Iraqi forces are at the entrance of Fallujah, seemingly set to end a brutal two-year reign by the self-declared Islamic State (IS).
Yet the role of Shiite militias – and the increasing sectarian tone and propaganda surrounding the fight over the Sunni town – are creating tensions that serve IS propaganda and could set the stage for the jihadist group’s return to power in western Iraq.
“These operations only further support their narrative as the only defender of Sunnis,” says Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy who coauthored a book on IS.
After reports Wednesday that Iraqi forces had suspended the fighting, the prime minister denied the rumors and blamed them on IS.
IS propaganda: 'America is relying on their Shiite dogs'
In the latest issue of IS’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, the group argues that Shiites are now ready for a full-on “war” against Iraq’s Sunnis after years of assassinating “scholars, intellectuals, doctors and engineers.” IS says this is part of a larger sectarian conflict being waged across the region.
As the offensive on Fallujah began May 23, IS supporters took to social media to reinforce the narrative. “America failed to take Fallujah in 2004, and are now relying on their Shiite dogs,” said a Twitter user.
“America’s alliance with Iran is now explicit and evident for all the people,” said another IS supporter on the secure messaging app Telegram, according to the Guardian.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry has confirmed it is backing Shiite militias in Iraq against IS. Most recently, photos emerged on Facebook and Iranian websites of Qassem Soleimani, the charismatic major general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, outside Fallujah directing the operation last weekend.
"ISIS has capitalized on this and will continue to project itself as the least worst option in an environment where the state is too weak to offer anything," says Ranj Alaaldin, an Iraq specialist at the London School of Economics.
Some 50,000 residents, including 20,000 children, are reportedly trapped – prevented by IS from escaping the city. On Tuesday, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR reported civilians being killed in shelling or buried alive, while the Norwegian Refugee Council warned of an unfolding “humanitarian catastrophe” in Fallujah.
“[Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar] Abadi has tried to minimize the cost of civilian lives by deploying [counterterrorism forces], but ISIS is going to ensure as many civilians die as possible, and this will hurt him,” says Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst specialized in Iraq.
A national symbol of Sunni resistance
Fallujah has long been a proud symbol of resistance for Iraq’s minority Sunni population – first against the US occupation in 2004, and more recently against the Shiite-dominated government, which has marginalized them.
In 2012, long-term resentment over the Shiite-dominated government’s attempts to oust Sunni Iraqis from both the public and private sectors boiled over into a nationwide movement.
As the protests turned violent in December 2013, Sunni tribes brokered a withdrawal by Iraqi military and police’s withdrawal from Fallujah. It was this very withdrawal which allowed IS to stream over from neighboring Syria and seize Fallujah, as well as near-by Ramadi, in early 2014.
Whoever controls Fallujah controls the pulse of Iraq’s Sunnis.
This significance led Baghdad to make Fallujah a priority over Mosul, IS’s capital in Iraq. By seizing Fallujah, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has calculated that the government will take away IS’s foothold in the Sunni Anbar province, and prevent it from staging attacks in Baghdad, about 40 miles to the east.
Shiite militias stoking sectarian tensions
The Iraqi armed forces are backed by a coalition of Shiite militias known as Hashid Shaabi, which has a checkered record. Though it vowed not to participate in the direct assault “unless needed," its presence – and rhetoric – has stoked Sunni fears of sectarian killing.
A video which surfaced on YouTube ahead of the offensive allegedly shows Shiite militia leader Aws al-Khafaji rallying his troops and referring to Fallujah as a "terrorist stronghold."
“There are no tribal sheikhs, no patriots, no religious people there,” Mr. al-Khafaji says to a barracks full of uniformed fighters. “This is our chance to cleanse Iraq by cutting out the tumor that is Fallujah.”
And following last week’s liberation of Karmah, some 10 miles north of Fallujah, Al Jazeera reported that Iraqi forces demolished a mosque while Hashid forces executed 17 residents – inflammatory claims that have yet to be substantiated but still resonate.
The sectarian rhetoric became so strong that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most respected Shiite cleric, preached for restraint and respect for Fallujah’s mainly Sunni civilians in a Friday sermon delivered by his spokesman last week.
“The involvement of Shiite militias in the offensive in Fallujah is going to result in the opposite effect of the intended purpose,” says Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “Although they may enable a military victory in Fallujah, the sectarian tensions will be a loss for all of Iraq.”
After the smoke of battle clears
While a military success will be hard-fought, true victory in Fallujah will hinge on the steps the Iraqi government takes to reach out to the community after IS’s defeat.
Rather than abandon Fallujah, IS is likely to meld back into the population.
To prevent a full-blown IS insurgency, Baghdad would need local partners in Fallujah to provide security and services, a role that the Sunni tribal Sahwa militias played following the 2007-08 ouster of Al Qaeda in Iraq, IS’s predecessor.
Yet the Iraqi government has failed to address the root causes that sparked unrest three years ago – corruption, sectarian abuse of judicial and executive power, and Shiite militias that operate outside the law and have emptied Sunni neighborhoods.
“The Iraqi government will find it very difficult to find local support to keep Fallujah clear from IS in the long-run, which will likely to lead to their return, or the rise of even more radical groups,” Ms. Khatib warned.