In postponing an offensive on Fallujah Wednesday, Iraq appeared to be coming to terms with the concerns that had made American officials wary of the operation from the outset.
It’s unclear whether advice from the United States played any role in the decision. But US officials worried that a building-to-building battle to wrest the city from the Islamic State would imperil the city’s Sunni residents.
Such a disaster would almost certainly deepen tensions between Iraq’s majority Shiite population and minority Sunnis. Moreover, it could also result in the Iraqi Army becoming bogged down, diverting its attentions from the arguably more important goal of rousting the Islamic State from Mosul, a commercial hub and Iraq’s second-largest city.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi offered no details on how long the postponement might last. But it could be a positive development, says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
“In some ways, a pause could be beneficial, if it leads to a more concrete plan for what happens after Fallujah falls,” he says. If the Iraqis can sort out who provides security, how the city is restored, and who represents the population with the government, he adds, “then this could be a good thing.”
The sectarian factor was particularly worrisome since Iran-backed Shiite militias played a key role in the opening days of the battle last week in the villages on Fallujah’s fringes. Reports had started surfacing of shells scrawled with anti-Sunni epithets being lobbed into to the city.
Tensions had already been sharpened by a recent spate of Islamic State-claimed suicide bombings in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, less than 50 miles from Fallujah.
Indeed, Mr. Abadi appears to have been motivated by political pressures – particularly from his Shiite constituencies – to do something about the bombings by cleaning out Fallujah.
The sudden decision to move on Fallujah appears to have caught the US off guard.
“The US had made it clear it felt very uncomfortable with the pro-Iranian Shiite militias that lined up to join the battle and then were heavily involved in the fighting on the outskirts of the city,” says Mr. Phillips.
“The US has been pretty focused on the Iraqis getting their political house in order and getting the communities working together,” he adds, “and I think [US officials] worried that major participation by radical Shiite militias would only worsen sectarian tensions.”
The ferocious resistance Iraqi forces and aligned militias encountered as they attempted to push into the city from liberated fringes also raised the prospect of a drawn-out fight for the city, which has been under the Islamic State’s control since early 2014.
The US has been public with its preference that the Iraqis put Fallujah aside and concentrate instead on retaking Mosul.
“The US has said, and I think correctly, that Mosul is the more important target,” Phillips says. “Taking back Mosul would be a much more disastrous blow to ISIS than taking Fallujah,” he adds, using a common acronym for the Islamic State.
There appears to be little chance that ISIS will allow civilians to leave the city – a move that could pave the way for Abadi to relaunch the battle.
But the postponement may last long enough to let the Iraqis define the limited role Shiite militias will play.
“It would be very difficult for the Iraqis to go in unless they have US air support, but I also know the US has refused to provide air support for operations involving the same radical Shiite militias that were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US soldiers in Iraq,” Phillips says.
If the pause stretches into months, it would mirror the first battle of Fallujah, carried out by US Marines in 2004.
In that case, the Marines launched the battle to take back the city from Sunni insurgents – the precursors of the Islamic State – in April 2004, but halted the fighting out of concern for the civilian population. The US military worked out a deal with local Sunni Muslims that exchanged US restraint for the Sunnis holding the insurgents in check.
The pause lasted nearly seven months, until Marines finally entered the city center in November.