Eleven years after U.S. forces launched what’s widely described as the fiercest American military operation since the Vietnam War, Iraqi forces loyal to the government in Baghdad have begun a long-awaited operation to retake the predominantly Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah.
When the Americans set out to capture Fallujah in April 2004, it was under the control of al Qaida in Iraq, the precursor of the Islamic State, whose fighters have held onto the city for the past 18 months.
This time, the Americans plan only a peripheral role in the coming fight. In the lead now are Iranian-trained and -equipped Shiite Muslim militias – some of whose members, ironically, fought against American forces during the U.S. occupation of their country.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry announced Monday that the militias and loyalist troops had surrounded the city of 500,000 and were beginning operations to capture it – a task that in 2004 took U.S. Marines two separate assaults six months apart and, in total, three months of hard fighting. By the time the 2-month-long Second Battle of Fallujah ended in December 2004, more than 100 Americans were dead and the city had been all but leveled by a torrent of artillery rounds, precision guided missiles and tens of thousands of bullets from automatic weapons. Enemy casualties were estimated at 1,500.
In a statement on state television, Iraqi military officials said that Monday’s assault, which began after six weeks of preliminary bombardment, had been greeted with heavy resistance from the militants, including no less than five suicide car bombs and a number of gunfights on various axes around the city.
No surprise. Fallujah has from the beginning of the American occupation been the heart of the Sunni insurgency, first against the American occupation and then against the Baghdad-based Shiite-led government that Sunni Muslims have long accused of mistreating them and ignoring their needs.
The Sunni tribes of Anbar province were the first major group to resist the American occupation. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the now dead extremist who founded al Qaida in Iraq, already had developed a network of support and manpower there when Fallujah became a death trap for four Blackwater security contractors who were escorting a shipment of food. Ambushed on March 31, 2004, their burned bodies were dragged through the city, then dangled iconically from a city bridge.
In its current incarnation, the Islamic State has controlled Fallujah since January 2014, months before the group became the focus of a U.S.-led international coalition after it captured Mosul on June 10, 2014, and swept across northern and southern Iraq, scattering fleeing Iraqi government troops.
Iraqi officials have been candid that the brunt of the fighting about to engulf the city will be borne by an umbrella group of Shiite militia groups formed under the supervision of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite of Shiite Iran. That’s raised dire concerns from American advisers that these sectarian groups – overtly hostile to both Americans and Sunni Muslims – will break the already deeply frayed relationship between the Shiite government in Baghdad and the Sunni tribes that dominate the large swaths of Iraq currently under the Islamic State’s control.
The government claims that Sunni tribal fighters and local policemen from Anbar will join the militia-led assault. But many remain skeptical that Sunnis have joined in sufficient numbers to avoid the impression of a Shiite pogrom against Sunnis in Fallujah.
“The government says that it has trained 5,000 Sunni tribal fighters, but this number is not realistic,” said one Anbar tribal leader currently in Irbil, who asked his name not be used for fear of sectarian reprisals from the government.
“These Iranian gangs are going to take their revenge for Saddam and for Zarqawi on the innocent people of Fallujah and Ramadi,” he said, referring to the provincial capital of Anbar province, whose surprise fall to the Islamic State two months ago triggered the Shiite militias’ zeal to capture Fallujah.
Reached for comment, one militia commander disputed the lack of Sunni participation.
In a statement to McClatchy, Col. Mahmoud al Jumaili, who commands what is known as the Third Battalion of the Popular Movement, said he expected “good news of victory for the liberation of Anbar,” thanks to the combined efforts of the army, the police and “the sons of the tribes.”
Jumaili’s men are fighting north of Fallujah. They claimed that heavy artillery support had helped them kill at least 30 members of the Islamic State as the militia took control of the village of Asjr on the outskirts of Fallaujah’s significant urban area.
The offensive is expected to last weeks, if not months. The Iraqi military and its Shiite militia allies have shown little ability to fight effectively in urban areas without taking huge casualties; the assault on Tikrit, another Sunni city that had been in Islamic State hands for months, claimed hundreds of militia lives in its first weeks.
Militants in Fallujah have had even more time to prepare their defenses – and can count on the sympathies of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis in the area.
How many men have rallied to either side of the conflict is uncertain. The militias probably number at least 10,000. The Islamic State opponents likely count their numbers in the hundreds.
American officials reportedly recommended that the government concentrate on retaking Ramadi before Fallujah because the Islamic State has controlled that city only since May. But Iraqi officials were intent on tackling Fallujah first because it lies just 40 miles from the Iraqi capital.
Despite the open discussion of the militias’ involvement in the Fallujah offensive, a Pentagon spokesman said that their participation had not been confirmed and that the coalition would assist with airstrikes and intelligence gathering.
“Our coalition airstrikes will likely match the pace and posture of Iraqi security force operations in Anbar,” said a Pentagon official who asked not to be further identified because he was not authorized to discuss coalition operations.
On Sunday, U.S.-led warplanes conducted 29 airstrikes that the U.S. Central Command described as near Ramadi. The strikes hit 67 Islamic State staging areas and destroyed two excavators and one armored personnel carrier, according to a statement.
U.S. military advisers are helping the government wage the offensive from a Joint Operating Center at Taqaddum, a military base 70 miles west of Baghdad in eastern Anbar province.
Contributing to this report were James Rosen in Washington and special correspondents in Baghdad, Irbil and outside of Fallujah, whose names are being withheld for security reasons.