By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team
Key Takeaway: The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) has made significant progress in its operation to retake Fallujah, but the city is not fully cleared. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi the full recapture of Fallujah on June 17, following the recapture of the government complex. However, the northern neighborhoods of the city remain controlled by ISIS, and several western neighborhoods are still contested. Even as the ISF operation is on the verge of military success in Fallujah, it is poised to be a political failure. The Badr Organization, an Iranian-backed Shi’a proxy militia, has entered the city limits alongside pro-Iranian ISF elements. The Badr Organization’s presence, following continued Shi’a abuses against Sunni residents, will be a sectarian trigger that will undermine the Iraqi Government’s efforts to reconcile Sunni elements. The Fallujah operation will be a mission failure – even if the city is physically recaptured – as long as the Iraqi Government does not address the Sunni political marginalization which made Fallujah passive towards ISIS’s takeover of the city in December 2013.
The ISF continue operations to retake neighborhoods in Fallujah, securing on June 15 and Hayy on June 16, and and , Fallujah’s industrial center, on June 17. The ISF also secured the building and the entire complex on June 17. The ISF is still contesting areas in western Fallujah and have moved into and on June 15 and encircled Fallujah General in on June 17. Jubeil likewise remains contested. The ISF and Sunni tribal fighters continue to consolidate terrain to the southwest of Fallujah, recapturing Felahat on and al-Jafah on , while efforts are ongoing to Halabsa. The ISF secured over the Fallujah Dam, directly south of Fallujah, on June 14. Control of the dam will allow forces currently south of the river to link up with forces on the northern bank.
The Badr Organization, an Iranian-backed Shi’a proxy militia, has entered the city limits of Fallujah alongside the Federal Police and Emergency Response Division (ERD). Badr’s entry in the majority Sunni city follows the expiration of Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri’s ten-day deadline for Fallujah residents to leave. The deadline expired on June 14. Amiri and the 5th Badr Brigade were in Hayy al-Shuhada on June 15 and reached , the boundary between Shuhada and Nazal, on June 16, in coordination with the Federal Police and ERD. The 5th Badr Brigade was also reported alongside the Federal Police near the building on June 17. Elements of both the Federal Police and ERD are co-opted by the Badr Organization and are strongly receptive to Iranian direction. These elements have also operated alongside Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), major Iranian-backed proxy militias with a history of sectarian violence. It is possible that Iranian actors, who have been sited previously in Fallujah’s environs, are also in the city. The Badr Organization is not likely leading the operations to retake these areas, as they have been pictured in these areas the day following the ISF announcement of their recapture. Instead, Badr is shadowing the ISF operations towards the center of the city. The militia involvement represents a breach of within the ISF that Shi’a militias would not enter the city, indicating that pro-Iranian ISF elements will undermine top ISF orders out of affiliation to Iran. This will limit the ISF’s ability to set the terms of militia involvement. Other militias, including AAH and KH, may see Badr’s entry into Fallujah as a green light to enter as well.
Badr’s presence in Fallujah could spoil the anti-ISIS campaign and setback government efforts of Sunni reconciliation. This setback may already be triggered. Iranian proxy militias continue to carry out violations against the Sunni population fleeing the city. Anbar Governor Suhaib al-Rawi reported on June 13 that Popular Mobilization fighters in Saqlawiyah had executed 49 Sunni men and disappeared 643 civilians the week before, following reports of similar actions around Garma. (HRW) released a report on June 9 further detailing militia abuse against Sunni residents. The Popular Mobilization has denied or downplayed these allegations. Popular Mobilization activity in Fallujah’s environs has demonstrated that militias are likely to treat residents in Fallujah as complicit with ISIS. The U.N. estimated that 40,000 residents had fled the city over the past three weeks. Many to flee the city on June 17 as the ISF entered the inner neighborhoods. The U.N. had estimated that as many of 90,000 people were in the city when the ground operation began on May 23. It is unclear how many still remain. Residents have likely remained in Fallujah until now for a variety of reasons, including physical obstacles preventing their escape, the difficulty of escape, and loyalty to the city itself. Residents likely believe that hardships faced by remaining under ISIS’s control in Fallujah is preferable to living in refugee camps or anywhere else that may leave them vulnerable to abuse by Shi’a militias.
A historic distrust and disdain towards the Iraqi Government among the people of Fallujah has made them resistant to outside intervention and susceptible to complicity with radical ideology. The U.S. encountered that anti-government aggression during efforts to take the city from AQI in 2004 and 2006. Fallujah’s animosity towards the previous Shi’a-led government reached its height when former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrested several high-profile Sunni politicians in 2012, leading to year-long anti-government protests across Iraq and particularly in Fallujah. AQI’s resurgence, and consequent evolution into ISIS, was incubated among these protests. ISIS seized Fallujah at the end of December 2013 by capitalizing on that anti-government sentiment amongst a population that did not fight back.
The Iraqi Government can salvage the Fallujah operation by changing the composition of the forces in the city. Continued Shi’a militia involvement in Fallujah will undermine the military success of the operation and efforts of Sunni reconciliation. Militias must be withdrawn. The Iraqi Government will also need to consider the composition of the forces needed to hold Fallujah after its recapture. Fallujah will not accept a security system maintained explicitly by the ISF and certainly not one connected to the Popular Mobilization. The government needs to generate and support a local tribal force that can secure the city and act as a liaison between Fallujah and Baghdad. The Iraqi Government also needs to ensure that its Sunni population participates in the government as a means to achieve demands, rather than seek insurgent or extreme methods. In the long term, the Iraqi Government needs to develop a framework that can address the fundamental issue that Sunnis are underrepresented in the government and a frequent victim of institutional sectarian abuse. Failure to adequately address Sunni demands of equal representation and political participation will inevitably lead to the resurgence of either ISIS or a successor in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq.