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What’s new about Fallujah? Quite a lot actually

ISIS’s governance of Fallujah is the longest of any Iraqi cities and the fight will be bloody

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

The ongoing “Iraqi” push into Fallujah to oust Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the focus of many observers. The city on the Euphrates is a strategic prize in the current tug and pull for Iraq’s Sunni geographical core. After all, invaders of the city before met brutal deaths and hung from a bridge over the river. It’s no dreamland.

ISIS’s governance of Fallujah is the longest of any Iraqi cities and the fight will be bloody and violent. Iraqi security forces, augmented by the Shiite umbrella Hashd al-Shaabi (including Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah, Harakat al-Nujaba, plus dozens of Iranian Al-Quds Advisors), are pounding away on Fallujah in three directions with support of US air strikes.

In itself, the Iraqi-Sunni-Shiite contingents with US support is a real test of what is possible in Iraq’s fragmented political arena. It should be noted that this is not the first time that the US “aided” Kata’ib Hezbollah.

In September 2014, US air forces gave air cover to Peshmerga fighters and Kata’ib Hezbollah to oust ISIS from Amerli. That “winning” formula is front and center again.

Apart from the day-to-day slog of the Iraqi operations with the support of airstrikes from Operation Inherent Resolve, there are a few other matters that deserve highlighting for policymakers and observers.

How Abadi and Al-Sadr play out their drama will certainly have an impact in Baghdad

Dr. Theodore Karasik

The Green Zone

First, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi is using the Fallujah operation to win favor with his military and key politicians. His untypically front and center public activity and comments in this effort are for good reason: Baghdad is in the balance.

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s ability to rally support – twice now entering the Green Zone – obviously is a direct threat to Abadi and others politicos.

Abadi’s plea to al-Sadr from the command center for the Fallujah operation was remarkable: He called on al-Sadr’s reform protesters to halt what is now their weekly Green Zone mobbing “as our security forces are preoccupied with liberating Fallujah and nearby areas.” Abadi also stated that Iraqis “…need to be vigilant and cautious as they (ISIS) will try to carry out crimes and massacres against civilians.”

The Iraqi prime minister is referring to the almost daily rising death toll from suicide bombings in and around Baghdad. Of course, Fallujah is the major center for bomb making and suicide bombers by ISIS in the Iraqi capital according to a Jordanian official.

Second, the Fallujah refugee flow is beginning in earnest. Tens of thousands are moving their way out of the city before it is likely flattened given ISIS’s resolve. As I argued in my previous piece, those fleeing Fallujah are going to need more than just help and screening will become necessary.

Already, this flow is starting to occur. In the refugee flow, men and older boys are taken to special security screening locations by Iraqi forces. Women and children are provided for apparently. There is a worry that all of these survivors are brainwashed by ISIS.

According to one source, an Iraqi federal police officer said that “they are brainwashed by now. They should be placed in a special camp.” And that is exactly what is happening: Screening, commonly also called “filtration” is a war time method that is both important to prevent combatants, terrorists or insurgents from slipping outside of an urban fight or area, but also religiously and politically explosive in the screening centers themselves.

It may be that in this atmosphere, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged security forces and militia to restrain themselves and abide by “the standard behaviors of jihad.” Religion and tribe may very well come into play in this specific Internally Displaced Person (IDP) flow.

Third, and probably most important, is Saudi Arabia’s view of the Fallujah events. Fallujah, and Anbar itself, are very important to the country. Under King Salman, the Kingdom is sending tons of aid for distribution in Anbar province and specifically to Fallujah when possible.

Iran's presence

But Iran’s presence will not be tolerated by the Kingdom. Not only did Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir demand that Iran leave Iraq and to remove Iranian forces from all Arab lands.

The Saudi Foreign Minister asserted “Sending Iranian Shiite armed units to Iraq or their training there is unacceptable both on invitation [of the Iraqi authorities] and without it.” Indeed, the Kingdom is serious about Iran’s current behavior in Iraq.

A more careful look reveals that Saudi-Iraqi military ties are set to improve to offset Iran’s ground presence exemplified by the Fallujah force mix. Just days ago, Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi briefed Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Iraq Thamer Al-Sabhan on the Fallujah operation.

Al-Sabhan tweeted that “(we) discussed bilateral relations between the two countries as well as the Kingdom’s keenness to enhance military cooperation with Iraq to serve the needs of both people.” These words are a strong signal that the Kingdom will work with the Iraqi military to build on Sunni and tribal ties.

Clearly, the spoils of Fallujah is at stake for what comes next in Iraq. How Abadi and Al-Sadr play out their drama will certainly have an impact in Baghdad. The key as usual is Iran who certainly will not budge.

With Saudi Arabia activating a military-to-military outreach a new marker is now apparent. Riyadh is now positioning itself to challenge Iran for the Day After Fallujah. This struggle well be repeated in other forthcoming campaigns including Mosul and Raqqa.
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Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik

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