Iraq: the fight for Fallujah

Fighting for Fallujah against the Islamic State has been going on for months. Why is it taking so long? Politics, popular sentiment and muddy farming roads are all part of the answer.

By Mustafa Habib in Baghdad, via Niqash

For several months now, soldiers from the Iraqi army’s First Division have been deployed in the Subaihat area on the outskirts of the city of Fallujah, most of which is controlled by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. But despite this, the forces fighting the extremists here have not been able to make much headway re-taking Fallujah. The extremist group has already been expelled from other nearby cities and areas, such as Tikrit, Baiji and Ramadi.

“This battle for Fallujah is different from all the other battles that the Iraqi army is waging against the Islamic State,” Qassim al-Tamimi, a captain in the army stationed there, told Niqash. “There are a number of factors that advantage the extremists,” he explained. “These are demographic, political and geographic. And as a result we suffer.” 

Also based around Fallujah are other Iraqi military divisions – the 10th, 8th and 17th as well as a brigade related to the Baghdad Operations Command, the military unit dedicated to the capital’s security, and of course, units belonging to Iraq’s controversial volunteer Shiite Muslim militias. Still, as the captain points out, nobody has been able to liberate Fallujah from the Islamic State, or IS, group, yet.

“Our intelligence suggests that there are around 2,000 IS fighters in Fallujah, and about half of them are foreigners,” al-Tamimi says. “We believe they have about 500 military vehicles, most of which were stolen from the army after the fall of Mosul. The IS group is now filling these vehicles with explosives and they detonate them if we try to advance.”

Fallujah was the first major city to come under the control of the IS group in January of 2014, around six months earlier than the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The fact that Fallujah is so close to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, is a major security problem for the Iraqi government. Members of the government and senior commanders in the Iraqi army have said that Fallujah is blocked off from the capital and that Baghdad is safe. Yet in late February a group of IS fighters was able to attack the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, break into a grain silo and then return to their bases in Fallujah with the badly needed grain.

One of the biggest problems was the road; military vehicles couldn’t get down the muddy thoroughfares. The Iraqi army has managed to expel the IS group from other cities in and around this area. But Fallujah presents a unique set of factors that are making the task particularly difficult here.

Firstly there is Fallujah’s geography. Its location on the border of three provinces and its role as a link between Baghdad and other provinces, including a road to Jordan, means that it’s a very important base for the IS group, one that will be fiercely defended.

It is also a city in the middle of a rural area with densely planted agricultural roads all going to Baghdad that are hard to control.

“There are dozens of farming villages that have their own direct connections to Baghdad,” says Abdullah al-Halbusi, a tribal leader originally from Fallujah who now lives in Baghdad. “So the IS group has turned these villages into battlefields and they use the villages to infiltrate Baghdad whenever they want to.”

There is an agricultural road going from the villages north of Fallujah - Ibrahim bin Ali, Saba al-Bour and Subaihat – directly to the Taji suburb of Baghdad and another one going from Zaidan and Zoba villages, east of the city, into Abu Ghraib, al-Halbusi told Niqash. There’s also another road heading into Baghdad’s Yusufiya district.

One of the most pivotal towns around Fallujah is Karamah. And in April 2015, the Iraqi army launched an operation – the so-called Karamah Dawn – to take back the town. It was unsuccessful. One of the biggest problems was the lack of proper roads. Military vehicles couldn’t get down the muddy thoroughfares around the town and foot patrols are too dangerous thanks to IS snipers and improvised explosive devices.

There are thousands of soldiers and militia members deployed around these villages but they still cannot stop IS fighters from making their way through the small towns. Most of the militia members come from the south of Iraq and don’t know the area at all, especially the back roads. Additionally the IS group has supporters among the locals here who help them get through the towns; the militias and army don’t have that insider knowledge or support, al-Halbusi points out.

Whereas in Anbar’s other major city, Ramadi, which was freed of the IS group in early 2016, the Iraqi military had contacts with local tribes, here they have none. Fallujah’s tribes are wary of the Iraqi army and government and have refused to enter into any kind of alliance. Some of these Sunni Muslim groups don’t like the IS group either and they have refused to submit to them or work with them. However these groups – which include factions like the 1920s Revolution Brigades and the Mujahideen Army, or Jaysh al-Mujahideen – like the Iraqi government even less.

“There are ongoing negotiations about an alliance between the Iraqi government and a number of the armed factions inside Fallujah,” says a senior Anbar official, who spoke to Niqash on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information. “Any such alliance would help the Iraqi army enter the Karamah area. The deal is that the army would not arrest members of the armed factions or their families. But given the levels of mistrust, these are very difficult negotiations.”

International politics is also preventing an easy campaign in Fallujah. The US government, an important ally of the Iraqi government in the fight against the IS group, does not want the volunteer Shiite Muslim militias to participate in the campaign in the mostly-Sunni-populated area. And the Shiite Muslim militias feel the same antipathy toward the US.

The US is not opposed to the idea of the volunteer militias on principle, local analysts agree, but they are concerned as to what the less disciplined fighters will do after they have fought the IS group in Sunni-majority areas – they don’t want a repeat of acts of revenge that were seen in Tikrit last year – and they also worry about the militias who appear to prefer to take orders from Iranian sponsors rather than from the Iraqi government.

When Ramadi, Anbar’s other major city, was liberated, this was not as much of a problem because there the volunteer militias were not in the area. This is not the case with Fallujah where thousands of members of these militias are fighting or present on the outskirts of the city.

“The volunteer militias could liberate Fallujah but we are worried that the US air force would attack us,” Abu Jafar al-Lami, one of the militia members on the outskirts of Fallujah, told Niqash during a telephone interview. “American planes killed a number of soldiers a few weeks ago as they tried to advance into Fallujah,” he points out.

The US Secretary of Defence conceded a US plane mistakenly carried out a raid that killed nine Iraqi soldiers near Fallujah.

And then of course there are the feelings of the people of Fallujah to consider. Fighting in 2004 between US forces and locals resulted in almost half the city in ruins. Many locals have not forgotten this, nor have they forgotten what they see as their persecution by the Iraqi government more recently. 

“The fight for Fallujah is going to take a long time and it’s going to require a lot more preparation than the battle for other cities [like Ramadi and Tikrit],” Faleh al-Issawi, deputy head of Anbar's provincial council, told Niqash. “That’s part of the reason that the army decided to try and liberate Heet [near Ramadi] first. The army should complete their work in areas east of Ramadi first before heading to Fallujah. Everyone knows Fallujah will be different – that the IS group is going to fight hard to defend its position there and that there are thousands of unarmed civilians inside the city too.”

Nonetheless the sooner Fallujah is liberated the better, adds local political analyst Ahmad al-Alousi. The fact that the IS group controls it represents a great threat to Baghdad and also to the city of Karbala, home to some of Shiite Muslims’ most sacred sites. “If Fallujah is safe than there will be an end to suicide bombings and exploding cars in Baghdad,” al-Alousi notes optimistically. “The IS group would lose its last stronghold in the east of the province and would be forced to withdraw toward the Iraqi-Syrian borders. Anyway,” al-Alousi concludes, “whatever operations the army succeeds with in Anbar won’t be at all useful if Fallujah is not liberated, because the rear flank will remain open and vulnerable to IS attacks.”