IRBIL, Iraq/WASHINGTON: Iraqi Shiite militia fighters are tightening a noose around the ISIS-held city of Fallujah west of Baghdad as the first stage of a counter-offensive in the Sunni province of Anbar, likely to determine the course of the conflict in coming months.
ISIS seized Anbar’s capital Ramadi two months ago, extending its control over the Euphrates river valley west of Baghdad and dealing a major setback to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the U.S.-backed army he entrusted with its defense.
While the government initially vowed to swiftly recapture Ramadi, it now appears to have turned instead to Fallujah, a city located further downriver and closer to Baghdad, meaning supply lines for a counter-offensive would be less vulnerable.
Col. Ali al-Yasiri, commander of Iraq’s 4th armored regiment, 1st division, which is fighting near Fallujah, said plans for a quick offensive to retake Ramadi were shelved in June after commanders concluded that Fallujah would be “a dagger pointed at the army in Ramadi” unless it was tackled first.
“Our commanders gave us orders one week after losing Ramadi to regroup ... in order to launch a counter offensive to retake Ramadi,” he told Reuters. “This decision failed to win support from all military commanders.”
As the government seeks to claw back territory, Abadi has turned to the mainly Shiite Popular Mobilization militia fighters who have proven more successful than the army on the ground.
In April, the militia recaptured Tikrit, former dictator Saddam Hussein’s home town on the Tigris river north of Baghdad. But until the fall of Ramadi in May, the government was reluctant to deploy the Shiite fighters west of Baghdad in the valley of Iraq’s other great river, the Euphrates, where Sunni tribes have been hostile to outsiders for generations.
The army seems to be taking advantage of the extra capabilities offered by the militia umbrella group, which includes Iranian-backed elements. Yasiri welcomed the militia’s involvement, saying the army had struggled unsuccessfully for 18 months to contain Sunni insurgents in Anbar.
Abadi and the army can also rely on U.S.-led air support, more closely coordinated since U.S. officers moved into a military base less than 15 kms from Fallujah and started overseeing training of Sunni tribal recruits there.
Jets and artillery have been pounding both Fallujah and Ramadi, inflicting heavy daily casualties on militants and civilians alike, according to medical sources.
Shiite militia figures say that they will take the lead on the ground, not the army.
“Popular Mobilization forces are closing in on ISIS terrorists inside Fallujah after seizing almost all supply routes around the city,” said Muen al-Kadhimi, a senior aide to Hadi al-Ameri, commander of the Iranian-backed Badr group, the most powerful of Iraq’s armed Shiite groups.
Shiite fighters and army troops have made gains north of Fallujah this week, although they faced heavy resistance from ISIS fighters who sent car bombs to stem the advances. Authorities say they already control Fallujah’s eastern, southern and western approaches.
Tribal and insurgent sources in Anbar reported an ISIS attack early on Friday in villages between Fallujah and Ramadi, which lie about 40 km apart on the Euphrates. But their opponents insist the campaign to retake Anbar is on track.
“Now we are only 5 kilometers from the center of Fallujah and the plan to liberate the city is going perfectly,” Kadhimi said.
He confirmed the strategy of retaking Fallujah before the provincial capital: “We can’t go to Ramadi first and leave our back exposed. This is why Fallujah is a prior target.”
Fallujah saw the fiercest fighting of the U.S. occupation which followed Washington’s 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, and has also been a center of Sunni hostility to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
Washington, which criticized the Iraqi military for allowing Ramadi to fall, has supported its decision not to rush to recapture it.
“The Ramadi campaign, which about a month ago was about to be executed precipitously, has actually been, with our help ... a very deliberate campaign,” the top U.S. military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey said this week.
Along with the shift in tactics after Ramadi’s fall came recriminations, with Abadi sending his army chief of staff into retirement and suggesting the army’s withdrawal in mid-May directly contravened instructions.
“If the orders had been carried out, Ramadi would not have fallen,” the prime minister said. Dempsey, welcoming the retirement of Gen. Babaker Zebari, said there had been problems “up and down the chain of command” in the Iraqi military.
Yasiri, the army colonel, said army operations in Anbar had been troubled from the start.
“Troops were deployed in Anbar to fight insurgents since late 2013 and what was supposed to be a smooth operation to take out scattered terrorist groups turned out to be a war of attrition,” he said. “With lack of military equipment, soldiers and effective air force, our troops started to lose initiative.”
The loss of Ramadi was the army’s worst defeat since ISIS swept through north Iraq last summer, and pushed plans for an eventual offensive against the Islamists’ northern stronghold Mosul further back.
While the army was forced on the defensive, militia leaders have moved into Anbar with their fighters.
Photographs have also circulated purporting to show Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, in the western province. Iran’s support for the Shiite militia is uncomfortable for Washington.
Lawrence al-Hardan, a Sunni tribal sheikh from Anbar, said tribes had urged the army to drive ISIS from Fallujah well before the fall of Ramadi because “the masterminds of ISIS use Fallujah as a launchpad in almost all attacks in Anbar.”
“Until now I can’t figure out why security forces failed to retake one inch of Fallujah,” he said.
But former Gen. Jasim al-Bahadli said the army was not trained enough in guerrilla warfare to tackle ISIS.
Only the militia fighters, their skills honed by Iranian support and the experience some have of fighting in Syria, could defeat the hard-line insurgents. “The Popular Mobilization units are growing into an elite force, without which the army can’t win a war,” Bahadli said.