The fight aimed at capturing Fallujah from the Islamic State continued past the weekend as Iraqi forces secured the southern edge of the city. Just over two weeks after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared commencement of the operation in late May, Iraqi forces secured the neighborhood of Naymiya as they prepared to enter the city center. While troops continue their advance, the operation is complicated by reports that ISIS is using civilians inside the city as human shields.
The slow-moving operation 40 miles outside of Baghdad is expected to continue, with up to 700 Islamic State fighters left in the city. The effort to recapture Fallujah from the Sunni jihadists has drawn support from both the U.S. and Iran, with the Iranians assigning Shiite militias, nominally under Iraqi control, to help retake the city.
The Iranian-backed Shiite militias known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), have worked on the ground to secure the perimeter of the Sunni-dominated city. Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, military commander of the Hashed al-Saabi militia said it’s currently up to the Iraqi special forces to enter and liberate the city. However, he also noted this position could change depending on how long the fighting ensued. Sunnis have already reported facing retribution from the Shiite forces in Anbar province, alleging hundreds were tortured at the hands of the PMUs.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has contributed to the military operation by conducting 65 airstrikes in the area in consultation with the Iraqi Army. U.S.-trained Iraqi special forces are also leading the assault and expect to see much of the heaviest fighting inside urban areas.
Some 50,000 civilians remain in the city are prevented from leaving by Islamic State and their plight is slowing the advance of Iraqi forces. UNICEF has warned that 20,000 children could be in harm’s way. The organization has called on the Islamic State to provide passage to those who wish to leave, however it’s unlikely such an concession will be made. Thus far, more than 1,000 families have tried to cross the Euphrates River into territory not controlled by ISIS. However, Reuters reported nine people drowned while trying to cross the river, while others have been shot by Islamic State while attempting to flee. This is in addition to the reports of civilians being pulled from their homes to be used as human shields IS fighters.
Fallujah remains important to the Islamic State not only to secure its southwestern front, but also as symbol of the group’s proximity to Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. The city has been under Islamic State control since 2014, when the insurgents’ quick advance caught the Iraqi government off guard. Authorities recently discovered a mass grave in the nearby town of Saqlawiya, saying that over 400 bodies were the victims of IS atrocities as the group progressed eastwards.
Retaking Fallujah would represent a victory for the Prime Minister Abadi, which has ignored recommendations from the U.S. government to focus the Iraqi army on Mosul first. The Prime Minister hopes to silence his critics and ease political threats from influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and other opponents even closer to home.