Iraqi government units and their paramilitary allies are edging closer to Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, fighting for control of outlying villages and towns and bombarding the centre from the air and with artillery. The 60,000 civilians trapped inside fear they are facing destruction of their city rather than its liberation from the Isis that has held it for 29 months. “It looks as if they are trying to destroy Fallujah rather than Daesh (Isis),” said one inhabitant.
A fighting force of some 20,000 Iraqi soldiers, special forces, Interior Ministry troops, tribal fighters, militia groups known as the Hashd al-Shaabi and an uncertain number of US advisers are tightening the siege of Fallujah. But they are deeply divided politically and as are as opposed to each other almost as much as they are hostile to Isis. The biggest divide is between the Iraqi regular armed forces, including two brigades of Special Forces who usually act as assault troops, and the Hashd, most of whom belong to Shia paramilitary movements, though there are also Sunni units. The US is keen to keep the Shia Hashd out of the fighting on the grounds that they are under the influence of Iran and are seen as a threat by the overwhelmingly Sunni population of Fallujah.
The political, military and sectarian fragmentation of Iraq is reflected in the line-up of the attacking force.
An Iraqi commentator, part of whose family is still inside Fallujah, said that the US-led Coalition “will not support the operation launched from north and east of Fallujah, but it will support the Iraqi Sunni forces, including Anbar police and the Sunni tribal Hashd that will start the operation from the south side of Ramadi and the town of Amariyat Al Fallujah 35 kilometres away.”
Inside Isis secret tunnels
Inside Isis secret tunnels
Network of underground tunnels was discovered by Kurdish forces after they regained the town of Sinjar in Iraq
A member of the Peshmerga forces inspects a tunnel used by Isis militants in the town of Sinjar, Iraq
An entrance to the tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq
The secret tunnels allowed militants to freely move underground
The tunnels appear to be wired with electricity
Some of the tunnels are 30 feet deep
Concerns remain that parts of the tunnels are rigged with explosives
A number of families, variously estimated to number between 20 and 80, did manage to get to Amariyat Fallujah further south on the Euphrates in the last twenty four hours. But Isis has issued a warning that anybody who appears on the street will be targeted by their snipers.
The military problems faced by the forces trying to take Fallujah, particularly they do not want to destroy it, will be difficult. Isis is estimated to have some 900 fighters in the town who are experienced in street fighting using not only snipers but IEDS, booby traps, mortar teams and suicide bombers. They commonly dig a warren of underground tunnels so they can remain hidden or suddenly appear behind enemy forces. What is not known is whether Isis will make a last stand in Fallujah sacrificing experienced fighters or withdraw at the last moment having inflicted maximum casualties on the other side. Though it has lost Ramadi in Iraq, Palmyra in Syria and a string of towns and villages over the last year, Isis has generally tried to preserve its fighters and heavy equipment. So far the ground fighting has not been heavy with 35 Iraqi soldiers and 15 civilians reported killed.
But Fallujah may be different because its conquest or loss carries greater political significance. It is a town famous for its religious fervour and for fighting the US Marines in two famous sieges in 2004. It was the first big victory of Isis in 2014, six months before the fall of Mosul. Isis military leaders are reverting to guerrilla warfare in order to prolong the war and because of their opponents’ vastly superior fire power, but they may well calculate that they cannot afford to lose Fallujah without a long battle. The government likewise needs to take Fallujah to shore up its credibility because people in Baghdad see it as the source of suicide bombings which killed 200 civilians in the capital earlier this month.
Previous successes by pro-government forces in taking cities like Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and Tikrit have all come with the support of heavy airstrikes by the US-led coalition of air powers. Although these were advertised as victories at the time and Isis fighters were killed or forced to retreat the cities were mostly destroyed. Ramadi, that once had a population of 400,000, is still mostly uninhabited with 70 per cent of its buildings in ruins and only 15 per cent of its people able to return. In the long term, the whole Sunni Arab population of Iraq, about a fifth of the total population, is under threat as their main centres come under attack and a high proportion of their community are displaced and their homes destroyed.
The Shia religious hierarchy is conscious of the danger of the Hashd acting as a Shia sectarian death squad driving out the Sunni. The Shia religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, made it known through his representative Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai that he “reaffirms his recommendations that the ethics of jihad (Islamic holy war or struggle) be respected.“ It was a Fatwah from Sistani in June 2014 that originally raised the Hashd in the days after Isis captured Mosul and was sweeping through northern Iraq towards Baghdad. ”Don't be extreme,” he said in a statement, citing the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. “Don't be treacherous. Don't kill an old man, nor a boy, nor a woman. Don't cut a tree unless you have to.