NEAR FALLUJAH — Twenty-three days after the Iraqi security forces started a major operation aiming to retake besieged Fallujah, the forces are still fighting to control the first neighborhood of the Anbar city.
Much of the murkiness surrounding the battle to expel ISIS from Fallujah, which lies 64 kilometers to the west of Baghdad and has long been a cynosure of the Sunni insurgency, has to do with who, exactly, is doing the fighting. And that’s a question that touches on Iraq’s ever-parlous sectarianism.
The United States insists that Shia militias, many of whom are avowedly Islamist and fighting for their own version of holy war, must not enter Fallujah and should instead confine their activities to the outskirts or suburbs of the city. The Pentagon has been providing air cover only on the south and western fronts where professional counterterrorism forces, the Iraqi army units, Sunni tribal forces and local police have operated. The northern front, where the militias and Iraq’s Federal Police are located, have seen no U.S. air strikes.
Perhaps for that reason, the south has seen more progress. Al-Shuhada, a neighborhood at the southern doorstep of Fallujah, is still contested with fierce clashes between Iraqi Security Forces and ISIS jihadists. Although earlier statements by Iraqi commanders were claiming they have completely controlled al-Shuhada neighborhood, Sabah Numan, spokesperson of elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), told The Daily Beast, “We are currently in the first al-Shuhada neighborhood and we have been able to liberate 90 percent of it.”
Yet recent violations against Sunni civilians fleeing ISIS’s captivity in the north have complicated efforts to press on.
According to an official investigation carried out by the Anbar governorate, at least 49 people have been killed by Shia militias in two towns: Saqlawiyah, 8 kilometers northwest of Fallujah, and Al-Karmah, 16 kilometers northeast of the city. Additionally, 643 men have been declared missing between June 3 and June 5. The investigation records that have been signed by Sohaib al-Rawi, the governor of Anbar province, also state that “all detainees have been subject to severe collective torture.” Iraq’s Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi tweeted, ”Harassment of IDPs is a betrayal of the sacrifices of our brave forces’ liberation operations to expel Daesh [ISIS] from Iraq.”
“Operations in the northern front stopped because of violations against civilians by Hashd al-Shabi and Federal Police,” according to Esa al-Esawi, the mayor of Fallujah, using the Arabic term for the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the umbrella organization under which the Shia militias are bundled. “The Federal Police are not respecting human rights laws.”
The Iraqi government, which considers the Shia militias part of its anti-ISIS security forces, refuses to directly accuse them of war crimes or atrocities. Saad al-Hadithi, the spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told The Daily Beast, “Security forces have arrested a number of suspects who tortured civilians near Fallujah.” Al-Hadithi said they “cannot specify number of the detainees and the parties they belong to.”
The composition of forces arrayed in this operation are somewhat difficult to confirm independently.
According to a source from the CTS, around 3,000 soldiers from this elite military division are leading the offensive on Fallujah city. Long considered Iraq’s only non-sectarian force, the CTS concedes that most of personnel are Shia from southern Iraq, although an Anbar tactical regiment and special operations team leading the operations alongside them are both primarily made up of Sunnis.
Additionally, there are thought to be 20,000 Federal Police officers, 5,000 army soldiers and hundreds of Sunni tribal forces and local police participate in the operations.
According to Karim Nouri, the spokesperson of the PMF, there are 14,000 fighters of PMF fighters participating in the Fallujah operation. Ten thousand, Nouri said, are in Saqlawiyah and 4,000 are in al-Karma, along with Iraqi Security Forces. The majority of these militia fighters is from Nouri’s own Badr Organization (which also controls Iraq’s Interior Ministry and thus its Federal Police), Kata’ib Hezbollah (the Brigades of the Party of God) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq the (League of the Righteous). All three groups are widely known in Iraq for their direct links with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In a video uploaded to the internet on May 23, a commander from the Abu al-Fadhl al-Abbas, a subsidiary of the League of the Righteous, told his paramilitaries that there were neither any civilians nor any true Muslims left in Fallujah—language that suggested a categorical disregard for protecting civilians. Other videos show militias meeting out corporal punishment to accused “collaborators” with ISIS.
Another major obstacle in the forward advance on Fallujah has been the high number of civilians still trapped inside the city. According to Mayor al-Esawi, between 80,000 to 90,000 of them are being held as human shields by ISIS. Al-Esawi’s office said that “protecting civilians and avoiding any danger [befalling] them” was Iraq’s top priority.
But the largest obstacle seems to be absence of a clear strategy as each party is pursuing its own agenda. The first is ideological, led by Iranian spymaster and the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps’s foreign Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani and the aforementioned Shia militias he supports. Their objective, judging from their sectarian rhetoric and pro-Iranian iconography, is to export Tehran’s Islamic Revolution to Mesopotamia, taking full advantage of the collapse in national security brought about by ISIS’s onslaught two years ago.
The second agenda is nationalist in intent and led by al-Abadi, who hews closer to the U.S. line, and does not want to alienate or marginalize Sunnis. But with militia and government atrocities mounting, that may prove a foregone conclusion.
With reporting by Salam Zaidan and Hussam al-Dulaimi