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The Iraqi Army Has Pushed Into Fallujah, Kind Of

The army snatches a small victory, but huge challenges remain

Iraqi government forces stand next to an armoured vehicle during an operation, backed by air support from the US-led coalition, in Fallujah's southern Shuhada neighbourhood to retake the area from the Islamic State (IS) group on June 15, 2016.
The Islamic State group battled Iraqi forces and held civilians hostage to defend its bastion of Fallujah, where three weeks of fighting has forced tens of thousands from their homes. Security forces have retaken significant parts of southern Fallujah over the past two weeks and are now attacking the jihadists in the Jbeil neighbourhood, officers said.

 / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces stand next to an armoured vehicle during an operation, backed by air support from the US-led coalition, in Fallujah's southern Shuhada neighbourhood to retake the area from the Islamic State (IS) group on June 15, 2016. The Islamic State group battled Iraqi forces and held civilians hostage to defend its bastion of Fallujah, where three weeks of fighting has forced tens of thousands from their homes. Security forces have retaken significant parts of southern Fallujah over the past two weeks and are now attacking the jihadists in the Jbeil neighbourhood, officers said. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Three weeks after loudly announcing the start of the Iraqi army’s assault on the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah, government troops have finally managed to push into the city, though the breach is small, and there’s no word on when it might widen.

The offensive had ground to a halt almost as soon as it began thanks to a lack of coordination within the Iraqi army, hundreds of concealed roadside bombs, and the flow of thousands of refugees from the city. But over the past several days, the army has managed to secure a stronghold in the southwestern part of town, a U.S. military spokesman told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday.

The spokesman, Col. Chris Garver, said that Iraqi forces were likely to use that stronghold as a base for launching a new push directly to the center of town. Like in the Ramadi offensive in December, he said, “the Iraqis like to push toward the center [of the city] and then push outward,” he said. In Ramadi, “once they got into the center of the city things sped up,” Garver added.

The campaign for Fallujah kicked off after a week of deadly ISIS suicide bombings in Baghdad that left over 150 dead and rattled the capital, which sits just 35 miles east of Fallujah. The city was the first in Iraq to be captured by ISIS fighters in January 2014, and has remained a militant stronhold even as other ISIS-held towns like Ramadi, Tikrit, and Baiji, have been retaken by government forces.

The decision to assault the city was a controversial one, as U.S. military advisors have long believed that retaking Mosul in the north is the real prize and that Fallujah could be dealt with later. But with mounting political pressure from within his Shiite-dominated government to clear Fallujah, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi donned a military uniform and rushed to the army’s command center outside of Fallujah to announce the start of the battle last month.

Since then, things have not gone according to plan. There have been multiple, credible reports of human rights abuses by the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, the Shiite militias that have surrounded the Sunni city while the army has fought to get inside.

Sohaib al-Rawi, governor of Anbar province, claimed over the weekend that 49 Sunni men had been executed after surrendering to Shiite militias, and more than 600 have gone missing after fleeing the city.

On Tuesday, Iraqi Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghabban — a senior member of the powerful Iranian-backed Badr Organization – said abuses would be hard to prevent since some ISIS fighters disguise themselves as civilians, “making it very difficult to distinguish between actual civilians and those who are pretending.”

Bruno Geddo, the chief of the U.N. refugee agency’s mission in Iraq, recently told Foreign Policy that the behavior of the militias was “completely unacceptable,” and allegations of abuses were “corroborated by several sources…from reports we have received, the torture has been perpetuated by the militias.”

The Iraqi government has said it has launched an investigation into the charges.

Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

 

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