by Ahmed Ali
ISW will continue to provide updates on the situation in Iraq as it unfolds.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have announced preparations to retake Fallujah city. The Iraqi Army, SWAT, and the Iraqi Special Forces will likely participate in the operation. The operation calls for the evacuation of the city's population ahead of an assault scheduled to last a number of days. Since clashes in Anbar started, there has been a flight by the city’s residents to Ramadi, Baghdad, and Karbala. Evacuation measures by the ISF are unlikely to be effective, because an assault upon Fallujah by Shi'a-dominated security forces is itself a threat to the city's Sunni residents. The ISF operation in Fallujah will therefore result in civilian casualties and possibly invoke other violent tribal responses. It is too early to tell how effective the ISF will be against AQI in Fallujah, or what resources will be expended. Meanwhile, AQI may be well-positioned to attack in other provinces, such as Ninewa and Salah ad-Din.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced support for the Iraqi government in countering AQI, but stated that this is Iraq's fight. Prime Minister Maliki has vowed to eliminate AQI from the province. While Maliki is likely aiming to achieve a significant military victory ahead of elections, it is important to recognize that AQI cannot be decisively defeated in Anbar. The ISF presence in Anbar is therefore likely to be long-term, which increases the opportunities for AQI to exert control elsewhere in Iraq, and also increases the threat of a Sunni backlash against the ISF. It also increases the likelihood that elections will not be held on time in April.
Meanwhile, clashes in Ramadi continue as tribal forces and Iraqi Army along with aerial support by Iraqi Army Aviation reportedly engaged AQI members in eastern Ramadi. According to reports, AQI members are reported to be positioned in southern Ramadi as well. The ISF based in eastern Fallujah can push to the city from the Baghdad flank, and there have been attacks to regain Fallujah from the direction of Ramadi to the west. If a new attack to retake Fallujah commences, it will likely follow the blueprint of such earlier attempts.
The government’s effort to counter AQI in Anbar is facing a further obstacle. Tribal divisions are beginning to emerge among prominent pro-government figures such as Sahwa Council (Awakening) leaders Ahmed Abu Risha and Wisam al-Hardan. Their recent disagreement resulted in suspending the tribal and local police fight against AQI in northern Ramadi. Due to personal differences, Hardan does not want to work with Abu Risha, who recently reengaged with the Iraqi government. As the preparations for the Fallujah battle continue, this potential rift will serve as an indicator of tribal reactions to the ISF operations. The ISF will not succeed in driving AQI out of Anbar province without the mobilization of the tribes against AQI.
It is imperative to watch for AQI attacks in other provinces, such as Ninewa and Salah ad-Din, while the ISF is concentrated in Anbar. It is also critical to watch the actions of other Iraqi insurgent groups that can attack the ISF. In Ninewa for example, the ISF arrested 12 individuals who called for jihad and attacks against the ISF using mosques’ loudspeakers on January 5 in Mosul. It is unclear if these 12 are members of AQI or other armed groups. Either way, these indicators point to a possible simultaneous front opening for the ISF in Ninewa.