BAGHDAD: Iraqi forces may face a big battle near Baghdad before they can try to retake the ISIS stronghold of Mosul: Falluja, a long-time bastion of Sunni Muslim jihadists sitting at the western gates of the capital.
The government of Prime Minister Hailer al-Abadi and the US-led coalition backing it have been cagey so far in plans for Falluja, which lies between Baghdad and Ramadi, the capital of the western Anbar province that the Iraqi military recaptured this week from the militants.
Falluja was the first Iraqi city to fall to the men of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in January 2014, six month before the group that emerged from Al Qaeda swept through a third of Iraqi territory and large parts of neighbouring Syria. Abadi, in a speech on Monday declaring victory in Ramadi, said the army would head next to Mosul, the biggest urban centre under ISIS control. He said the northern city’s capture would mark the end of the “caliphate” proclaimed from the city’s main mosque in June 2014.
But with many other areas still held by ISIS in western and northern Iraq, the authorities have not made clear what path they intend to take to Mosul, 400 km (250 miles) north of Baghdad. “The government will need to control Falluja before Mosul,” said Jabbar al-Yawar, secretary general of the peshmerga, the forces of the Kurdish regional government fighting ISIS in northern Iraq, in an interview to al-Hadath TV.
Daily military statements mention air strikes and attacks by the Iraqi army and the international coalition in and around Falluja, a city with a pre-war population of around 300,000 located 70 km (45 miles) west of the capital.
But there has been no indication if and when a battle will be launched to take the city, which Baghdad-based analyst Hisham al-Hashimi said contains around 1,000 Islamic State fighters.”There’s a military leadership; there’s planning and a military vision,” Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command told Reuters on Thursday. “If a battle starts to liberate the centre of Falluja, Falluja itself or any other area, we will announce it officially.”
US Army Captain Chance McCraw, a coalition intelligence officer, said the Iraqis were still working on plans for what to do after retaking Ramadi.
“I’m not going to tell you when they’re going to push out there (towards Falluja) but they’re going to push them out of all of Iraq. So if they’re in Iraq, they’re going to get pushed out eventually,” he told reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday.
About 3,000 families remaining in Falluja could be used as human shields, said the analyst Hashimi, who has worked with the Iraqi government.
Around 70,000 families have taken refuge in camps around Baghdad, according to Iraq’s High Commission for Human Rights director Fadel al-Gharawi.
Falluja, downstream from Ramadi in the Euphrates River valley, is encircled by the Iraqi army’s first quick response force division, the sixth division and the seventeenth division, according to the coalition’s McCraw, though some militants manage to slip past the military’s cordon.
Further south, on the road leading to the Shi’ite shrine city of Karbala, Iran-backed Shi’ite militiamen are holding ground, Iraqi officials have said.
Known as the “City of Minarets and Mother of Mosques”, Falluja is a focus for Sunni faith and identity in Iraq. It was badly damaged in two offensives by US forces against al Qaeda insurgents in 2004.
The tribes of Anbar helped turn the tide of that insurgency at its height in 2006, banding together and making common cause with US troops to rout Al Qaeda.
The group’s resurgence in the form of Islamic State has divided residents of Anbar, where many accuse former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of shutting Sunnis out of power and being a pawn of Shi’ite power Iran. Some sympathize with and support the Islamist militants, or are too fearful to move against them.
Local government officials say the militants’ defeat this week in Ramadi, the largest Sunni city to be recaptured from Islamic State, has weakened their morale and created tension with the population of Falluja and clashes with Sunni tribes. Those reports could not be independently confirmed. “After some Daesh fighters fled Ramadi to Falluja … fears mounted among Falluja residents that a government offensive on their city could be imminent and pushed many families to try to leave the city,” said Ibrahim al-Fahdawi, a member of the city council, using a derogatory Arabic acronym for the militants.
“Daesh elements threatened to execute anyone trying to flee, which triggered a squabble that developed into clashes between residents and Daesh, who were mostly foreigners,” he told Reuters by phone.