Fallujah: The Iraq Victory That Could Lose the War
ISIS is being pushed out. But on the ground in Fallujah, a Sunni city in ashes, it’s clear the Iran-backed Shia militias mean to assert their power.
FALLUJAH, Iraq — The Iraqi government, which has been shaken by weekly protests that charge its senior leadership with corruption, needed to win a military victory to try to salvage its political reputation. Thus was begun the Third Battle of Fallujah.
The city that had been the symbolic capital of Sunni resistance to American occupation and Shia domination has collapsed into a network of bombed-out homes, criss-crossing sand berms, and half-finished cement structures. Thousands of bullet casings, water bottles, and other discarded items litter the landscape. The Iraqi Security Forces have turned what remains of Fallujah, the City of Mosques, into an ash heap.
Last week, although scattered resistance by fighters from the so-called Islamic State continues in parts of the city, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi felt confident enough to declare Fallujah liberated on June 17 after the elite U.S.-trained soldiers of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service (ICTS) recaptured a former government headquarters in the city center.
The Army and the Federal Police meanwhile provided fire support from the southern suburbs of the city. The People’s Mobilization (Hashd), an umbrella organization of several dozen Iranian-backed Shia militias and a smaller number of Christian, Sunni, and Yazidi paramilitaries, severed the northern routes out of Fallujah, while the American-led coalition launched occasional airstrikes against ISIS positions.
The Hashd and the ICTS share a fraught history. Throughout the 2000s, Iran used the Shia militias in a proxy war against Iraq’s American-trained security forces. The ICTS responded in 2008 by spearheading Operation Charge of Knights, which resulted in over 1,000 casualties and routed the Shia militias in Basra, the country’s third-largest city and a Shia stronghold.
“Before, we fought them,” Muhammad, a soldier with the ICTS, said of the Shia militias. “Now, they’re helping us against ISIS. They have two faces: fighting for Iraq, but working for Iran.”
In theory, the Hashd and the ICTS report to the Prime Minister’s Office, which, according to three of the militias’ senior leaders, controls and distributes all Iranian aid.
Under American pressure, the Prime Minister’s Office forbade the Hashd from entering Fallujah and ordered the ICTS to retake it alone.
“The majority of Fallujah’s civilians hold a positive opinion of the special forces, as opposed to the irregular forces,” Muhammad al-Issawi, a resident of Fallujah, told The Daily Beast.
Commanders with Kataib Hezbollah, a Shia militia that the U.S. State Department has labeled a terrorist organization for killing Americans during the Iraq War, confirmed to The Daily Beast that they were respecting the orders from the Prime Minister’s Office.
“The enemy is only 500 meters away,” said Erfad, who leads some of Kataib Hezbollah’s militiamen in Fallujah’s northern suburbs, “but we have orders from the Prime Minister’s Office to hold post. The ICTS is advancing from the south, and we don’t want to cause any complications.”
The majority of the militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, have remained in al-Karma and al-Saqlawiya, two towns to the north of Fallujah. Exhausted from the Ramadan fast, their fighters alternate between manning checkpoints, posing for photographs, and smoking hookahs.
The Badr Organization, the largest and oldest of the Shia militias and the closest to the Iraqi government, seems to have ignored the Prime Minister’s Office.
On June 13, Badr took a convoy to al-Hiakal in Fallujah’s southern suburbs and Shuhada 2 in Fallujah—a front reserved for the Federal Police and the ICTS—where one of its commanders was coordinating operations with the Ministry of Interior, which directs all police units in Iraq. The Minister of Interior belongs to Badr’s political party.
“Today, the Hashd is simply holding post,” the Badr commander, Sadiq al-Husseini, claimed to The Daily Beast and Iraqi journalists present. “The Hashd will simply remain on the outskirts of Fallujah until the prime minister orders otherwise.”
A few days later, the Institute for the Study of War nevertheless reported that Badr had entered Fallujah alongside the Federal Police. There has been no change to the prime minister’s order that the Shia militias stay outside the city.
Despite priding itself on freedom from the sectarianism that has plagued militias such as Badr, the ICTS seems to be maintaining a strategic, suspicious relationship with the Hashd.
On June 17, The Daily Beast witnessed Hadi al-Amiri, leader of Badr, meeting with Abdulwahab al-Saadi, leader of the operation to retake Fallujah. Several other leaders from the ICTS also were present.
Earlier that day, al-Saadi had criticized the Hashd, telling The Daily Beast, “The civilians see the Hashd as militiamen who can’t be controlled,” yet one of al-Amiri’s bodyguards asserted that the two men meet about three times a month. The ICTS blocked The Daily Beast and other journalists from the meeting.
The overt cooperation between Badr, a sectarian militia, and the ICTS, the one branch of the Armed Forces that has avoided sectarianism, will further divide Sunnis from the Iraqi government.
Even the Shia militias in the northern suburbs have tarnished the Iraqi government’s attempts at a nonsectarian campaign in Fallujah.
Omran Wali, another Kataib Hezbollah commander in al-Saqlawiyah, claimed, “We have been welcoming the civilians and treating them very well, bringing them to the camps for internally displaced people.” But an official investigation revealed that Shia militias have killed 49 civilians in the northern suburbs, and another 643 are missing. Iraqis are discussing rumors that the militias executed those missing in retaliation for an ISIS massacre at Camp Speicher near Tikrit in 2014.
Paramilitaries such as Kataib Hezbollah have also brought with them subtler but longer lasting problems.
The Daily Beast observed militiamen in al-Saqlawiya converting abandoned Sunni homes for their own use and recruiting fighters as young as 16 years old.
For the time being, however, the Iraqi government has gambled that the Shia militias are less dangerous disobeying orders and harassing civilians in Fallujah than siding with (or for that matter against) radical antigovernment protesters in Baghdad.
In April, after protesters breached the Green Zone, which houses many of Iraq’s ministries and most of its parliamentarians, Badr had mobilized its fighters against a Shia militia that had supported the protesters.
For now, the Iraqi government has buoyed its chances at short-term survival by more or less ending ISIS’s presence in Fallujah, which Baghdad’s politicians connected to a series of bombings in Sadr City that harmed the Iraqi government’s reputation for providing security.
Even so, the Shia militias’ military autonomy and sectarian abuses in addition to the Iraqi Security Forces’ tacit cooperation with them to enter Fallujah should raise serious concerns in Baghdad and Washington.
“Obviously, the Shia militias’ offensive against Fallujah complicates things in important ways,” Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former CIA intelligence analyst, said in an email. “They don’t fully respond to the Iraqi government. They frighten the Sunnis, largely because they have participated in ethnic cleansing.”
Al-Issawi, the resident of Fallujah, charged that Kataib Hezbollah alone had kidnapped 2,000 civilians throughout Anbar Governorate.
If even the ICTS, which spent much of the Iraq War dismantling the Shia militias’ underground military networks, now cooperates with them in seizing major Sunni cities, civilians such as al-Issawi may have more to fear. ISIS is on the way out, but the Shia militias are here to stay, and they may be the greatest threat to Iraq’s future as a country and nation.
“More generally, most experts I know worry more about Iraq’s political stability than about ISIS’s ability to hold Fallujah or Mosul indefinitely,” argued Michael O’Hanlon, another senior fellow at Brookings. “We have lots and lots of work to do—and the Iraqis have even more.”