Iraq: back to Falluja

Summary: not yet ready for Mosul, anti-IS forces attack Falluja. Risk of a human and political catastrophe.
Plans to retake Iraq’s second city Mosul from IS have been put aside until after the summer. Instead a campaign has been launched to retake Falluja, which at less than 40 miles is close enough to constitute a direct threat to Baghdad. Iraqi forces have retaken Rutba, a small town in an important strategic location on the road between Amman and Baghdad, 70 miles from the Jordanian border.
Meanwhile airstrikes by the US-led coalition continue, and there has been a particularly shocking series of bomb attacks attributed to IS in Shia areas in and around Baghdad, with dead totalling well into three figures. There have been three separate UN statements condemning them, most recently on 17 May.
According to the UN, which has called for an urgent investigation, four protestors calling for more protection from the government at a demonstration outside the Green Zone were killed and up to 200 injured.
Political conflict following the Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s move to form a new government discussed in our posting of 28 April continues, with disagreement between Shia factions; followers of Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the parliament in the Green Zone, and rival Shia militias took up positions nearby threatening according to Reuters to fight against what they called sedition. Both sides withdrew but a senior Shia member of Parliament told Reuters “We were only inches away from a violent, bloody scenario.”
According to official Iraqi sources oil output has reached 4.7 mbpd and exports are running at a record 3.9 mbpd; these figures include Kurdistan and Kirkuk, but the main increase is from southern Iraq. The IMF has agreed to give Iraq a three-year $5.4bn loan agreement; “Iraq has been hit hard by the conflict with ISIS and the precipitous fall in oil prices. The ongoing armed conflict with ISIS continues to strain the country’s resources and is resulting in new waves of internally displaced people, now reaching over 4 million. The steep fall in oil prices is causing a large external shock to the balance of payments and budget revenue, which depend predominantly on oil export receipts.” Reuters reports that the Islamic Development Bank has given initial agreement to provide $3 billion in easy loans and grants
On 23 May al-Abadi announced the start of a military operation to retake Falluja. Some positions outside the city are reported to have been taken already, and the city is under regular shellfire.
As The Economist points out today 27 May Falluja is a place with bad memories, fought over twice in 2004, the second time the bloodiest battle of the whole American war, and the first big city to fall to IS. The forces attacking include the Iraqi military, US air support, local tribal fighters, and Shia militias, but the Shia groups will probably operate only outside the city. al-Abadi has urged civilians to leave the city if possible but IS has killed people who have attempted to flee. It was previously a mixed city of over 300,000, but only about one third are believed to remain, presumably most of them Sunni.
Unless there is unexpected success against IS the battle is likely to be long and bloody, and there is a clear probability that the suffering of the Sunni population will yet further increase the sectarian tensions which are at the root of Iraq’s problems. Al Jazeera quotes Shia militia leaders; “Uproot this cancerous tumour”, “Cleaning Fallujah means cleaning Islam and Iraq”. Conditions in Falluja are already dire, with limited food supplies, medicines exhausted, and water supplies dirty and unsafe.
Appeals to limit harm to civilians have come as was to be expected from the UN and from the Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq representing the Sunnis, but also from the top Shia cleric in Iraq Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who according to Reuters has called for the ethics of Jihad to be respected; ” ‘Don’t be extreme … don’t be treacherous. Don’t kill an old man, nor a boy, nor a woman. Don’t cut a tree unless you have to,’ he said, citing sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.”
The article below is from the Al Jazeera website.
A new formula in the battle for Fallujah
The battle is Iraq’s latest attempt to push the Popular Mobilisation Forces and Coalition into a single battlespace.
byMichael Knights
Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He specialises in the politics and security of Iraq. He has worked in every Iraqi province and most of the country’s hundred districts, including periods embedded with Iraq’s security forces.
On May 22, the Iraqi government announced the opening of the long-awaited battle of Fallujah, the city only 30 miles west of Baghdad that has been fully under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group for the past 29 months. Fallujah was a critical hub for al-Qaeda in Iraq and later ISIL in the decade before ISIL’s January 2014 takeover.
