After more than a month of encircling the city, the military campaign to retake Fallujah from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) made headway this week and the Iraqi government declared it fully liberated.
By any military standards, the battle for Fallujah, which has been an ISIL stronghold since its seizure in January 2014, must be an outstanding one. Many analysts had predicted it would not be easy to retake the city for the freshly overhauled Iraq army and the ragtag al-Hashed al-Shaabi, the Shia-controlled Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF).
While the human cost, including the vast urban destruction and the large population displacement, is devastating, taking the city of 4,600km and 300,000 residents from ISIL fighters remains highly significant.
Yet, the most pointed question remains: What will the government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi do with its hard-won military victory in order to make it politically sustainable?
Many analysts argue that the Iraqi government should provide a political plan for the morning after recapturing Fallujah that aims to achieve a full inclusion of Iraq’s Sunnis in state apparatuses. Because without such a plan and an enduring counter-strategy to curtail the ISIL rebellion, the group might be able to resurge or some other – more extremist – groups will replace it.
While crucial political decisions must be made to move forward with the long-delayed state-rebuilding in Iraq, however, this will depend mainly on whether or not Abadi’s government will act with a victorious – and hence vindictive – spirit after Fallujah or with an approach of reconciliation and national healing.
The Iraqi government has so far showed little sign of being able to jettison the mentality of “the majority rules” that has spurred alienation – and radicalisation – among Iraq’s Sunni population since the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In many ways, the liberation of Fallujah, a Sunni majority city of the Anbar Province, rather seems to be emboldening Shia political groups that continue to resist attempts for power-sharing.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Shia leaders seem intent on tightening their grip on the cities and towns – mostly Sunni-dominated, recaptured from ISIL, underscoring their failure to accept political realities that reflect a new balance of power among Iraq’s divided communities.
In order to create a new security order in Fallujah, the Shia-led government may also need to create a new demographic reality.
Putting aside the Iraqi government’s discourse on “Fallujah returning to the homeland’s embrace”, there should be no doubt that Shia political and militia leaders will make every effort to pull Fallujah, and other liberated Sunni-populated cities, back under Baghdad’s sphere of influence.
According to this plan, all Sunni-dominated areas that are being “liberated” by the Iraqi army and the armed militias will come under an overall security surveillance scheme. Such a move is likely to take place with the assistance of segments of the Sunni population, politicians and tribal leaders who have been working closely with the Iraqi government.
Iraqi media reported statements by Shia leaders that speak of the “costly sacrifices” invested in the war against ISIL, hoping this will make post-Fallujah Iraq different from the country it was before. Accordingly, like post-ISIL Diyalah and Salahuddin, two cities that were retaken from ISIL fighters some 18 months ago, the Iraqi government will ensure that Fallujah also remains under its firm grip.
For this to happen, Iraqi press reports say that a new military command will be set up in Fallujah to police the city after the army and federal police restore stability and leave. The new command will be designed on the model of the Samarra Operation Command which was established following the bombing of the Shia holy shrines in 2006 and comprised mainly security forces and Shia militias.
Effectively, this will give the security forces as well as the PMF full control over the city with assistance from local tribes that have contributed an auxiliary role in the fight against ISIL.
The goal would be to prevent ISIL from making a comeback and to block any new Sunni armed resistance from coming into being. Therefore it is highly unlikely that Fallujah will be policed by a local Sunni security force.
In order to create a new security order in Fallujah, located 60km from Baghdad, Abadi’s government may also need to create a new demographic reality, as the majority of Fallujah residents have left and it is unclear whether or not they will be able to return to a city that has been largely devastated.
While there are so far no signs of planned demographic changes in the city, a decline in the Sunni population – for any reason – is likely to have a devastating effect on balancing communal interests.
If that happens, it will be a strategic game-changer that will put Abadi’s government and the PMF in control of Anbar province, on the Iraqi western border with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Having the entire Anbar province in the hands of Iran-backed groups will not only protect the western entries to Baghdad, it will also establish “strategic depth” for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
While for the short and medium terms this strategy will allow for more cooperation between Assad’s army and the Iraqi army – backed by the militias – in their fight against ISIL, it will have geopolitical ramifications for the larger regional order.
The move will reopen the vast desert border areas with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, two countries that have never hidden their concerns about the rising power of the Shia-led militias and Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Attention is now shifting to the long-awaited offensive to flush out ISIL from Mosul, the country’s largest Sunni-populated centre and ISIL’s last stronghold in Iraq. Winning the Mosul battle will certainly be tougher than Fallujah. But the world wants to see if Iraq can take back its last city from ISIL and – at the same time – deal a death blow to the group.
For this to happen, Baghdad should be prepared for peace while still at war, to quote China’s greatest strategist Sun Tzu.
In essence, the Iraqi government does not need a short-term victory over ISIL that humiliates the large Sunni community. The more reasonable option would be to avoid making this war a zero sum game where the Shia leadership does not seek to gain popularity at the expense of a defeated Sunni population.