Iraqi forces begin battle to retake Fallujah from ISIS

Early Monday morning, an operation began to retake the Iraq city of Fallujah, a stronghold of the Islamic State just 30 miles west of Baghdad.

Iraqi soldiers fire a mortar toward Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/

In a televised address on Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that, “In the early hours of the morning today, the heroic fighters advanced from different sides" under the directive to recapture "all the areas occupied by (the Islamic State) around Fallujah”. 

Fallujah, about 30 miles west of Baghdad, has a recent history of heavy combat. The city served as the backdrop for two major American assaults in 2004 during the American Iraq War – assaults where US troops saw some of the fiercest fighting since the Vietnam war.

In January 2014 Fallujah was taken by anti-government fighters and established as a stronghold for the Islamic State. It was one of the first major cities to fall to ISIS and, along with Mosul, remains one of the few still under ISIS control.

While the American military considered Mosul to be a higher priority target, urging Iraqi officials to make that the decisive battle, recent bombings throughout Baghdad (including car and suicide bombs) have pushed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government towards the retaking of Fallujah. 

"They think that the logistics base for these car bombs goes back to Fallujah,” said Douglas Ollivant, an analyst with the New America Foundation who specialized in Iraq under both US presidents Obama and Bush.

Iraqi forces scored one of their first significant victories against ISIS when they retook the nearby city of Ramadi earlier this year. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Ramadi was instructive for US and Iraqi forces. 

The Ramadi campaign has hammered home the point that patience can pay off, that Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites can work together on at least a limited basis, and that American military assistance is still very much needed for the time being.

On first glance, the Ramadi operation might appear to be a surprisingly modest success. 

Much of the city was destroyed in a battle that lasted for nearly a year. And the campaign took seven months of planning, even though the offensive was “not exactly the D-Day landings,” noted Brookings Institution senior fellow Kenneth Pollack in an online piece for the think tank.

By the time Iraqi security forces crossed the river to enter southern Ramadi, there were roughly 250 to 350 Islamic State fighters left in the center of town, said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the US military command in Baghdad.

This against 10,000 Iraqi troops with armor and heavy artillery.

Mosul, which was once Iraq’s second largest city with a population of about two million people, now has around 500,000 inhabitants. It was only 17 miles outside Mosul that an American Navy SEAL, embedded with the Kurdish peshmerga, was killed in an ISIS attack early this month.

The combat death, announced by Defense Secretary Ash Carter from Stuttgart, Germany, was the third US military fatality since Operation Inherent Resolve – the coalition campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – was launched back in 2014. “They are taking grave risks to protect our country. We owe them a deep debt of gratitude,” said White House spokesman John Earnest about the US military personnel currently serving in the Middle East.

Monday morning’s assault on Fallujah began with US-led coalition airstrikes against targets both around and within the city.

Leading up to the assault, the Iraqi government urged all residents to evacuate the city, providing safe passage away from the fighting and telling those who couldn’t leave to put white flags over their homes.

But according to Sheikh Majeed al-Joraisi, a local tribal leader participating in the offensive, the Islamic State was not allowing anyone to leave. “No one is allowed to go out. Otherwise they’ll be killed or detained,” said Mr. al-Joraisi, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Months before Monday’s offensive, the Iraqi government had begun encircling Fallujah, effectively establishing a blockade of ISIS supply lines leading into the city. According to Human Rights Watch, Fallujah residents are starving from the lack of food.

“The people of Fallujah are besieged by the government, trapped by ISIS, and are starving,” said Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. “The warring parties should make sure that aid reaches the civilian population.”

According to HRW website, “Iraqi activists who are in touch with Fallujah families said that people were reduced to eating flat bread made with flour from ground date seeds and soups made from grass.”

Following the beginning of the government’s attacks on ISIs forces in and around the city, Prime Minister Abadi visited the Fallujah Operation Command and met with commanders.

"Today, we will tear down the black flags of these despicable strangers who abducted this dear city. The time has come to liberate Fallujah and the victory will be ours. ISIL has nowhere to go but to flee the city,” he said a day earlier.

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