On the one hand it may seem surprising that Fallujah has not been liberated sooner – after all, it has been the ISIL-controlled city closest to Baghdad for more than two years. The initial reason was that there was always something more urgent to do with Iraq’s security forces.
In January 2014, the Iraqi security forces were focused on preventing an ISIL takeover of Ramadi next door. The effort to retake Fallujah was judged to require detailed planning and a hasty counterattack seemed like a pointless risk.
In retrospect it may have been worth an early attempt to break up ISIL’s control of the city while it was still incomplete.
Inconclusive siege of Fallujah
Then came the loss of Mosul and the battles for Haditha, Samarra, Tikrit, and Baiji. The battle to free Ramadi was fought throughout the length of the war until its recent liberation.
The Iraqi security forces, mainly Shia elements of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), settled into a long and inconclusive siege of Fallujah.
For the PMF, which experienced disappointing battlefield results from the spring of 2015 onwards, Fallujah became a way to give the impression that it was still a key player on the Iraqi battlefields.
This siege has caused tremendous material damage to Fallujah, which was never fully rebuilt after the great battles of 2004, when US Marines cleared the city in highly destructive block-by-block fighting.
As importantly, around 70,000 civilians out of the city’s 350,000 original residents remain in the city out of choice or because they are too scared to try to escape.
Shortages of food and medicines within the Fallujah pocket have caused civilian illnesses and deaths that would be preventable under normal circumstances.
The current offensive to liberate Fallujah seems to have been driven by a combination of factors: the mass-casualty bombings in Baghdad during May, the pressure on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to show positive results in any field, and the hiatus between the end of the battle of Ramadi and the likely start of the battle of Mosul in the late summer or autumn.
Lessons from previous battles
In theory, there is space for a quick Fallujah operation before Iraq begins to isolate Mosul from the south and west in the autumn and then assault Mosul city itself in the winter. But will it be quick?
The much publicised beginning of the broader Mosul operation launched in March 2016 gave the impression that the city itself was close to being liberated: In fact the fighting was more than 100km from Mosul city.
In Fallujah the relieving forces are much closer – often 5-10km from the edges of the city – but the publicity surrounding the opening days of the offensive have raised expectations of an immediate entry into Fallujah a little too high.
This first week of Iraqi operations have been aimed at rolling back ISIL’s control of outlying areas to the north of Fallujah at Karma, and to the east and south of the city.
The Iraqi Air Force has mounted its most intensive operations of the war to selectively strike ISIL targets in Fallujah with its US-supplied F-16 and AC-208 precision-strike aircraft, Chinese armed CH-4 drones, Russian-supplied attack helicopters and new Czech-supplied L-159 jets,
The operation clearly shows that the Iraqi government, the PMF and the coalition have learned important command-and-control lessons from previous battles.
The Iraqi government, supported by the US-led coalition, is coordinating the battle for Fallujah. They are picking the targets for aerial strikes and commanding the broad framework of the operation.
The PMF, which includes Sunni PMF from the rural areas around Fallujah, are fighting a loosely connected battle that is focused on Fallujah’s rural outskirts.
Some PMF elements, such as Kataib Hezbollah or Asaib Ahl al-Haq, will not receive US air support, but Iraqi aircraft will be on call to help. Importantly, Badr’s leader Hadi al-Amiri said on May 24 that PMF units would not enter Fallujah city.
This division of labour is the product of lessons learned in the battles of Tikrit, Bayji and Ramadi. The PMF cannot “go it alone” in such battles and do not achieve good results in intense urban fighting where coalition intelligence and strike capabilities are critically important.
But Iraq’s security forces and the coalition have learned that the PMF are pretty good at clearing and occupying the rural zones around contested cities and preventing ISIL reinforcements from arriving, which is a necessary part of any effort to liberate a city.
The Iraqi government has learned that excluding the PMF entirely, as in Ramadi, can cause resentment. Time will tell how quickly and how effectively ISIL resistance in Fallujah will be overcome but the formula being used at Fallujah represents a positive evolution for the war in Iraq.

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