Fallujah Again!

golden division 1Fallujah was described by  Freya Stark, the great British lady explorer, as a “miserable village over the a bridge of boats across the Euphrates” ( Beyond Euphrates).  But with the advent of the Ba’ath regimes and especially Sadddam Hussein, Fallujah was built into a center of manufacturing and a citadel of Sunni/Ba’ath support for his regime.  Following WWI the sectarian split in Iraq showed itself in the different narratives covering the Iraqi revolt against British presence in Iraq. The Sunni version sees the revolt as being the result of the murder of famous  British officer Gerard Leachman  by tribal sheikhs near Fallujah. The Shi’a version has it much differently and indeed the Shi’a revolt was much harder for the British to put down, which they did with the use of massive air bombardment ordered by Winston Churchill. In World War II the ” Golden Square” Officers exiled the King and  allied themselves with the Nazi Germans. The British army after some fairly light fighting near Fallujah, got the upper hand and Fallujah surrendered to the British.

In 1947 , it was a small-town, but 2011 it had about 300000 inhabitant. The  vast majority were Sunni and many leading Ba”athi families  lived there. When the American invasion/liberation  occurred the city seemed to initially accepted the presence of US soldiers of the 82nd airborne Division But with Iraqi units in the area deserting and putting on civilian clothes, blending in with the population,  demonstrations and protests , fueled by Iraqi officers demanding they be paid,soon spiraled out of control (Sort of strange  that the victorious army is expected to pay the salaries of the defeated army) .The young paratroopers were not adequately trained to move from war fighters to peacemakers and bloody confrontations broke out. It became the c enter of the Sunni/Islamist/ Ba’athist resistance against the occupation by the Coalition.  Security somewhat returned with the advent of the Marines and the supervision of General McChrystal, but it remained a hot bed of resistance to Coalition efforts to put the pieces of Iraq back together again.

Initially The Americans  tried to  pacify the city after a murderous rampage of insurgents, killing and mutilating  four American contractors, who had unwisely decided to drive through city. There was an outcry in the U.S. to punish those involved and operation  Vigilant Resolve  was launched. Unfortunately worldwide condemnation  on the contemplated number of civilians that would likely be killed  caused the  U.S.administration to call it off. This was predictably seen  as great victory by the Sunni insurgents with their Ba’athist supper, and increasing number of Islamists infiltrating into the city of “200 ” mosques.  Sunni Arab and Western Leftist media gloated over the failure of the Americans to retake Fallujah.  Fallujah became the center of producing  Improvised Explosive devices and suicide attacks on Baghdad ,especially the S hi’a neighborhoods. In Nov  2004 operation Phantom Fury was launched and after some bloody house to house combat and a lot of casualties on both sides, Falujah was reconquered but not subdued. Attacks throughout the war continued  to be directed at the Coalition and Shi’a communities.

In November 2014, the ISIS s fighters moved into the city, welcomed by many of the population and became the first stronghold of the ISIS. The ISIS continued to inch toward Baghdad, getting into Abu Grayb district of Baghdad.

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The morale of the Iraqi people ( or most of them) plummeted when in June 2014, the ISIS overran Mosul and sent the Iraqi army streaming south, throwing away their weapons, leaving massive amounts of ammunition and  equipment behind, and becoming a frightened mob. The people of Baghdad who had suffered so much through three wars and years of terrorism were scared.  The ISIS seemed irresistible,  but as Shi’a militias at  Ayatollah Sistani’s call, swarmed into the streets, it gave the Iraqi armed forces some breathing room. Never missing an opportunity the Iranians quickly provided support, as well, with a great propagandas campaign. The American support  came   slowly, without fanfare. but finally reached a point that made a difference , although there is little doubt that the early , unnecessary, and   domestically politically oriented  departure of the U.S. forces had set up the environment for the disaster to follow.

So the main point here is that the Iraqi army recapture of Fallujah,the hotbed of Daeash (ISIS) resistance may  not have broken the back of the ISIS, but like Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo in 1942, which did little damage to the Japanese ,it raised American morale immensely after the debacle at Pearl Harbor.  So it is with the people of Baghdad. They are now openly and without reservation using social media to follow the Iraqi army as it slowly makes its way to Mosul. The Iraqi army  was always held in high esteem by the Iraqi people,  even if some sectarian groups suffered under their  methods. After all if was not just the Republican Guard that attacked Kurds and Shi’a.  Neverheless most of the Sunni -officered army under Saddam that fought the I Shi’a Iranian  Mullahs to a standstill were Shi’a.

