Iraqi forces pushed into Isis-held Fallujah on Monday, hoping to claim their biggest victory to date against the militants but also facing their sternest test.
In the past week, the Iraqi army, along with special forces and Shia militias, has been encircling the city, preparing to attack a stronghold that represented Isis’s first big conquest in Iraq in January 2014.
There are believed to be fewer than a thousand Isis fighters still in the city while thousands of Iraqi soldiers and allied militiamen are assembled outside.
Retaking Fallujah would provide a psychological boost for Iraq’s unproven military. It would also push the militants further back from Baghdad, which lies just 50 kilometres to the east, and set the stage for a bigger showdown in the northern city of Mosul.
“Retaking Fallujah will mean that Isis no longer has a position close to the [capital],” says Ahmed Ali, a fellow with the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.
Still, the battle will not be easy: There are tens of thousands of civilians still inside, Isis is in an advantageous position, and Iraqi national forces are depending on the aid of sectarian militias reviled by many of the locals.
Iraqi forces laboured for eight months to recapture Ramadi, a nearby western city, late last year in a campaign that revealed the government forces’ weakness and ultimately left the city in ruins.
“[Fallujah] is smaller and very populated,” says Mr Ali, predicting that the task would be more complicated.
Once a city of 300,000, mostly Sunni residents, the city in Anbar province was a focal point of the resistance that followed the US-led invasion in 2003. The population is still estimated at about 50,000, making air support difficult without causing a high number of civilian casualties.
Isis has controlled Fallujah for more than two years, allowing militants to install IEDs and traps for advancing forces. On top of that, says Christopher Harmer, a senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, who served several stints with the US army in Iraq, Isis’s unconventional tactics will make the battle difficult.
“In conventional war you can do certain things to force people to surrender,” said Mr Harmer. “But as long as [Isis] have bullets they will fight. As long as they have suicide vests they will fight.”
Washington has set up a $ 1.2bn programme to train and re-equip the Iraqi military since it crumbled in the face of Isis’s onslaught. The army is still reliant on Shia paramilitary organisations to move forward.
“The Iraqi security forces are operationally dependent on the Shia militias,” said Mr Harmer.
That has raised questions about the central government’s legitimacy and authority. It also means local Sunnis inside Fallujah and the surrounding villages will be weary of the advancing forces, even if they would otherwise be happy to see Isis go.
The paramilitary forces, known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation units, while effective, have been accused of abductions, reprisal killings and damaging civilian property.
“There are fears that what happened in Tikrit will be repeated [in Fallujah],” says Jaber al-Jaberi, a Sunni member of parliament in Anbar province, referring to another Sunni city liberated last year by the government. “The mobilisation forces burnt mosques in Tikrit.”
Isis is coming under pressure on other fronts as Kurdish and Arab forces launch offensives around the militants’ de facto capital Raqqa, in northern Syria, and Mosul, the largest city under their control.
Both Mr Jaberi and Mr Harmer believe that eventually they will be dislodged from Fallujah, probably retreating to defend Mosul, which has become even more important for the organisation.
The Iraqi government has been saying for more than year that a Mosul operation is imminent but there has been little progress. That fight will be even more difficult. A dense urban city, as many as a million people remain there and the operation has been stalled by infighting and division.
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