Middle East

Falluja offensive: Final push some way off

Shia militia fire artillery outside the Iraqi city of Falluja
Image caption Shia militia, backed by Iran, are taking part in the offensive

"There's not much going on - why are you in such a hurry?" says Gen Abd al-Wahhab al-Saadi, commander of operations in the Iraqi government's campaign to drive the fighters of self-styled Islamic State out of Falluja.

He was speaking to us at Camp Tareq, a huge, sprawling military base which is acting as a springboard and firing point for the motley array of government and militia forces taking part in the operation - including Gen al-Saadi's elite unit, the Counter Terrorism Force (CTF), aka the "Golden Division".

When the campaign, codenamed "Break Terrorism", was declared with great fanfare on 22 May, the government's hope was that it would all be over in a matter of days or perhaps a week or two.

But despite some significant advances in the surrounding countryside, the government forces have only reached the outskirts of Falluja itself on the southern side, where they had to fight off a vicious IS counter-attack on Tuesday morning.

That was in the Nuaimiya area, adjacent to the southernmost built-up quarter of Falluja city at al-Shuhada.

The government declared Nuaimiya under control several days ago, only to find IS fighters and suicide bombers materialising out of tunnels, while snipers made movement throughout the area unsafe.

On the north-west side of the city, advancing forces are much further from the edge of Falluja, trying to battle their way through the outlying township of Saqlawia and its villages.

So the hermetic ring of steel that the government intends to close around the perimeter of Falluja is still far from complete, and its forces are not in a position to unleash the anticipated final push into the city itself, where an estimated up to 50,000 civilians have been assembled by IS.

It is widely accused, by the UN and others, of using them as human shields.

Concern for their safety was the reason given by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi when he announced on a visit to the troops that the final assault was being delayed, though he also said the Iraqi flag would be flying over Falluja "in the coming few days".

But the fact is that the IS fighters have put up mounting resistance the closer the advancing forces have moved towards the outskirts of the city.

That does not bode well for the battle for Falluja itself.

The militants have had well over two years to prepare for that battle, constructing a network of tunnels and bunkers, and rigging countless booby traps and other surprises.

They may number only in the hundreds - estimates range from 500 to 1200 - but there have been many instances in the region where small numbers of experienced and motivated urban guerrillas defending built-up areas that they know intimately, have held off much larger regular forces for long periods.

Falluja itself is a case in point. In 2004 it defied the might of the US military for two separate months and was subdued only by massive bombardments which left many hundreds dead and the city in ruins.

On the Iraqi state forces' side, the weight of front-line combat falls on the CTF, which was trained and armed by the Americans.

But it has limited numbers, and if Falluja turns out to be as tough a nut to crack as it could be, the official government forces may not be able to cope.

Image caption It is far from clear how long the battle will last

Standing impatiently in the wings - in fact, already engaged in combat in the more outlying areas - are the many Shia militias included under the umbrella of the "Popular Mobilisation", the Hashd al-Shaabi, which is in principle under the control of the prime minister.

They are all backed to greater or lesser degree by Iran. One of them, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq, played a prominent role in the combat to get IS out of the town of Garma, 18 km (11 miles) north-east of Falluja, last week.

It left graffiti on the walls of the Sunni-heartland township, including inscriptions saying "Thank you, Iran" and "Thank you, General Qasem Suleimani" on the walls of the official administration building.

Qasem Suleimani is the ubiquitous commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Brigade.

The Iranian media reported, with photographs, that he appeared near Falluja directing operations as the campaign got under way.

Iran's influence, while discreet, is hard to ignore. A heavy artillery battery at the Tareq base, firing 152mm shells into Falluja, was manned by the Badr Organisation, a Shia militia which was formed in Iran and sent across into Iraq in March 2003.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some civilians have fled but there are dire warnings for those trapped inside

The radio chatter on the gunners' walkie-talkie was in Farsi, the Iranian language, not the Arabic spoken in Iraq. The radio on Gen Saadi and his superior's desk at the CTF Operations Command centre was carrying mixed chatter of Arabic and Farsi, though the CTF's own communications, and the Iraqi Army's, are of course in Arabic.

Before the campaign was launched, there was agreement that the Iranian-backed Shia militias would not enter Falluja.

But militia commanders, such as Badr's Hadi al-Ameri, said that if the official state forces were unable to complete the task, the Hashd forces would be ready to step in.

Their exclusion from moving in to such an iconic Sunni stronghold was clearly to avoid sectarian repercussions.

If they end up doing exactly that, Sunni resentment is almost certain to start boiling, even if local police forces and Sunni tribal volunteers are also involved.

That would not augur well for the much bigger operation that would be needed to oust IS from its biggest and most important seat, Mosul in the north, Iraq's second city.

If Falluja were to fall quickly and easily, as some had predicted, the focus might have moved on swiftly to Mosul.

But if victory at Falluja comes at the cost of heavy damage to the elite CTF units and Shia militia intrusion into a hyper-sensitive Sunni area, it would be bound to complicate the prospects for a Mosul campaign this year.