Sectarianism of Fallujah Campaign Debated

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Views from the Region

As the Iraqi government tries to wrest control of Fallujah from the Islamic State, many in the region have expressed concern over the ultimate fate of the city’s Sunni residents. There is a general worry that the incursion into Fallujah could result in an attempt by the Iran-backed Shia militias to not only rid the city of the Islamic State, but also to drive out the city’s Sunni residents in retribution. Reacting to the widespread misgivings in the regional press, the Shiite-backed Iraqi government has taken the unusual step of accusing the Arab media of sowing fear and doubt, insisting that they ought to cheer the Iraqi army on.

Following news that Iraqi forces were working in close cooperation with Qassem Suliemani, an Iranian commander associated with a Shiite militia, many in the region have expressed concern about what they consider an Iranian-led invasion in Sunni territory. Jordan Times’ Osama Al Sharif goes so far as to predict that under such conditions, the liberation of Fallujah will plant the seeds of Iraq’s partition: “Iran’s brazen interference in Iraq’s affairs and its sectarian incitements are driving this war-torn country towards inevitable collapse. Suliemani’s audacious presence in Fallujah is testimony to Al-Abadi’s submission to Tehran. And as the dust settles in Fallujah we will discover the reality of the incredible suffering by civilians there by both Daesh and vindictive Shiite militias….Iraq’s partition looks imminent every day. The central government is weak and it is being held hostage by Tehran. Sunnis have lost trust in it and calls for carving out the country along sectarian and ethnic lines are getting stronger. Iraqi Kurds have gone a long way in marking the borders of their own independent state and it is a matter of time before such a state becomes a de facto reality.”

In an op-ed for Al Arabiya, Joyce Karam sees the United States as an enabler of the Iranian-led military action in Fallujah, and criticizes it for prioritizing its fight against IS at the cost of Iraqi lives in Fallujah: “Along with the Iraqi forces, it is Iranian funded and organized paramilitary groups with direct help and presence of Tehran’s ‘shadow commander’ Qassem Suleimani leading the fight for Fallujah, and under air cover from the US and coalition forces. Washington’s air cover to US designated terrorist Qassem Suleimani, as he takes on another designated terrorist organization ISIS, perfectly sums up the American dilemma and tragedy in Iraq. The US priority in the country it invaded and occupied in 2003 is solely defined today by fighting ISIS while overlooking the tactics and the means to do so. Two years after ISIS ransacked Mosul from the Iraqi forces in June of 2014, Washington appears to have lost faith in the Iraqi military and in the political prowess of the government in Baghdad to rule over the country.”

The reason for such fears appear to be linked with the expectation that the Sunni population in Fallujah and elsewhere will suffer at the hands of the Iran-backed militias, just as much, if not more than under IS. For Arab News’ Hassan Barari, even the warning given to the Sunni inhabitants of Fallujah to empty the city is a “pretext to drive thousands of Iraq’s Sunnis from their homes. Hadi Al-Amiri — pro-Iranian leader who heads the most powerful Shitte proxy militia of Iran — has reportedly asked Sunnis to leave Fallujah. All of this is taking place under the nose of the American forces….Obviously, Sunni population in Fallujah finds it hard to fit in Daesh rule. And this should not be taken lightly. However, they fear abuse at the hands of the forces of Popular Mobilization and Shiite militias. The assurances of the Iraqi military officials that Shiite militias will not be allowed to enter Fallujah are not enough to placate the people, as they know who calls the shots.”

Given those fears and suspicions surrounding the Iraqi government’s military actions in Fallujah, Ranj Alaadin argues in a recent op-ed for Gulf News that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad ought to not only fight against the IS, but also fight for the hearts and minds of the residents of Fallujah: “It is not so much an issue of when and how Fallujah will be liberated but, rather, who will be doing the liberating. The operation and the campaign to defeat Daesh more generally is one part military and one part political. The local Sunni Arab population in places such as Fallujah do not trust the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government, which has done little to allay concerns about its authoritarianism (particularly during the former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki’s tenure) and sectarian bias….Defeating Daesh requires basic services, institutions, good governance and the reconciliation of divided communities. That means winning the hearts and minds of Sunni Arabs and addressing their deep-rooted grievances (many see Daesh as being the least worst option in comparison to a government they feel has marginalized and neglected them), while also fighting Daesh on the military front.”

