FPI Bulletin: Iran Backs Iraqi Push to Expel ISIS from Fallujah

June 6, 2016

On May 23, anti-ISIS forces began their assault on Fallujah, with the aim of dislodging ISIS from its second largest Iraqi stronghold after Mosul. Although Fallujah is a mere 35 miles from Baghdad, it has been under the control of ISIS for the past two-and-a-half-years. Facing intense pressure from Iraq’s Shiites to stop the wave of suicide bombings that have terrorized Baghdad, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the assault on Fallujah despite American concerns that it would impair the planned offensive against Mosul. Iranian advisers and Iranian-backed militias are playing large roles that could become even larger, demonstrating the depth of Tehran’s influence in Baghdad and the intensification of sectarian politics.

Iranian Influence

The Iraqi government has long hoped to retake Fallujah, but not until a spate of horrific ISIS attacks in Baghdad in April and May of this year, some of them traced to Fallujah, did it see fit to take action. Under pressure from Iraq’s Shiites to quell the violence in Baghdad, Prime Minister Abadi decided in late May to send army, police, and militia forces into the city. Abadi moved on Fallujah against the advice of U.S. military leaders, who view the operation as an unnecessary diversion of resources from the planned offensive against Mosul. The main foreign advocate of Abadi’s Fallujah expedition is Iran. “Tehran has more influence on Abadi's focus, whether on Fallujah or anywhere else, than Moscow, Washington and Ankara combined,” remarked a former U.S. military commander who worked extensively with Iraq’s senior leaders.

Abadi has ordered Shiite militias to stay out of the fighting in central Fallujah, so as not to inflame tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. The United States has sought to discourage Shiite militias from entering the city by warning that coalition air strikes would stop if they continued their advance. The leadership of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the main umbrella organization for the Shiite militias, has sought to ease concerns by asserting that the militiamen will surround Fallujah rather than operate inside it. The PMU leadership also said, however, that they will go into the city if the Iraqi army is incapable of retaking it. Perhaps most disturbing is that Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, recently visited the militias in the Fallujah area and appears to be in control of much of the operation.

A Grueling Fight

Once a city of 300,000, Fallujah now holds an estimated 50,000 civilians, of whom 20,000 are believed to be children. In recent months, ISIS prevented most civilians from leaving, knowing that its enemies would be more reluctant to use heavy weapons against it if it risked injuring women and children. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most respected Shiite cleric in Iraq, has called upon the assault force to exercise restraint in order to minimize harm to civilians and prevent civilian deaths from stoking the fires of sectarian hatred.

Concern about civilian casualties, together with the prevalence of booby traps and snipers on the city’s approaches, has compelled the attackers to move at a slow pace into the city. Sizable clashes between ISIS and the attackers erupted on the city’s outskirts in the early days of the offensive. On May 30, Iraqi commanders claimed that they had entered the city, but the following day the offensive stalled on the outskirts in the face of a fierce ISIS counterattack and use of human shields. As of Thursday, Iraqi forces are under orders to avoid further attempts to penetrate enemy lines as the government debates what to do next. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias have already begun hinting that they will enter the city to finish the job.

The numerical superiority of anti-ISIS forces makes them the favorite to win the contest in Fallujah. But Fallujah could well end up completely destroyed by the end of the battle, much like Ramadi during its “liberation” from ISIS in December 2015. Far larger numbers of Iraqi civilians are present in Fallujah today than in Ramadi in December, and a substantial number of those civilians sympathize with ISIS, all but ensuring that the number of civilians killed will be very high. International observers are also worried that Shiite units from the anti-ISIS coalition will commit atrocities against Fallujah’s civilian residents after ISIS has been vanquished. A number of those units already stand accused of wanton violence against Sunni civilians. Furthermore, a horrific toll in civilian casualties could discourage the anti-ISIS coalition from attacking Mosul, or compel it to adopt rules of engagement so stringent that they preclude victory.

Implications of the Battle

The defeat of ISIS in Fallujah would provide a much-needed success for the beleaguered Abadi government. The Obama administration would likely hail such an outcome as a validation of its own policy, but the United States could well end up as a loser. The preeminent role of the Shiite militias outside, and perhaps also inside, the city would give propaganda fodder to Iran, whose long-term interests in the country and region are far different from America’s. As University of Maryland researcher Phillip Smyth has put it, Iran’s principal propaganda line holds that “It’s our proxies’ forces that are defeating [IS]. The United States says it wants to fight IS but what has it really done? In fact it has an ulterior motive, and that is simply to get more Iraqis killed.”

However much restraint the anti-ISIS forces display, the conquest of Fallujah by Iranian-backed Shiite militias is likely to intensify the alienation of Iraq’s Sunni population. A large fraction of the Sunni residents of Fallujah who survive the ordeal will have to live indefinitely in refugee camps, where they will add to the recruiting pools from which ISIS and other Sunni extremists are drawing. ISIS fighters who escape from Fallujah will almost certainly hide themselves within the refugee population and turn their energies to terrorist attacks in Baghdad. Those attacks have been effective in unnerving the Baghdad government and diverting its attention from distant targets; further gruesome violence could draw anti-ISIS forces in northern Iraq toward Baghdad in such numbers as to delay or compromise the expected offensive against Mosul.

Heightened insecurity in Baghdad would also increase pressure for turning the city’s security over to Shiite militias, whose criminality, violent sectarianism, and allegiance to Iran bode ill for peace, stability, and U.S. interests in the region. Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who ranks among the West’s most knowledgeable experts on Iraq, recently recommended the use of Western special operations forces to forestall a complete militia takeover of Baghdad’s security. The special operators could help the Iraqi government combat ISIS bomb makers on the periphery of Baghdad, preventing further mass-casualty attacks.

While the Fallujah offensive is probably too far gone for the United States to deprive Iran of the credit for its recapture, the United States does have an opportunity to regain some of its prestige by stepping up its assistance to the Iraqi government in securing Baghdad. Increasing that assistance, though, will require an additional commitment of U.S. troops. Such an increase seems unlikely under the current administration, given its aversion to large overseas military commitments and its apparent contentment to outsource so much of the war in Iraq to Tehran. But the next administration should be ready to heighten assistance to Iraq and block Tehran’s ambitions there, starting on Inauguration Day.

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