by fully accommodating nationalist Sunnis who distance themselves from IS and other rebel groups and are ready to work for a political solution.
While a unified nationalist Sunni front remains essential to representing the interests of the Sunni community in Iraq, the Shia ruling factions should also give up the tactical alliance they have built with corrupt, power-hungry and acquiescent Sunni politicians since the 2003 US-led invasion.
This marriage of convenience has given inclusiveness a bad name. After driving IS militants out of occupied cities and towns, Iraq will need new arrangements in which the Sunnis can find their place in a new political set-up in the country. In the post-IS era, Iraq will need a new political system that forces the corrupt and inept multi-ethnic and sectarian political class to give up what has become an extremely lucrative arrangement. This will pave the way for a new leadership to come to power, one that is not based on religious or ethnic beliefs.
Indeed, the future of Iraq is now inevitably tied to the emergence of such secular leaders and movements. The war against IS is a make-or-break moment for the ill-fated nation.
This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on July 23, 2015