Battle for Falluja will test Shia-dominated government

Iraq’s post-US occupation army is sectarian with Sunnis excluded as officers and soldiers

Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi has to prevent a massacre of residents and the devastation of the city. Photograph: Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters.

Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi has to prevent a massacre of residents and the devastation of the city. Photograph: Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters.

 

Iraqi forces encircling Islamic State fighters in Sunni majority Falluja are all sectarian, making the battle for this strategic city a major test for the Shia-dominated government.

The attackers’ order of battle includes US-trained and mentored elite Iraqi army counter-terrorism units, Hashd al-Shaabi brigades, Sunni tribal levies, and Sunni policemen from Falluja who would assume security duties after liberation.

The commander-in-chief, prime minister Haider al-Abadi, has ordered his massed forces to advance slowly on the city where the UN estimates 50,000 civilians are trapped, with hundreds being held as human shields by Islamic State.

The army poses potential risks for Falluja and the government. In the British-formed secular army, loyalty was to the state rather than a sect. The post-US occupation army is sectarian rather than national. In the new army – as well as the old – Shias are in a majority. But in the new army Sunnis have been excluded as officers and soldiers. The army is deeply mistrusted by Sunnis who have looked for protection first to al-Qaeda and then Islamic State.

Fled

Yazidi

Among the most prominent of the Shia militias is the Iran-sponsored Badr Corps, formed during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war when several thousand Shias fled to Iran and formed the Iran-officered Badr brigade. During that conflict, Iraqi army Shia soldiers fought and died for Iraq. After 2003 Badr Corps fighters entered the Iraqi army, security agencies and police, exacerbating Sunni alienation. Fresh units have since been formed under veteran leader Hadi al-Amir, a member of parliament.

A second key Hashd component is Kata’ib Hezbullah, Brigades of the Party of God, which has close connections with the Iranian army’s crack Quds Force commanded by Qassem Suleimani, who has played an advisory role in the anti-Islamic State campaign in Iraq.

Tribal elements

Syria

These groups have their own leaders who, for the time being, defer to al-Abadi. He has ordered Hashd units to remain on the outskirts of Falluja. In earlier battles with Islamic State, Shia militias have killed and expelled Sunni civilians living in areas under Islamic State control.

Sunni tribal elements could also be a problem because tribes of Anbar province, where Falluja is located, are divided, some being aligned with al-Qaeda and Islamic State, and others with the government. Falluja’s tribal elements backed the Isis takeover of the city but staged a subsequent abortive revolt against its rule.

Regime-backed Sunni policemen of Falluja who are poised to take over security after liberation may also have issues with residents who believe Baghdad to be their enemy.

In the battle for Falluja, al-Abadi has to prevent a massacre of residents and the devastation of the city. More than 80 per cent of Ramadi was destroyed or damaged during Baghdad’s campaign to retake that city, making it the most war-torn area in the country.

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