Tag Archives: Fallujah

Beyond Fallujah

Salah EB

Beyond Fallujah

The world is rightly worrying about the prospect of missteps in Fallujah, but anything less than a victory uprooting the Islamic State group and pacifying Iraq could be just as troubling, writes Salah Nasrawi

As Iraqi soldiers continued their battle to drive the Islamic State (IS) terror group out of the city of Fallujah, a great deal of media attention is being focused on the war’s sectarian implications, human cost and side effects.

Things like the role played by Shia paramilitaries, Iran’s rising influence, the pace of the advance, and warnings of a possible humanitarian catastrophe have been stealing the headlines since the operation began more than two weeks ago.

Certainly, these are essential elements of how to analyse the failures and successes of the campaign against IS. Yet, the broader policy of the impact of the Fallujah battle on Iraq’s long-term stability and regional geopolitics and the future of the world’s war on terrorism is not being given careful reflection.

The offensive in Fallujah will almost certainly bring the city back under the control of the Baghdad government, but a fundamental question remains: should that be the only prize Iraq has been desperate to win, or should it be part of one final blow to eliminate IS in order to make both Iraq and the world safer?

Iraqi troops started the offensive to recapture Fallujah on 22 May, with Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi promising that the city, under IS control since January 2014, would be taken back soon.

Since then Iraqi forces  a combination of the army, police, local tribesmen and the Shia-led Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF)   have been making some headway in pushing forward. The US-led international coalition has also been supporting the operation with air-strikes, intelligence, weapons and training.

However, more than two weeks into the start of the offensive the city’s centre remains under IS control.

Sceptical reports in American and some Arab media say that the Iraqi military operation in Fallujah has been stalling largely because of poor military and political strategies, key shortcomings that could undermine the campaign against the radical group.

While some have said Iraq’s forces remained bogged down on the southern edge of Fallujah amid fierce fighting with IS militants, others suggest that the delay has come amid controversy over the role of the Shia forces and their Iranian backers.

The negative feedback has even gone as far as speculating about the widely expected operation to retake the IS stronghold of Mosul in northern Iraq.

On Saturday, the New York Times quoted American and allied officials as saying that an exhausted and ill-equipped Iraqi army faced daunting obstacles on the battlefield that would most likely delay for months a long-planned major offensive against Iraq’s second-largest city.

Iraqi officials, however, have denied any delay in the Fallujah operations, and Al-Abadi has said that there has been steady progress in the fight and that commanders have focused on minimising casualties both among their forces and civilians.

He said the media suggesting otherwise was only serving IS purposes.

But just beyond worries about the prospects of a humanitarian crisis and fear of risks of atrocities by the Shia militias in Fallujah or concerns of growing Iranian influence in Iraq lies one key question: how to prevent abuses and the regional manipulation of the sectarian card while at the same time denying IS the opportunity to win the propaganda war and recruit new followers?

Unfortunately, the battle for Fallujah has become entrenched outside the city itself. While part of this battle is over hearts and minds in Iraq and in neighbouring countries, much of the bickering over the Fallujah battle conceals sectarian and geopolitical agendas.

One of the arguments being widely used is that Iraq risks losing the war against the IS jihadists if it lets the Shia paramilitaries into Fallujah. Some in the media have expressed concerns at possible atrocities being carried out in vengeance should the PMF forces storm the city.

Pundits and sometimes self-proclaimed analysts who probably rely on feedback from PR firms working on behalf of stakeholders have been hyping fears that the Shia militias are building sectarian tensions and could ignite a communal mess.

According to the proponents of this theory, defeating IS will solve nothing if the politics are not got right, which means finding a political solution that will put the minority Sunnis on equal footing with the majority Shia.

Furthermore, the Shia-led Iraqi government is being warned that its campaign to “conquer” Fallujah could lead to a further rise in IS. Advocates of this scenario say that as happened with Al-Qaeda in Iraq IS will merely resurface after the campaign, perhaps in an even more vigorous form.

One major problem with the argument that the Fallujah offensive, even if Iraqi forces win, will not translate into lasting stability is that its upholders have not provided a viable alternative strategy or one that ensures uprooting the vicious terror group.

In general, these recipes for ending Iraq’s chaos have become mere clichés, precisely because they are oversimplified formulas that are inadequate when dealing with a much more complicated conflict.

It is only a matter of common sense that Iraq needs a political solution for its admittedly civil war, but this approach makes a cult of simplicity if it is taken out of context.

Since the sectarian bloodbaths of 2006-2007, Iraq has descended into an acute sectarian struggle, and the offensives to take cities back from IS are only a renewed cycle in that civil war.

It is generally agreed that most civil wars end in decisive military victories, not negotiated settlements. Iraq, therefore, may not be the exception to this rule, and its civil war will not end in a political settlement but will rather end on the battlefield.

Whether that is Baghdad’s plan or not, the amount of political, moral and human resources invested in the war and the momentum in the campaign against IS suggests that it is Baghdad’s only option to sustain and prevail in any long-term strategy.

Given the strategic importance of Fallujah, recapturing the city could also be more than a victory for Baghdad. It would be a complete game-changer in the Iraqi conflict that would affect not only the country’s wobbly internal political dynamics but also the fragile regional order.

Although the government and PMF leaders have been sending conciliatory messages of reassurance to the population of Fallujah, the general mood among Iraqi Shia and Sunnis is one of mutual distrust.

While most Shia believe that the majority of Arab Sunnis will remain opposed to their empowerment and will continue to provide support for the extremists, most Sunnis think that the Shia will never let them share power and wealth with them on an equal footing.

If a drastic shift in the balance of power between the two main communities in the country is not achieved, a political settlement will do little to allay each other’s concerns and end their mutual mistrust.

That is the context in which the Baghdad Shia-led government has launched its assault on Fallujah, which is the insurgency’s last major bastion close to Baghdad and a jumping-off point for IS attacks on the capital.

In many ways, the taking of Fallujah will underscore the very real political realities of Iraq that the Shia and their allies in Iran want to see materialise after the defeat of IS.

It will pull the Sunni-populated city back into the sphere of Baghdad through the cooperative relationship of a portion of the population and Sunni politicians who have been working closely with the Shia-led government.

It will also be a strategic advantage that will put the government and the Iran-backed Shia-led PMF in control of Anbar Province, which sits astride the Iraqi border with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Having the whole of Anbar Province in hand will not only protect western approaches to Baghdad, but will also establish “strategic depth” for the Iranian-backed regime of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad.

It will also reopen the vast desert border areas to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, two Sunni-dominated neighbouring countries that have never hidden their anxiety at the rising power of the Shia and Iranian clout in Iraq.

For many Shia political and militia leaders, there is now a momentum which cannot be reversed. They are already speaking of the huge sacrifices and the blood that have been invested in the fight against IS which they hope will make post-Fallujah Iraq different from the country it was before and be paid back fully in victory.

That will probably inflict a heavy blow on IS,  which the international community is eager to see, but whether it will also be the Iraqi Shia’s road to a final and lasting victory receiving regional consent remains in doubt.

This article first appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on June 9, 2016

After Anbar

After Anbar

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