FALLUJAH, Iraq: The rapid entry of Iraqi forces into central Fallujah last week surprised many who expected a drawn-out battle with Daesh (ISIS) for the bastion of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, where some of the toughest fighting of the U.S. occupation took place. The campaign has offered Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi respite from a political crisis that paralyzed government and turned violent when demonstrators breached Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
Yet questions remain about whether Abadi – who declared victory on Friday even though Daesh militants are still fighting in Fallujah – can convert those military gains into political success, and what kind of model Fallujah offers for the next major military campaign, against Daesh-held Mosul.
Abadi and his commanders, who have pledged to retake the northern Iraqi city later this year, “needed a fast victory because they are very aware of setting precedents,” said Renad Mansour, an Iraq scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
But “Fallujah was a distraction. The protests in Baghdad will come back. People will say, ‘OK we got Fallujah, what’s happening politically? What are the changes?’”
Iraq’s government has been gridlocked for months after rivals blocked Abadi’s plans for a Cabinet reshuffle he said was aimed at fighting rampant graft in a country nearly bankrupted by low global oil prices.
Thousands of demonstrators, mostly loyal to Shiite Muslim preacher Moqtada al-Sadr, took to the streets earlier this year to pressure Abadi to replace party-affiliated ministers with independent technocrats, which the political elite has resisted.
The premier’s decision to attack Fallujah last month, against the apparent wishes of U.S. allies, allowed him to rally the Shiite political class who were pressing him to retake the city, seen as a launchpad for recent bombings in nearby Baghdad.
Fallujah has been seen as a stronghold of Sunni insurgents for more than a decade and U.S. forces that toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, suffered heavy losses there in two battles in 2004. Iraqi forces have so far incurred a fraction of those casualties.
“The $6 million question is: Do [the militants] head for Mosul, do they stay in Fallujah, do they do asymmetric attacks elsewhere?” said an official from one of the countries in the U.S.-led coalition backing Iraqi forces.
More than 85,000 people have fled Fallujah, according to the United Nations, which estimated the population before the operation began at around 90,000, already just a third of its size before Daesh seized control in early 2014.
A lawmaker close to Abadi said that the offensive had helped him overcome a perception of weakness among powerful rivals and ordinary Iraqis.
But another lawmaker and a Western diplomat said that while Fallujah advances are bound to give the prime minister a “feel-good factor” in the short term, there is no indication they will help advance his political agenda.
“When parliament resumes he’ll probably point to Fallujah,” the diplomat said, but the demands of lawmakers and the street are “not going to go away because Fallujah’s been liberated.”
The Fallujah operation has, at least, provided a possible model for the offensive in Mosul, Daesh’s de facto capital in Iraq, which is still being planned, according to Iraqi and Western officials.
The assault was spearheaded by Iraq’s elite counterterrorism service, which has learned to fight the militants’ mix of guerrilla and conventional tactics, with army and police units also taking key positions. Around 85 coalition airstrikes supported the advances.
Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which stirred fears of sectarian violence by insisting on entering the mostly Sunni city, were confined largely to the outskirts, but they still stirred controversy.
Days after Abadi announced the assault, Iranian media published pictures of what they said was a visit by Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani to Shiite militias fighting alongside the army.
Soleimani also appeared during last year’s battle for Tikrit where Shiite militias were accused of committing rights abuses.
An Iranian news outlet said he moved in recent days to Syria, where Iranian-backed militias are supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad against Sunni rebels.
Even playing a peripheral role in Fallujah the militias faced allegations from the local provincial governor, which they denied, that they executed 49 Sunni men and detained more than 600 others.
“You’ve got to give Abadi credit for keeping the militias out of Fallujah,” the Western diplomat said, adding that the government had quickly put an end to the alleged abuses.
Authorities have made arrests in relation to the claims, but the United Nations Wednesday reported further allegations of serious rights violations by armed groups fighting alongside the military in Fallujah.
“Abadi has minimal leverage over these Iranian-backed militias, so if anyone is actually held accountable, it would indicate Abadi’s rising political weight,” former American diplomat Robert Ford said in a recent article.
However, residents of Mosul who spoke to Reuters by telephone and internet said that they feared similar abuse if Shiite militias were allowed to participate in the offensive on their city.
“We saw what happened in [Fallujah] and it confirms our decision to refuse the Hashid Shaabi,” Nineveh provincial councilman Abdul Rahman al-Jubouri told Reuters in Irbil, referring to the coalition of mostly Shiite militias allied to the government.