At dawn on Monday morning Iraqi forces launched an assault to retake Anbar Province from the Islamic State. The move comes amid Kurdish advances earlier this month in predominantly Sunni areas near Raqqa in Northern Syria.
A roughly 10,000 person strong coalition composed of fighters from volunteer Shiite militias, such as Hashd al-Shaabi, Iraqi military units, and Sunni tribesmen opposed to the Islamic State, began an effort to re-capture the hotly contested city of Fallujah. Leaders of the Shiite militias, often called Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), hope that recapturing Fallujah will help them retake the rest of Iraq’s largest province.
Members of Iraq’s Shiite militias launch a rocket towards Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Fallujah.(Photo: Reuters)
Even with support from coalition airstrikes, Baghdad will have a difficult time defeating the insurgents because of their ability to blend in with civilians. The Islamic State could deploy about 1,800 militants, according to an Iraqi analyst, including many suicide bombers, and will likely use civilians as human shields. During their initial advance, Iraqi forces met resistance from Islamic State fighters that detonated five suicide car bombs and fired rockets at advancing troops.
While the Iraqi army and PMU forces advance on Fallujah, they have largely discarded the recommendations of U.S. military advisors stationed in the area. U.S. officials wanted the Iraqi military to primarily focus on leading an offensive in Ramadi, a city that only fell to Islamic State fighters in May. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one U.S. advisor justified their strategy by saying that Islamic State “has not had the time and opportunity to retrench in Ramadi like they have in Fallujah.”
United States military advisors have expressed the desire for the Iraqi Army to shoulder more responsibility in the campaign against the Islamic State, because coordinating between different militia groups, often with their own interests and loyalties, is logistically difficult and inefficient. However, with any assault on Ramadi lead under U.S. auspices and aircover, rival Iranian-backed PMUs initiated their own offensive to retake Fallujah.
With a new Shiite push in Iraq, Kurdish fighters have been making advances against the Islamic State as well. Kurdish militants have successfully captured 11 villages neighboring Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self declared capital in northern-Syria, with aid from coalition air-strikes. Peshmerga fighters have gained momentum and advanced into new, predominantly Sunni territory, cutting off important IS supply lines leading to Turkey.