Iraqi militias pledge to repel Islamic State from Fallujah, site of bitter US battle
BAGHDAD — Powerful Iraqi Shiite militias vow to drive Islamic State fighters out of Fallujah, sparking panic in the city where US Marines saw their bloodiest combat of the Iraq War.
The militias’ campaign to besiege the city 40 miles west of Baghdad comes as US-backed regular Iraqi armed forces prepare for a counteroffensive in Ramadi, which has fallen to the state Islamic two months ago.
The militias’ decision effectively divides operations against extremists in Iraq’s Anbar province into two spheres of influence – Iran-backed militias focusing on Fallujah while US-backed forces target Ramadi, provincial capital, 40 miles further west towards the border with Syria.
An attempt to enter Fallujah itself could still take weeks or months, militia leaders said. However, their forces have pounded the town with rockets and artillery in recent days, and they claim to have gained territory around it. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Air Force stepped up its strikes.
Announcing this week that ‘the next battle will be in Fallujah’, Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, taunted Islamic State militants, daring them to hold back Iraqi forces as long as they would. US Marines in the famous 2004 battle. “Victory is guaranteed,” he sang.
In the Sunni city, where local authorities say there are around 50,000 civilians left, the prospect of an offensive by Shia militias is causing serious concern.
Mosques have called on residents to donate blood this week to help treat those injured in the shelling.
Militia leaders say taking over Fallujah is essential because of its proximity to the nation’s capital and its symbolic importance to the Islamic State. But there may be other reasons for their decision to target the city, analysts said.
Until recently, predominantly Shia militias known as Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs, had said their priority was to retake Ramadi, which fell to Islamic State in May. However, US officials are pushing for regular Iraqi security forces to play the lead role in this fight.
“Fallujah is where PMUs know they can lead because fighting for Ramadi would never be an option for them,” said Michael Knights, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Advancing on Fallujah
As factions vie for influence, the timeline for an offensive on Ramadi seems to be slipping.
US officials had advised Iraq to launch a swift counter-offensive, in order to prevent the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, from establishing a foothold in the city. And Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had said the city could be retaken “a few days” after his forces withdrew.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning, said Iraqi officials had hoped to launch an offensive to reclaim Fallujah before attacking Ramadi, but the US military advised to focus on Ramadi first.
“ISIL did not have the time or the opportunity to retreat to Ramadi like they did in Fallujah,” the official said.
US advisers are also likely to be aware of the US Army’s own 2004 battle in Fallujah – which claimed the lives of nearly 100 US Marines in some of its toughest fighting since Vietnam.
As they battled Islamic State’s predecessor, the group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Marines fought from street to street, facing sniper fire, bombs roadside and trapped buildings. They eventually took control of the town, but it fell to the Islamic State in January last year.
Today, underscoring the Iraqi government’s challenge to rein in the country’s range of armed groups, the militias are advancing an operation in Fallujah. Unconfirmed reports have appeared in Iranian news outlets that one of Iran’s top military commanders – Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Al-Quds Force – was on Wednesday on the battlefield near Fallujah.
“Fallujah is the priority. It’s very close to Baghdad, it’s a threat to Baghdad and it’s seen as a base for their leadership,” said Moeen al-Kadhimi, a commander of the Badr Organization, one of the Shiite militias fighting around Fallujah.
Sabah al-Noori, spokesman for Iraq’s US-trained counterterrorism units, said they were still focused on a Ramadi operation. “Are we going to end up in Fallujah? I don’t know,” he said.
Brig. General Yahya Rasoul Abdullah, spokesman for the Iraqi army, declined to say which town was the priority, saying the current goal was to cut supply lines in Anbar province.
Some analysts have said that, if launched simultaneously, the two operations could complement each other. Knights said the militia offensive in Fallujah could succeed.
“It’s a fight they think they can win, and they probably can, especially if ISIL is distracted by a Ramadi operation at the same time,” he said.
However, other analysts said the announcement of the Fallujah operation highlighted the government’s difficulties in forging a strategy against Islamic State.
Shia militia movements in Anbar “illustrate how the failure of the military, the weakening of Abadi and the empowerment of the militias have left pro-government forces in strategic incoherence”, wrote Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst who publishes Inside Iraq Politics, in a recent article. To analyse.
“In Ramadi, the withdrawal of some [militia] left the army unable to take the city as planned,” he said.
Kadhimi, the leader of Badr, said an operation to take Fallujah could still take months and any battle for the city would have to include local Sunni tribal fighters.
The civilians of the city are afraid
The militia announcements have caused panic in the Sunni-majority city, seen as a stronghold of support for the Islamic State.
“We said that in the event of an assault on the city, we would prefer that the police, the army and the local tribes” carry out the operation, said Eissa al-Issawi, head of the local Fallujah council, who lives outside the city.
If the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Units carried out the operation, “there would be a lot of destruction and a lot of bloodshed”, he said.
Iraqi officials say around 100 people have been killed in shelling and shelling over the past two weeks.
Locals say the Iraqi Air Force is using “barrel bombs” over the city – barrels filled with explosives that are dropped from planes and are known to cause many civilian casualties due to their inaccuracy. Government and military officials strongly deny the use of such weapons, which would run counter to a pledge by Abadi to stop indiscriminate shelling of civilians.
“We are caught between government shelling and armed groups,” said a Sunni religious leader in Fallujah, referring to Islamic State militants. Like other residents, he spoke anonymously for security reasons.
Issawi said the local council was trying to organize a safe exit for civilians, but residents say there is no way out. Other officials said Islamic State fighters had cut off exits from Fallujah.
“There is a state of terror,” said a 29-year-old resident. “We know there will be an attack, we want to leave, but the Islamic State is not letting anyone go. They want to use us as human shields.
Mustafa Salim in Baghdad and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.
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