Fallujah has been at the heart of conflict in Iraq for several years, and last week saw the latest chapter in its history begin as over 20 000 Iraqi security personnel, covered by US air support, fire the first shots of their assault to re-take the city from Islamic State. One week on and the battle for control still rages in the city that has been dubbed ‘the city of mosques’, thanks to housing over 200 of them. The city is not only important in its symbolism of Sunni defiance, but is also strategically important to the side that holds it. The holders of Fallujah are likely to hold the main highway between Baghdad and Jordan and Syria, and is therefore vital for both sides to control it.
2004 saw the Second Battle of Fallujah in the Iraq war and went down as one of the bloodiest battles of modern times that included western forces. The battle raged for a little over 6 weeks, with 95 Americans dead and a further 560 wounded. At the height of the battle in mid –November, the US force sustained 54 losses and 425 casualties in just nine days. The aftermath of the battle saw American and British urban combat methods change completely to avoid a repeat of such casualties in the future. No doubt, it would therefore have been to their great disappointment that Fallujah fell to Islamic State insurgents in 2014.
Clearing Fallujah of insurgents is arguably even more important now than it was back in 2004, with the city one of the two major Islamic State strongholds left in Iraq alongside Mosul in the north. Victory for the Iraqi security forces would signify an important milestone in the battle against Islamic State in Iraq.
The battle is not without its difficulties. As many as 50 000 civilians are feared to still remain in Fallujah under Islamic State’s orders, despite efforts to cease fighting to allow them to leave. The few hundred families of those who have managed to flee have described desperate scenes of food, water and medical shortages. The issue of Islamic State forces using them as human shields is a very real problem, and complicates the situation enormously for the Iraqi forces trying to re-take the city.
In further efforts by Islamic State to deflect Iraqi forces’ attention away from Fallujah are attacks on Baghdad. Three separate attacks in the last week have claimed over 20 lives, with fears of more to come as the final security forces’ assault continues. Alongside counter attacks launched by insurgents in Fallujah, it is evident that Islamic State are determined to hold the city that holds such symbolic and strategic importance in their self-proclaimed caliphate.
The assault continues in a week where Tony Blair has called for a ‘ground war’ against Islamic State, saying that it is the only way that Islamic State could be defeated. Blair cited the situation in Libya as being one of the main indicators that a ground operation needs to be instigated in the region, saying that the UK ‘cannot afford to have Isis govern a large part of Libya’. David Cameron has since re-iterated his rejection of a ground battle, and has long said that there would not be any British boots on the ground. Even if Iraqi security forces do re-take Fallujah, it is far from a forgone conclusion that this will be the last time that Fallujah changes hands, and if it does, the debate for how to best fight and defeat Islamic State will continue.