Similarly, Al Jazeera’s Afza Ashraf suggests that Baghdad’s actions are driven by political calculations rather than out of concern for the population in Fallujah. However, Al-Abadi’s government can assuage the fears and misgivings of the Sunni Iraqis by authorizing a rebuilding project for Fallujah and the surrounding areas: “The reason for the attention on Fallujah seems to have more to do with events in Baghdad than any coordinated anti-ISIL strategy…. This, coming so soon after the storming of the Green Zone earlier this month resulting from growing unrest among the population about security, food, water, electricity, etc…. The assault on Fallujah may yield a tactical victory in the short term, but it is likely to lay the foundation for a future crisis of sectarian and identity-based extremism….[I]t would require a massive rebuilding and resettlement programme for the city. Performance of the post-Saddam regimes in Baghdad has been poor in both exerting discipline over armed groups and in investing in non-Shia areas, leaving little room for optimism.”

Following these critical reactions, the Iraqi government has taken a tough approach with the Arab media as well as against countries in the region, emphasizing the importance of the liberation of Fallujah for the future of Iraq: “On Tuesday, Iraqi Council of Ministers called all the countries to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and not to interfere in its internal affairs, including the Fallujah issue, while called the Arab media to stop inciting sedition and transferring false news….The Information Office of the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement received by….’The Council considered the victories achieved in the liberation operations of Fallujah as a victory for all Iraqis,’ pointing out that, ‘These victories contributed significantly to the unification and cohesion of the national situation.’ The statement continued, ‘The Council of Ministers called all the countries of the world to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and not to interfere in its internal affairs including the Fallujah issue as an Iraqi city,’ indicating that, ‘The Council of Ministers also called some Arab media to stop inciting sedition and transferring false images and news’.”

Unsurprisingly, Iran’s Fars News staff have been complementary of the Iraqi government’s actions, while also repeating its warnings against fabrications and lies regarding the real intent behind the decision to liberate Fallujah: “Corporate media…would like us to believe that even if the city is liberated, the mainly Sunni population of Fallujah still has reason to fear. The frantic propagandists claim the Iranian-backed Shiite volunteer forces in the past have massacred Sunni civilians, and that they will do the same in Fallujah. Lies after lies. No doubt, these silly fabrications don’t hold water anymore. What is remarkable here is that they are only designed to support ISIL, slander the resistance, and defame victory. For the forces, the rules of engagement are not about burning and looting….The good fight is never about alleged Iranian aggression and hegemonic designs. It’s about people. It’s about getting them out of terrorism, humanitarian catastrophe, and disintegration.”

Judging from Abdulateef Al-Mulhim’s call for unity in Arab News, some may think Baghdad’s pleas have not fallen on deaf ears. However, even in making this argument, Al-Mulhim takes a jab at the true ‘intentions’ of Iraq’s, and one could add, Iran’s politicians: “Regardless of the events taking place in Fallujah and the efforts to eradicate Daesh, the Iraqis have no choice but to sit together. It is only the Iraqis who have the key to resolve all their issues by setting aside their ethnic and sectarian differences. They should say no to divisive politics and work together to exploit the true potential of the country….Iraq is at a crossroads. Iraqis should choose a path for themselves. Years of war and violence have destroyed the basic civic infrastructure of the country. Power outages in a country that has the second-largest oil reserves in the world or shortage of drinking water in a country that is known for its two rivers raises several questions over the intentions of its politicians and administrators. These officials should put the interest of Iraq and the Iraqis ahead of their own interests.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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