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Iraq Update: The Battle for Fallujah

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By Diane L. Maye, Ph.D.
Special Contributor, In Homeland Security

Nearly two weeks ago on May 23, 2016, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi announced the Iraqi security forces would be launching an operation to secure Fallujah, a key stronghold for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). On June 5, 2016, top Iraqi military commanders announced that dozens of neighboring villages had been liberated. The city is under siege, with nearly all roads into and out of the city blocked by military forces. There are several organizations and key individuals in Iraq working to eliminate ISIL from Fallujah, namely the Hash’d al Shaabi, the Iraqi special operations forces, and Sunni tribal groups.

Hash’d al Shaabi

The Hash’d al Shaabi is an umbrella organization for the dozens of Shi’ia paramilitary groups operating in the country. It has been officially funded by the Iraqi government since 2015. The leaders of the Hash’d al Shaabi also maintain very close relations with Iran’s elite Quds Force, the paramilitary wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps led by Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. One fighter of note, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, has come under scrutiny because his past work with Ka’taib Hezbollah, a breakaway from Moqtada al Sadr’s notorious Jaysh al Mahdi (JAM), and later with militant groups such as the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al Haqq. In 2009, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Al Muhandis as a destabilizing threat to Iraqi security. Al Muhandis now leads the Hash’d al Shaabi.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces

Key to the Fallujah operation are fighters from the Iraq’s Special Operations Forces’ Golden Division, led by General Fadhil Barwari. Assisted by joint U.S.-Iraqi airstrikes and advisors on the ground, General Barwari’s forces have been on the front lines of several major offensives, such as Baiji, Hit and Ramadi, clearing the roadways and penetrating ISIL’s strongholds.

Sunni Tribal Groups

Many Sunnis in Iraq’s outlying provinces, namely in Anbar, Salahuddin and Diyala, voiced concerns over the professionalism of the Hash’d al Shaabi and did not want them involved in the liberation of Sunni towns and villages. For some, this concern created a cleavage in the Sunni population: a cleavage readily exploited by ISIL. In order to capitalize on the momentum of the Hash’d al Shaabi without alienating the Sunni minority in ISIL’s strongholds, the Iraqi security forces have delegated post-liberation zoning and security tasks to Sunni tribal groups, led by the Anbari mobilization commander, General Rashid Falih. The Sunni tribal groups have also provided follow-up support such as engineering services, street cleaning, and judicial activities.

Looking Ahead

In the short-term, Fallujah’s residents are likely to face food and water shortages as the siege continues. This could present a potentially destabilizing situation if the siege takes much longer than expected. Once Fallujah is back under the control of the Iraqi government, the Iraqis will have a secure supply line along their westernmost highway. It is likely the Iraqi forces will push ISIL northwest, beyond Tharthar Lake and into the vast western desert. Their next task will be preparation in conjunction with the Kurdish Peshmerga for the campaign to liberate Mosul, which is likely to be delayed due to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the intensity of Iraq’s summer heat.

Over the long term, despite the success of the Hash’d al Shaabi on the battlefield, the Iraqi army will also be challenged with integrating the Hash’d al Shaabi into the formal security apparatus, ensuring that the paramilitary groups are professional and uphold military standards. Likewise, the Hash’d al Shaabi may present a direct challenge to Baghdad’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force. There may be a point in time when the Hash’d al Shaabi’s leaders come into open conflict with Iraq’s political body or challenge Baghdad’s authority.

About the Author

Diane Maye is a former U.S. Air Force officer and defense industry professional. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at American Military University. Diane is also an associate member of the Military Writers Guild, an organization committed to the development of the profession of arms through the written medium. Twitter: @DianeLeighMaye.

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