Daesh jihadists in central Fallujah are believed to have prevented at least 20,000 residents from leaving the city and are offering fierce resistance to advancing Iraqi forces.
A string of cautious early engagements, which are believed to have killed scores of Daesh members and a smaller number of Iraqi troops, have set the scene for a protracted and difficult fight for Iraq’s fourth city that will likely expose large numbers of trapped civilians, whom the group is using as human shields.
Almost three days after Iraqi officers declared that troops had breached the outskirts of Fallujah, they have stopped at three points near the city’s dense urban centre, which is thought to hold up to 1,000 Daesh jihadists – many of whom are hiding in fortified tunnel and bunker network built over the past two-and-a-half years.
Military planners say Daesh leaders appear unsure about whether to stay and fight, as they did in the battle for the Kurdish city of Kobani in late 2014, and Ramadi late last year, or to flee and regroup elsewhere as happened during fights for Tikrit and Sinjar, both of which fell within 48 hours of a final assault.
Equally unsure is the makeup of Iraqi forces that will eventually move on the city centre, with large numbers of Iranian-backed Shia militias determined to join an attack nominally led by the national military. State forces number around 20,000, nearly one-quarter of whom are Sunnis who have been positioned at the vanguard for the almost exclusively Sunni city. US air strikes have been pivotal to the early days of the operation – the most ambitious launched by Iraq’s military since overran much of the country’s north in June 2014.
Daesh had occupied Fallujah for six months before then and, despite being besieged since late last year, has concentrated many of its most fervent fighters there. In messages on the group’s main social media sites, Daesh vowed not to leave and threatened to take the fight to Shia forces. In an equally sectarian pitch, Aws al-Khafaji, the leader of the Shia Abu al-Fadl al Abbas Brigades, was seen on video on Monday urging his members to “cleanse Iraq of the tumour that is Fallujah”.
It is understood that the US military has partly conditioned its support on the Iraqi military taking the lead in the attack and the militias remaining on the outskirts. Air strikes have been focussed on the south approach to the city centre, which is where the army assault is concentrated.
Some senior Daesh figures had fought with the group’s forerunner, al-Qaida in Iraq, in two battles against the US military in April and November 2004. The first fight took one month and the second around six weeks to subdue similar numbers of militants to those now in Fallujah.
The long, brutal battles helped give rise to Daesh’s reputation for fielding die-hard fighters that can defy technically superior militaries. Sunni militants have since then seen Fallujah as a bastion of resistance, not just against US forces, but also the Iraqi government, which has long viewed the city and its residents with deep suspicion.
Some Iraqi officials have maintained that Fallujah was being used as a command post for Daesh members who have launched regular attacks inside Baghdad, 50km to the east, including a series of coordinated bombings earlier this month that killed more than 300 people. However, the city and its surrounds has been sealed for more than two years, with the only access point being through the deserts to the west.
Unlike in 2004, the western entrances to the city and much of the approaches to the cities of Ramadi and Heet, which were held by until earlier this year, have now been cleared. US officials say the group maintains a small number of ‘rat runs’ into Anbar province, which could potentially be used as an escape route. Paths to the north, which have seen more than 3,000 civilians flee in the past week, are controlled by militias and Iraqi troops, who are allowing women, children and elderly men to cross, but detaining all military aged males for screening.
Aid organisations had previously accused Iraqi troops of detaining some young men without explanation after they fled Fallujah in 2015 and earlier this year. However, most detainees are now being released in less than a week.
While being acclaimed by Iraqi leaders as essential to the war against Daesh, the move to take the city has caught US officials unaware. The offensive came amid Washington’s urging that efforts be instead focused on Mosul, one of two main centres of gravity for , along with Raqqa in Syria.
Fallujah is deeply symbolic for Daesh and its loss would be damaging for the group. However, it has concentrated much of its energies in the fight for the two cities through which it imposed itself as a force in both Iraq and Syria, after shredding the sovereignty of both states in 2014. Ever since, the jihadist juggernaut that has shaken the regional order, pursuing a genocide against minorities, including the Yazidi sect and attempting to act as a de facto representative of the region’s Sunnis.
“We will beat them in Mosul,” said a senior western official directly involved in the war against Daesh. “The Iraqis can wound them in Fallujah. But the reality is that this is a confidence builder for them. The real fight started later. But only when they can sort out their political differences.”
Before the launch of the Fallujah operation, Iraqi politics had been crippled by stalled anti-corruption reforms. The authority of the prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, had also been weakened by two mass protests that had breached the country’s seat of government. In both cases, powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had organised the rallies, demonstrating a formidable ability to harness public sentiment, when the government could not.
Abadi last week urged demonstrators to not invade the Green Zone for a third time, so his officials could focus on Fallujah. Protesters heeded his request, marching towards the area, while chanting “Peaceful, peaceful.”
Source: The Guardian