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At this point over- expectations can be a problem. It is a long way to Mosul which has been deeply and well fortified, and with most exits blocked, the ISIS can be expected to fight more desperately as opposed to their conduct in Tikrit  and Fallujah, in which many ISIS fighters simply melted away. But the bigger problem lies with the Iraqi army and associated government forces. The Iranians and the Shi’a militias are both feared and hate by most Anbar residents. Any entrance into northern Anbar by Shi’a militias will be counter-productive, and they are not well trained enough to fight the ISIS in any event. They will mostly engage in revenge ( well understood…will the Sunni Arab and western Sunni – centric Western Press   mostly ignore the acts of revenge against the Shi’a the  same way as they did under Saddam?

The first problem is where is the rest of the shattered Iraqi army? Every day one sees videos and reads about the Golden Division, one of four Iraqi Special Forces Brigades trained mostly by the Americans (and also the British and Italians).  There are no western embedded reporters with the Iraqi forces and it is hard to understand what is going on. It would seem that most of the fighting is being done by the Golden Division, a unit set up to fight a counter insurgency, not  conventional urban warfare. Apparently tanks and artillery has been attached to it but it seems to be at the core of the fight against the ISIS. Where are the rest of the  Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) and where is the rest of the very large conventional army? Are they just pulling guard duty around Baghdad and vital installations?  The ISOF has been careful to bring in only better qualified recruits and train them for longer periods of time. Will the constant use of the  ISOF incur too many casualties and consequently lose their effectiveness? Is the remainder of the Iraqi forces   still ill trained for combat?

At most, there are 25000 Daesh fighters in Iraq, with fewer recruits coming to them.   Their armament is mostly light weapons. They have no air force. It is also fairly obvious that their military prowess was greatly exaggerated with their early victories based on excellent propaganda and the corrupted, ineffective Iraqi army.  Now the Iraqi army is close to 300,000 men. What are they doing?  It would seem the Iraqi Army could crush them numerically if they were trained enough to fight. They have ample equipment supplied by the U.S. and they have the Kurds as allies ( for the time being..but tomorrow’s enemies unless the Baghdad government thinks ahead). The Kurds will demand their booty from the war and not settle for the status quo. How will the Baghdad government handle that?

But the Iraqi army has a number of problems that are glaringly apparent.

  1. A dependence on charismatic leadership instead of institutionalized leadership, i/.e. a professional junior officer corps and especially a professional and effective m non commissioned officer corps. At this point they have neither. When the charismatic leader is not there things tend to fall apart. Most Iraqi officers tend to lead from behind. One can tell as many of the senior officers are at the battle front for photo Ops wearing bemedaled uniforms as if they just left their offices (Which they may have)
  2. An inability to  properly maintain and repair their equipment. Their logistics system is poor and will get worse as the distance from Baghdad increases. The heat and dust of the Anbar region will have a severe impact on the equipment
  3. Too much theatrics and showmanship with too much hyperbole. Grandiose statements about how many ISIS that have been killed and  “the way to Mosul is open” lead to cynicism when months drag by and little is happening.
  4. There is little trust in the rest of the conventional army after the Mosul debacle and many of the soldiers are still afraid of the Daesh based on the super propaganda put out by the ISIS. They have portrayed themselves as supermen and won  victories without battles…as TE Lawrence mentioned that the bedouin did so long ago.
  5.  The Iraq government up to now does not have an effective propaganda effort in place to be targeting the people in the Anbar province, and just as importantly, in the Western world.   The Media will be pouncing on half baked stories about ethnic cleansing and abuses of by the Shi’a militias. And without a civil Affairs component the refugee problem threatens to overwhelm them.
  6. They lack unity of command. The mixture of American air power, Iranian and American trainers, Sunni Tribes, Shi’a militias, and Kurdish forces are a combustible combination. All have different agendas and objectives of which defeating the Daesh is only one.
  7. There does not appear to be any post-Mosul plan to reconstitute Iraq. The idea of  a three mini state Iraq is ludicrous. Kurdistan may be able to make it alone but unless the Sunni Anbar province becomes part of Sunni Syria ( not likely under Assad} they do  not have the wherewithal to survive, little water, no oil

In summary however the Iraqi army is restoring their honor, badly tarnished after the Mosul affair.  Hopefully it will continue. They deserve a lot of credit.

 

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About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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