IRBIL, IRAQ - Iraqi forces backed by an assortment of Shi'ite militias, have faced harsh resistance in their multi-sided offensive to retake Fallujah from Islamic State extremists who have controlled the city since 2014.
Humanitarian agencies are concerned the battle could come at a high human cost, as IS is using civilians as human shields and reportedly preventing families from fleeing the fighting.
Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the offensive earlier this week, vowing the Iraqi flag would soon be flying over the city.
Government's eagerness for victory
Abadi’s government is eager for a victory after being unable to resolve deep differences between political parties and incapable of placating Iraqi populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Sadr has inspired a series of increasingly volatile anti-government street demonstrations, culminating in a violent confrontation in the International Zone last week that left at least four dead.
“In the absence of a political compromise, a military victory by the government against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] has become one way of securing its future,” Lina Khatib, the head of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, wrote this week.
Abadi, long seen as a U.S. ally in the complex pantheon of Iraqi politics where Iran has a strong influence, may also be weighing his future alliances.
"The only way Abadi comes out ahead in the Fallujah operation is if he allows the Hashd al Shaabi to participate," Michael Pregent told VOA, referring to the umbrella group of Shi'ite militias.
"He's weighing pleasing a temporary ally in the United States against a permanent one in Iran," said Pregent, a senior Middle East analyst at the Hudson Institute.
Not an easy victory
Victory in Fallujah will not come easy. The traditionally strong Sunni city has been under IS control for two years, and the group is deeply entrenched in the city.
The Iraqi army is heavily dependent on both U.S.-led coalition air support and on the ground help by Shi’ite militias. After years of sectarian discrimination, this approach could backfire in Fallujah, a city known for its fiercely proud Sunni tribes.
“The government’s blessing of the role of Shia militias in the fights against ISIS means that Sunnis still see it as continuing to discriminate against them,” said Khatib. “Even if ISIS is defeated, the drivers behind people’s embrace of the group are likely to remain intact, if not amplify.”
“All this indicates that the offensive on Fallujah may be urgent militarily, but is premature politically and is likely to eventually hurt the legitimacy of Abadi’s government instead of bolstering it,” Khatib said.
Fierce fighting is now raging around the city. According to Save the Children, military checkpoints and IEDs planted along the roads have stopped most civilians from leaving. No aid has entered the city since December 2015.
The organization said in a statement Wednesday that about 700 people have managed to escape in recent days, including 400 children. Thousands more remain trapped.
“Food and supplies are not allowed in, and people are not allowed out. The town has been under complete siege for months and conditions inside are believed to be getting worse by the hour,” said Maurizio Crivellaro, Save the Children’s Country Director in Iraq. “Now, as military operations intensify even further, it is literally a matter of life and death that children and their families are able to get out safely.”