Friday, June 17, 2016

Iraqi city of Fallujah liberated from ISIS.

Iraqi soldiers in Fallujah. Reuters. 

Iraqi troops have liberated the ISIS controlled city of Fallujah. Reuters. The city was ISIS's longest held city and their last major stronghold in central Iraq. The city center and municipal building have been cleared of ISIS fighters but many fighters still remain in the city and many buildings have been mined or booby trapped. Iraqi state police forces and the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) were involved in most of the fighting. Iraq has yet to take back the Fallujah hospital which is still under control of ISIS. There were worries that the Iranian backed Shiite militias would commit more atrocities after the city was liberated but so far they have been kept out of the city. The liberation of Fallujah has lead to a mass exodus of civilians, who were finally allowed to leave by ISIS for unknown reasons. These civilians are causing a massive strain on Iraqi refugee camps. 

My Comment:
Though it is probably premature to declare victory when much of the city is still under control of ISIS, this is welcome news. ISIS had control over Fallujah since before most people even knew who they were. They took it early in the war, back in 2014 even before the fall of Mosul. They used it as a base to attack the capital of Baghdad, which is only a few miles away, and as the main base for ISIS activities in central Iraq. 

With ISIS all but defeated in Fallujah, their operational capabilities in central Iraq should be greatly reduced. They will have a much more difficult time in continuing their bombing campaign on the Shiite districts in Iraq. Though the threat is still there, I think they will have a much harder time launching attacks. 

That isn't to say that the security situation in Iraq is now magically good. ISIS still controls Mosul and much of Western Iraq. Though the amount of territory they control has been greatly reduced, especially in central Iraq, they still have control of some areas. They also have operational capabilities in much of the area they have lost. They can still launch terror attacks throughout the region. 

It seems like the worst case scenario did not take place. I was worried that the Shiite militias would be deployed to Fallujah. Though they were involved in the fighting and committed some atrocities in the outskirts of the city, they were never allowed into the city proper. Had they been allowed to do so I have no doubt that they would have taken revenge on the civilians still left in the city. That would have increased sectarian tensions and generally been bad for everyone, except ISIS, who would use the attacks as a propaganda victory.

It bodes well for Iraq that they were able to keep the Shiite militias under control. They were coming under intense pressure from those groups to allow them to enter the city. But Iraq held strong and was able to retake the city regardless. This shows that the Iraqi government is stronger then I gave them credit for. I didn't think there were going to be able to risk angering these Shiite groups and their Iranian masters. And I also didn't think they were going to be able to lean on their special forces this hard. In both cases I was wrong, and for once I am happy to have been incorrect. 

Of course, the battle for Fallujah is still a humanitarian disaster. The thousands of people that were trapped in the city are now heading to refugee camps. Those camps are already filled with people from other cities that were liberated, like Hit, Ramadi and Tikrit. All of those cities were liberated as well, but none of them are still safe for civilians to return to.

Though Fallujah has finally been liberated it's going to be a long time for anyone is able to return. If the battle followed the pattern of the most recent battles in Iraq, there won't be much to return to. Airstrikes and artillery destroyed buildings and what was left standing was probably booby trapped and mined by ISIS fighters. Critical utilities such as electricity and water will need to be restored. And before anything else, the remaining ISIS fighters need to be eliminated. 

All this makes me wonder if ISIS releasing the civilians left in the city wasn't a deliberate move. You would think that they would keep them as human shields. That would make the Iraqi's more reluctant to attack. For some reason they let them leave and I think it might have been a roundabout attack on Iraqi resources. The massive amount of refugees will take a heavy toll on Iraq, to say nothing of the effort required to rebuild Fallujah. Added into the problems Iraq will face from the other cities they have recently liberated it makes me wonder if this wasn't a semi-deliberate ploy by ISIS.

With Fallujah now mostly liberated the only main city left under ISIS control in Iraq is Mosul, the de-facto capital. The offensive to liberate that city has not gone well. Iraqi forces folded almost before the operation began. The Kurds, the best fighters in the region, have been reluctant to push outside of their lands, and doing so would have political questions.  

Iraq will probably redeploy their special forces and elite police units away from Fallujah to the Mosul area after the city has been completely cleansed of ISIS. But I wonder if they will be able to attack right away. These troops have been heavily involved in the fighting and may need time to rest and recover. Plus, it's the middle of summer in Iraq, which is always a bad time to launch an offensive. My guess is that Mosul won't be seriously attacked for a couple of months at least.

And the battle of Mosul will be unlike anything seen so far in this war. ISIS has spent years now fortifying and preparing for attack. Their defenses are formidable and attacking it will be difficult. The humanitarian considerations are much greater as well, with the population of Mosul being much greater then cities like Fallujah and Ramadi. My guess is even if the battle for Mosul begins this year, it won't be liberated in 2016...  

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