The operation to liberate Fallujah has reportedly hit a wall, and control over it appears to have slipped entirely from Baghdad’s grasp. The Iraqi special forces that have been tasked with leading the advance into the city say that they’re being stymied not by ISIS’s resistance but by an inability to coordinate their operation with the Shiʿa Popular Mobilization Forces (i.e., paramilitaries) that are fighting alongside the regular Iraqi army:
The disagreement involved who should participate in the operation to clear the city of IS fighters before an advance into Fallujah could begin, with some Shiite militiamen insisting they be part of that mission, said a senior Iraqi security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
The Popular Mobilization Forces denied that, saying their fighters were ready to enter Fallujah if given the order but were standing down for now, said Hayder Mayahi, an official with the group’s media office overseeing the Fallujah operation.
The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition downplayed any suggestion that the operation had stalled.
Oh bless their Pentagon hearts. This is verging on the worst-case scenario for the liberation of Fallujah. Well, the absolute worst-case scenario would be an Iraqi defeat and continued ISIS hold on the city, but that was always exceedingly unlikely. The more realistic worst-case scenario was that the PMF units, despite their promise to stay out of the direct assault on the city, would nevertheless find a way to get involved and that they would create some kind of sectarian problem (anything from reprisal massacres down to simple tension) with the mostly Sunni Fallujah residents. Many PMF fighters are believed to regard (and evidence from the liberation of Tikrit supports this) virtually all Iraqi Arab Sunnis as ISIS collaborators, even Arab Sunnis who have been horribly mistreated while under ISIS rule for the past year and a half. This may be especially true of Sunnis in Fallujah, which has been ISIS’s staging ground for a series of attacks on predominantly Shiʿa areas of Baghdad over the past several months. I’m not saying that a PMF-led liberation of Fallujah would necessarily degenerate into a series of sectarian atrocities, but it wouldn’t be a total shock if it did. In general, then, it’s far better if the main Iraqi army (specifically Iraqi special forces) leads this operation.
It’s the status of those Fallujah residents, the 50,000 civilians still trapped inside Fallujah, who were unable to get out in advance of the Iraqi assault, that is creating the nightmare of that title up there. The Washington Post’s Hugh Naylor reports:
Islamic State militants have used the estimated 50,000 civilians trapped in the government-besieged city as human shields, and they have killed those who have attempted to escape, the rights group and officials told The Washington Post in advance of a report on the alleged abuses.
In turn, they say, government-aligned Shiite militiamen have seized and severely beaten men fleeing Fallujah and neighboring areas. At least four of those men died from their injuries, according to local officials familiar with the incident.
I think it’s now safe to say that those US concerns about the direction this Fallujah operation was taking were legitimate. While the PMFs don’t appear to have advanced toward the city so much as they’ve tried to argue for being allowed to advance on the city (maybe), the delay in entering the city and saving those civilians has caused some of them to try to escape. The ones that aren’t killed by ISIS and don’t drown trying to swim the Euphrates River on their way out are running right in to the PMF lines–so instead of the PMFs coming to the civilians, some civilians are racing out to meet them. And they’re reportedly being brutally handled for their trouble. Town councilmen in the Fallujah suburb of Saqlawiyah have apparently notified Baghdad that some 1250 men fleeing Fallujah have been detained by PMF fighters. Some have allegedly been executed, others merely beaten. Assuming these stories, or anything like them, are accurate, then we’re again talking about that worst-case scenario, or something close to it, unfolding.
(I’m going to digress here for a second, because it nags at me that I consistently portray the PMFs–al-Hashd al-Shaʿabi in Arabic–in a negative light here. There are bad elements among the PMFs for sure, but there are bad elements everywhere. Certainly there are bad elements among Iraqi Sunnis–they’re the ones who, you know, have joined ISIS. And worked for the Baʿathist government before that. The PMFs, as problematic as they’re often portrayed now, were instrumental in blunting ISIS’s seemingly unstoppable advance south from Mosul toward Baghdad back in 2014, and given the state of the Iraqi army, gutted by corruption and unprepared to fight back on any level, it’s unlikely that ISIS would have been rolled back as much as it has been without their involvement. It’s no wonder they’re so popular among Iraqi Shiʿa. But horrible things happen in war, and they especially happen when one side is using fighters it doesn’t control. Baghdad doesn’t really control the PMFs, and the things they’ve done and are alleged to have done in Tikrit and now in Fallujah are, whatever you think of the PMFs, counterproductive to the ultimate goal of defeating ISIS and eliminating the conditions that allowed it to arise in the first place.)
If Fallujah is retaken and then its Sunni residents are made to suffer on top of whatever they’ve already suffered courtesy of ISIS, then that will greatly exacerbate Iraq’s bigger sectarian problem, which will strengthen ISIS’s position and bring Iraq closer to falling apart entirely. The Iraqi government has to figure out a way to regain control over this battle, either by sidelining the PMFs or establishing some direct control over their operations, or it risks losing control of the war.