All of my friends are outside playing, and I’m stuck inside, doing homework.
That’s not entirely true. It just feels like it sometimes.
At the start of their week, the Iraqi government announced that they were beginning operations to retake Falluja. To those residents still in the city, Prime Minister al-Abadi basically said, GTFO. “Zero hour for the liberation of Falluja has arrived. The moment of great victory has drawn near and Daesh has no choice but to flee,” he said via… yes, twitter. With pomp and circumstance, and a visit to a nearby Iraqi Army command center (not actually in Falluja, mind you), he got things started for the Iraqi army, police, counterterror and other special security forces. He also pledged that the operations would include local tribal fighters (Sunni tribal fighters, a continuation of the Sons of Iraq program, no doubt), while acknowledging that the operations would include the mostly-Shi’ite militias, known as Hashid Shabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces.
The Hashid Shabi are also known as trouble.
The push to take Falluja isn’t entirely out of left field. If you’ve been watching the news – or reading the wire services – there have been indicators that this is coming. As recently as May 9th, a US aitstrike killed Shaker Wahib al-Fahdawi al-Dulaimi, aka Abu Wahib in Rutba. As we would say in the 25th Infantry Division, he local boy. The al-Dulaimi tribe is an important one across the whole of Anbar, and key in the Sunni demographic not just in Anbar but in Ninewa, home to Mosul and the ISIL hub in the north. Shaker Wahib, as a local boy from the right there in Anbar, had been seen as a potential successor to al-Zarqawi. Detained by US forces in 2006 (link), he landed in Camp Bucca – a pretty serious US detention facility in southern Iraq – in 2009. He escaped Iraqi custody in 2012 – yes, after US forces lad left Iraq – as a part of a massive break-out of 110, the kind that happens every now and then in Iraq – and he’s been back in the fight since then.
A US / Coalition effort to remove him from the equation, now, certainly set the stage for Iraqi operations to begin anew in Falluja.
And as far back as February, there’s been talk that Falluja would be the next big push for the Iraqis.
So, why Falluja? Well, it’s not because it’s in such awesome shape. In 2010, it had an estimated size of 325k people – that’s a few people, but not teeming masses when compared to Baghdad (9 million), and it’s about the same size as Ramadi, the provincial capital just west of Falluja.
Falluja was at a key junction in the Euphrates River, which was more important once upon a time. Today, it’s still a key waypoint along Highway 1 and the road from Jordan to Baghdad. Insurgents still IED the hell out of Highways 1, as it bends around the city, and their presence in the city make travel along the highways perilous.
But the city… the city has taken a beating in the last few decades. In the first Gulf War, Coalition Forces tried to drop the bridge across the Euphrates river in Falluja – and kept missing it. But in doing so, kept hitting Falluja. Such was the era of less-than-precision munitions (link). And during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Sunni dug in their heel, resisted and fought Coalition forces – hard. Falluja suffered for this, during active fighting and then through prolonged insurgent fighting. The infrastructure of Falluja – buildings, roads, water, power, everything – took a beating.
Pummeled. Pounded. A lot of loss of life, too – the uprisings against the Americans and the Coalition forces, but then after that tide turned, there was the tribal uprising and turning against Al Qaeda in Iraq – the great awakening, it was called. With the Sons of Iraq program, there was more fighting, more bombings, more IEDs – and still not support from the Shia government in Baghdad to really invest in rebuilding the devastation in places like Falluja, while Sunni vs Sunni fighting continues at the behest of the Iraqi government.
When I was last in Falluja in 2011, it looked like this.
It had no effective police force when we left in 2011. None. It had a police force, but it was insanely corrupt and had no interest in functioning in any capacity that supported rule of law. There was an Iraqi Army division outside of town, but the Iraqi government in Baghdad had no interest then in committing Army troops to occupy and secure the city in any real capacity – not in a way that would actually make a different. One of those two things will need to change, or the addition of some magical third thing, to provide the needed security to keep ISIL from coming back, or another insurgent force from springing forth from within Falluja.
And let’s hope that third thing isn’t the Hashid Shabi, the often-Shia Popular Mobilization Forces favored by the Iraqi government and backed and often equipped by the government of Iran. The Hashid Shabi units are a fantastic blunt hammer for the Iraqi government to use, but with repercussions – to include human rights violations, such as murder and torture. Right now, they have heavy backing on the ground in Falluja from none other than the man himself, Qassim Solemani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force, who is said to be in Falluja. (And I think I’ve been in that office…)
Solemani’s presence is kind of a big deal. He’s no slouch. He represents a commitment of serious resources, and a commitment by both governments to retake Falluja, and to retake it now. And while Prime Minister al-Abadi may say that he’s intending to use Iraqi Army, police and other security forces to do the job, I would offer that is Solemani is there in Falluja reviewing the battle plans, everything is on the table for consideration – to include bringing the Hashid Shabi into Falluja to fight, and to include firing IRAMs at ISIL positions.
The Iraqis (and Solemani) will take Falluja. ISIS/ISIL fighters will squirt into the desert like greased pigs. But what we don’t know is what the Iraqis will do afterwards, to change the security conditions in Falluja – for a first time – in order to hold on to Falluja and keep a Sunni rebellion from taking hold there again. Because it will.