- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The battle to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah from Islamic State fighters will be grueling and violent, according to American and Iraqi commanders, who say the campaign to recapture the city has been driven as much by political pressures facing Iraqi Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi as by strategic imperatives to eventually take the bigger prize of Mosul from the terrorist group’s control.

Over the weekend, U.S. warplanes pounded Islamic State targets in and around Fallujah as units from the Iraqi Security Forces pressed toward the northern, southern and eastern borders of the city amid intense fighting, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Tuesday.

“We have had a couple of tough days of fighting,” Capt. Davis told reporters at the Pentagon. “ISIS has had a lot of time to dig in and booby trap [Fallujah] and approaches to the city. It is painstaking work to go and clear those [bombs] as they head in,” he said.

The shape of the battle has taken shape in recent days, even as Islamic State fighters launched a fierce counterattack on the southern edge of the city, slowing progress of the elite Iraqi counterterrorism troops. The militants reportedly herded civilians into a single neighborhood for use as human shields, The Associated Press reported.

Iraqi Security Forces will face stiffer resistance from ISIS in Fallujah than in any operation launched since the fall of Mosul,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said Tuesday.

U.S. fighters have escalated airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Fallujah, carrying out 21 strikes against the terrorist group’s positions since May 17.

Local forces kicked off “shaping operations” in areas surrounding the city last week, which included securing staging areas in the towns and villages surrounding Fallujah, as well as attempting to evacuate as many of the 50,000 civilians inhabiting the city as possible before the pending assault.

But initial reports from front-line units indicate the fight for Fallujah will be akin to the long, drawn-out battles triggered by the Islamic State’s aggressive defense of Ramadi and Kobani in Syria.

In both battles, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, suffered staggering losses before eventually ceding to local troops and militias.

“The last two days have shown they intend to put up a fight” not seen in recent operations to retake the key cities of Hit and Rutba in Anbar province from Islamic State control, Capt. Davis said.

Holding out

Fallujah’s proximity to Baghdad, 40 miles east of the Iraqi capital, along with its status as the last major Islamic State-held city in Anbar province, will likely mean the roughly 1,000 Islamic State fighters based in the city will attempt to hold it at all costs.

“We really haven’t fought a battle like this” since U.S. forces deployed back into Iraq in 2014 to support the country’s fight against the Islamic State, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told The Washington Post. “You could have a fairly large percentage of a fairly large city that’s hostile to us.”

On Saturday, Iraqi forces based in the Nuaimiya district south of Fallujah repelled a fierce Islamic State counterattack a day after local forces retook the area. The militants reportedly used underground tunnels and positioned snipers and six car bombs in an attempt to break the Iraqi lines in the district.

In the coming weeks, Islamic State counterattacks in Fallujah will increasingly involve “repeated suicide bombers, snipers and [improvised explosive devices]” accompanied by “large diversionary bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere,” Mr. Lister said.

Recapturing Fallujah from Islamic State control was always part of the overall plan in Iraq, U.S. officials said, but the timing of the offensive — launched after a blistering suicide bombing campaign in Baghdad — was driven more by internal Iraqi politics than the coalition’s main objective of retaking the Islamic State’s Iraqi capital of Mosul.

As the battle for Fallujah heats up, Islamic State fighters have resumed their bombing campaign in Baghdad, killing 20 people and injuring over 50 in a series of attacks across three city districts, according to multiple media reports.

The attacks shattered a lull in violence in the capital that coincided with the kickoff of the Fallujah campaign. Baghdad was rocked by unrelenting suicide attacks in May that left over 150 dead and scores wounded.

The attacks, targeting mainly Shiite-dominated neighborhoods including Sadr City, the political base of the powerful but enigmatic Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, were clearly intended to rekindle the devastating sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites that plagued the country during the worst days of the American occupation in Iraq, U.S. officials said.

Repeated attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq on Shiite targets in the early 2000s, culminating in the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, ignited months vicious sectarian fighting throughout Iraq.

The recent bombings ignited political unrest in Baghdad, with thousands of protesters taking to the streets demanding that the al-Abadi regime do more to protect the capital.

Political calculations

Col. Steve Warren, the top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said Friday that the decision to take back Fallujah was politically motivated by the al-Abadi government.

“You know, every city in Iraq’s got to get cleared, right? So we’re going to every city sooner or later. It’s just a question of sequencing, [and] the sequencing then becomes a political decision,” Col. Warren told reporters during a briefing from Baghdad.

“We understand that the leader of the country has to make decisions based on more than pure military necessity.”

But Col. Warren acknowledged that the timing of the Fallujah offensive was diverting attention and resources from the Mosul offensive.

“Today’s focus may be on Fallujah, but Mosul remains in our crosshairs [and] you don’t need Fallujah in order to get to Mosul,” he said, adding that recapturing the second-largest city in Iraq from Islamic State control remains the main focus for the U.S.-backed effort.

Roughly 3,500 to 5,000 U.S. military advisers and special operations forces are already in Iraq and Syria. President Obama in April ordered 200 U.S. troops into Iraq to back the Iraqi-led offensive to take back Mosul from Islamic State control. U.S. military officials have estimated that the fight for Mosul could require seven to 10 Iraqi army brigades, or 25,000 troops.

At the height of the Islamic State bombings in Baghdad, Mr. al-Abadi and other Iraqi officials pressed the country’s military leaders to pull Iraqi troops off the front lines in Mosul and elsewhere and bring them back to secure Baghdad. It was only after last-minute discussions with American military advisers that the prime minister agreed to keep Iraqi forces on the front lines near Mosul, Fallujah and elsewhere in Anbar province.

Roughly half of the Iraqi Security Forces are based in Baghdad. The U.S. and Iraqi battle plan to retake Mosul from Islamic State control depends on that troop ratio staying the same.

Even though Fallujah does not hold any strategic importance in the drive toward Mosul, the payoff in securing Baghdad will allow Iraqi forces to refocus their efforts toward that goal, Col. Warren said.

“When Fallujah is finally liberated we believe it will have an impact on Baghdad’s security,” he said. “While it may bleed off some attention [from Mosul], that’s the cost.”

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