On Monday, the Iraqi army launched a major assault on the city, which has been occupied by the Islamic State since 2013, and as of Tuesday afternoon, the city center was still being shelled. This comes after months of siege, during which the tens of thousands of civilians in Fallujah have suffered from severe food shortages.
To find out what’s at stake in this symbolically significant battle, less than 50 miles from Baghdad, VICE spoke to Omar Lamrani, senior military analyst at the Austin-based military intelligence firm Stratfor. He told us that Iraq, whose military has in the past been roundly humiliated by ISIS, really needs to win—and win the right way—if it wants to hold onto any semblance of political stability.
VICE: What does the battlefield look like in Fallujah?
Omar Lamrani: There are approximately twenty thousand Iraqi forces overall. That includes the Iraqi government as well as the Hashd al Shaabi, also known as the PMU—the Shiite militias. Fallujah was pretty much surrounded before the operation began, but they’ve tightened the siege, and now they’re trying to get into the urban areas. They have to go into some deep urban fighting. The Islamic State is heavily dug into the city. They know the terrain. They’re determined to fight, and there’s really nowhere else for them to go.
What’s at stake for the Islamic State?
They’re trying to take advantage of the political instability in Baghdad, and try to cement divisions within the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Iraqi population. So their dream is to see this big civil war within the Shiite camp, [and] within the Iraqi government, and that’s why they’re trying to keep this thing going.
What’s at stake for Iraq?
The reason why they really need take Fallujah in the first place is, Fallujah has been a staging ground for all the recent attacks in Baghdad and Sadr City. [But] the way they clear Fallujah is quite important. When they took Ramadi, it was a military victory for the Iraqi Army, but they really destroyed Ramadi in the process.
What could go wrong?
[One] bad scenario is one in which [the Iraqi Army] goes into Fallujah, and they wreck the place, suffer extensive casualties themselves, cause tremendous numbers of civilian casualties, and then really wreck any path forward for reconciliation. Because that means even if they take the ground, the insurgency’s going to simmer, and keep going on.
Keep in mind: Baghdad is in a budget crunch. They don’t have the money to go about rebuilding these cities that they’ve destroyed. So that just adds to the complications of the operation.
How has the Iraqi army been doing this year, militarily speaking?
They have been doing better over the last six months. Ever since they retook Ramadi , they’ve gone westward. They’ve taken [the small town of] Hit. They’ve lifted the [eighteen-month] siege at Haditha. They’ve gone all the way to the Jordanian border. They took Rutba and reached [the Jordanian border crossing point at] Terbil.
You mentioned Sunni militias as well. What’s their role?
There’s this competition between the Iraqi government and the militias. So the militias tend to play up their role in the conflict. They retake areas, [but] primarily, Iraqi forces have led the fights in those areas. They’ve really carried the burden in taking them. So the Iraqi government in Fallujah really has to [preserve] its reputation, and make sure people understand that it is itself on the front line in these areas, even if they do receive support from the Americans and the militias.
How’s the Islamic State going to respond?
The Islamic State has no hesitancy about booby trapping mosques, hospitals, or pretty much any place, using human shields. They are going to maximize any damage caused to civilians caused by the government. They’re going to play up the propaganda in this sense. They’re going to talk about how a few Islamic State soldiers have taken on hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, so even in defeat, they can portray it almost like an Alamo of sorts—a last stand—the sort of narrative that they can shape into propaganda.
If the Iraqi government wins, what’s next?
Once the Iraqis feel that they’ve cleared the flank, which is Anbar [a province, where the Islamic State controls significant territory]—which poses a threat to Baghdad—then you will see a shift further to the north of the country, and the focus would be in Mosul then.