Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Islamic State’s failure in Fallujah

The so-called Islamic State lost both the military and the propaganda battle in its attempts to hold the Iraqi city of Fallujah against Iraqi government forces, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

The military plan to liberate the Iraqi city of Fallujah from Islamic State (IS) control has thrown into relief a new framework for military planning and cooperation between the Iraqi government and the forces of the US/NATO-led international coalition to fight the terror group. It has also revealed a decline in IS’s tactical capacities that have become familiar to its adversaries.

Following the success of the campaign to liberate Fallujah and as preparations began for the battle to liberate Mosul in the north of Iraq, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter made a surprise visit to Baghdad on 11 July for talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, Minister of Defence Khaled Al-Obeidi, and anti-IS coalition commander US General Sean Barry McFarland.

The talks focused on plans to recapture Mosul, and Carter announced that a logistics base would be set up at the strategic Qayyarah Airport and Military Base 60 km south of Mosul which was recaptured from IS two weeks ago. He also stated the 560 more US troops would be sent to Iraq, bringing the number of US soldiers in the country up to 4,600, the highest since the US withdrawal.

The Iraqi approach to the Fallujah campaign appears to have been governed by political priorities, namely to divert attention from the political battles between Al-Abadi and his adversaries and to achieve a military victory against IS which would shift the political landscape from factional clashes to a national patriotic battle.

There are also the security priorities which Al-Abadi has encapsulated under the heading of “Al-Farar” (flight), the name of the operation that, as the Iraqi prime minister put it, “will leave IS no alternative but to flee”.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from Baghdad, Eyad Al-Mallah, a reporter for Radio Sawa, said that “there has been a strategic shift in the battles in terms of both the methods of the Iraqi government and the American/international support of it in the war against IS. The notion that ‘no voice shall be heard above the call to battle’ has come to prevail. As a result, all political criticisms have been eclipsed by the victory the forces have achieved in Fallujah and on their way to Mosul.”

Al-Mallah lauded the Iraqi army’s professionalism and the shift in tactics that were reflected in the excellent calibre of the operations that had also contributed to freeing other cities.

But he stressed that “there remains the great challenge that hampers the efforts of the government and security agencies to liberate Iraq from IS, namely the political disputes and the crisis of confidence which will require long and serious efforts to resolve.”

“This must be done in order to ensure the development of a democratic civil state in Iraq capable of embracing all its citizens in a framework that rises above narrow partisan interests and prioritises national welfare,” he said.

Also speaking to the Weekly from Baghdad, Ihsan Al-Shamri, director of the Iraqi Centre for Political Thought, a think tank, and a political advisor to the Iraqi government, said that “the accumulated expertise of the Iraqi forces in addition to the nature of the battles in which they have been engaged have demonstrated beyond question the professionalism of the Iraqi security establishment and its handling of the war.”

“We anticipate that this will also be reflected in the battle for Mosul. This expertise will need to be channelled effectively into that battle, which will require exhaustive preparations given that we are speaking of the second-largest governorate in Iraq. It will be essential to take into account the nature of the terrain and the civilian populations living there.”

 “I believe the battle for Fallujah has sent a positive message, as 85 per cent of the civilian infrastructure remained intact during the campaign,” he added.

The US approach was guided by the need to strike IS in its main stronghold in Iraq and avert any potential dissipation of the US-led coalition’s capacities. The battle for Fallujah was a preparatory battle on the path to Mosul, the routing of the IS leadership — with regard to which the US expects that either IS’s so-called caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi will be killed or will flee Iraq — and the reassertion of the Iraqi government’s control over the whole of the country.

This strategy was discussed by the US administration’s envoy to Iraq in his testimony to Congress shortly before the operation. The aim, he said, was to restore Iraqi control over the areas currently held by IS and to eliminate the organisation.

Al-Shamri noted that the US has given priority to Iraq in the war against IS. “The US is linked to Baghdad through a strategic alliance, and Washington sees Iraq as a partner in the war against terrorism,” he said.

 “The alliance that Washington leads has accomplished its aims in Iraq, in contrast to in Syria. One reason for this is the relationship between Baghdad and Washington, which Damascus does not have. There are also fewer problems in the wider Iraqi environment.”

 The liberation of Fallujah involved moving into the centre of the city, followed by sector-by-sector cleansing operations based on intelligence information on the deployment of the IS forces and their defensive fortifications inside Fallujah.

The first objective was to break through the dense peripheral circle of IS defences in order to launch an assault on the city’s core. The joint forces formed a tight siege around the city, employing a force consisting of 20,000 Iraqi troops drawn from the Special Forces, the interior ministry forces, tribal forces, and Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) militias, in addition to a contingent of American advisors.

The distribution of these forces seems to have been calibrated in accordance with their particular functions and capacities. The Federal Police and PMF were deployed in the northern and eastern suburbs, while the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) was deployed in the southern suburbs, which are closer to the heart of Fallujah.

Although the liberation forces encountered some stiff resistance from IS forces, they ultimately prevailed and gained control of the city. Among the reasons for their success were the fruitful intelligence operations that had successfully tracked the locations where IS forces were concentrated using local operatives to furnish daily updates.

The sophisticated level of combat tactics and coordination among all the participating forces helped, as did the operations control centre, which proved adept at commanding and coordinating the operations along all axes and between the various land and air contingents. A third important factor was American air cover, which helped to clear the way for ground forces by striking concentrations of IS fighters.

Success was also aided by special operations carried out in tandem with the Fallujah campaign. These included assaults that eliminated key IS commanders and interrupted planning and communications between Mosul and Fallujah. At the beginning of July, the Pentagon announced that it had succeeded in killing two senior commanders in the IS war ministry in Mosul, IS deputy minister of war Mohammed Sultan Al-Bajari and military commander Hatim Taleb Al-Hamduni.

There are many reasons why IS failed in Fallujah, but perhaps the most important is that the group’s tactics proved ineffective this time around. IS adopted the strategy it habitually uses in Iraqi towns and cities: the construction of earth mounds to prevent the advance of invading forces and their penetration into the suburbs.

In this case, one of the most formidable barriers was constructed behind the strategic Naimiya Dam in order to sever that area from the south. This barrier was overcome using intensive air strikes.

Another common IS tactic is to use booby-trapped military vehicles detonated at checkpoints on the advance of invading forces. However, this tactic has lost much of its efficacy due to the expertise of counterterrorist forces.

The same applies to the secret tunnels that IS uses as hideouts, to convey weapons from one neighbourhood to another, and to circumvent the security forces. In this case, intelligence information exposed the locations of the tunnel networks and neutralised their efficacy.

It has also been suggested that IS in Fallujah was infiltrated before the attack. The chief evidence for this is that IS leader Al-Baghdadi ordered major changes in the military command structure in the city, removing security jurisdictions from local fighters and handing them to foreigners believed to belong to the 300-strong “Uzbeki” regiment.

But perhaps a more crucial weakness was IS’s depleted fighting strength. Most unofficial estimates place IS losses in the battle at between 700 to 1,000 members.

IS lacks significant popular support in Iraqi cities, and its propaganda efficacy is diminishing. Its tactic of spreading alarm by building up fears of massive destruction and magnifying reports of PMF human rights abuses in the course of battle fell flat because PMF commander Hadi Al-Ameri pledged that his forces would remain outside the city.

In the end, IS lost both the military and the propaganda battle in Fallujah.

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