Fallujah has fallen. After weeks of bitter fighting and significant casualties, the heart of the city has been brought back under government control. Islamic extremist forces have been driven from the city. The vast task of rebuilding and resettling the tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting has begun. The way ahead is difficult, but also holds considerable promise.
That paragraph is a description of the situation in June 2016. It could just easily have been a description of the situation in Fallujah in December 2004. We have been here before. We would do well to remember that.
In November 2004 US Army and Marine units assaulted the city of Fallujah, which had fallen under the control of Islamic extremist forces. What followed was some of the bitterest fighting of the Iraq War. It was also a resounding victory for coalition forces and a devastating defeat for Islamic extremists in Iraq.
In the years following the capture of Fallujah American forces and allied Sunni tribal forces scoured Anbar Province and Western Iraq clean of what was then known as Al Qaida in Iraq. By 2011 the opposition to the American allied government in Baghdad by Sunni radicals had been crushed. It had taken a massive effort, but Iraq was stable, and the radical Islamic forces that had attempted to tear the nation apart were defeated.
Then President Obama made the fateful decision to withdraw American forces. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. What is most important for us to remember, however, is exactly how that happened. It was not the American withdrawal from Iraq itself that directly lead to the resurgence of Sunni extremism. It was the chain of events that the American withdrawal triggered that produced that result.
When the US Army withdrew from Iraq, and security in that country was placed in the hands of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the Shia Arabs of Iraq, especially those allied with Tehran, were empowered to remake the country in their image. The Kurds in the north, protected by the mountains and a sizable and well-armed peshmerga force, were able to retain a large measure of independence. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq were not so lucky.
Prime Minister Maliki, his allied Shia militia, and their Iranian sponsors began what amounted to a religious war against Sunni Arabs. Close to 100,000 Sunnis had taken arms against Al Qaida in Iraq. Almost all of them were abandoned by the new government, cut off from pay and resources and drummed out of government service. Sunni politicians were excluded from power. Thousands of political opponents of the Maliki regime were imprisoned. When public demonstrations broke out in Sunni areas, the Iraqi military and Shia militias moved in and brutally crushed the opposition.
A predictable effect
The actions had the predictable effect. Where once the bulk of Sunni Arab Iraqis had fought to destroy an Islamic insurgency, now the very same people were driven back into the hands of its new resurgent form ISIS.
Now, years later, just as the Iraqi government seems to be gaining traction in its fight to drive ISIS from Iraqi territory, the same mistakes appear to be being made.
The Iraqi forces driving into Fallujah are not all formal Iraqi Army units. Many of the men doing the fighting belong to what are collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. These are Shia militia, and many of them are armed, trained and advised by members of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. They are puppets of Tehran, and, in Anbar, they are out for vengeance.
The reports coming out of Fallujah are disturbing. Shia militia are rounding up Sunni men, torturing them, and, in some cases, executing them. Hundreds of men have simply vanished. Efforts to locate them, determine if they are still alive, and if so, who is holding them have been largely futile. Those few men who have won their freedom and returned to their families describe hideous ordeals of physical abuse and threats of death.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and by its Arabic language acronym Daesh, is a Salafi jihadist militant group that follows an Islamic fundamentalist, Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam. Founder: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi | Isis, Terrorist, Islam, Muslim, Weapon, Gun, The Islamic State Of Iraq And The Levant, Abu Musab Al-zarqawi, Terrorism, Coward, War, Violence, Jihad,
Already the impact on the Sunni population in Anbar has been significant. Terror and rage are spreading. If this pattern continues as Iraqi forces move deeper into Anbar the result may well be catastrophic. Cities like Fallujah, theoretically liberated and secured, can just as easily explode into violence and chaos again.
The Obama Administration has chosen for years to downplay the significance of ethnic and religious divisions in Iraq and to cling to the notion that the government in Baghdad speaks for all Iraqis not just the Shia majority. What is happening now on the ground in Anbar makes a lie of that notion and potentially dooms efforts to destroy ISIS and maintain the integrity of Iraq. Ignoring it will not help.
Without American assistance there can be no victory against ISIS. That fact alone means we have tremendous leverage with Baghdad. It is time to use that leverage and insist on the removal of any and all Shia militias from the fight in Anbar. Only if the Sunni Arabs have confidence in the national government is there any hope to truly finish this fight.
We have taken Fallujah. The question is, can we hold it this time?