By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team
Key Take-Away: The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made significant gains in recapturing Fallujah from ISIS, but areas recaptured in the future face the risk of instability. As of June 20, the ISF have cleared most of the neighborhoods in Fallujah, excluding some of its northern neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the proliferation of Iraqi Shi’a militias in Fallujah’s northern suburbs could pose a serious problem to the area’s stability. Reports of abuses against Sunni civilians north of Fallujah by Popular Mobilization and Federal Police were serious enough that security forces encouraged Sunni civilians to flee south towards Amiriyat al-Fallujah. Members of the Badr Organization’s 5th Brigade, whose commander is also a senior commander in the Federal Police (FP), entered the city alongside the FP and Emergency Response Division (ERD), forces linked to the Badr Organization-controlled Interior Ministry (MoI), during the course of the operation. The presence of Iraqi Shi’a militias both inside and around Fallujah increases the possibility of sectarian violence against the Sunni Arab residents of Fallujah, which has long served as a support zone for extremist Sunni groups against the locally unpopular Shi’a-dominated national government. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government will likely rely on local Sunni Arab tribes with knowledge of the area’s human networks to provide fighters for recaptured areas’ security and identifying ISIS collaborators. This collaboration could result in the government empowering certain Sunni tribal power brokers over others with whom they are rivals, which may lead to inter- and intra-tribal violence and settling of old scores as Internally-Displaced Persons (IDPs) return to their homes in the Fallujah area.
Fallujah’s stability is critical to the success of future operations against ISIS in Ninewa and western Anbar. Furthermore, the Iraqi government must demonstrate its ability to provide for its citizens to regain the trust and support of the Sunni-Arab populations currently living in ISIS territory; if violence against Fallujah’s Sunni Arabs continues, conditions for IDPs in camps remain poor, Fallujah’s heavily damaged interior and suburbs are not rebuilt, and reconstruction money is stolen, then Sunni Arabs in ISIS-held areas of Iraq may not welcome the ISF when their areas are recaptured. The ISF must recapture and hold Fallujah and all other predominantly-Sunni Arab areas in an inclusive manner devoid of ethnic, sectarian, and tribal violence, which will require a force that excludes Iraqi Shi’a militias and includes Sunni Arab fighters. Territorial victories will otherwise be accompanied by long-term instability, allowing ISIS or other extremist groups an opportunity for resurgence. The Iraqi Government and the U.S.-led anti-ISIS Coalition will need to keep these lessons in mind as the ISF commence the difficult push from northern Salah al-Din Province into Ninewa towards Mosul.