In a brief statement, the Iraqi Defense Ministry said on Saturday, “Today the Anti-Terrorism forces stormed the city of Fallujah from the southern axis and retook al-Nuaimiya area.”
This announcement marked a significant step for the Iraqi army and Popular Mobilization Forces that have been working day and night in a bid to drive ISIS militants out of the city and pave the way for the liberation of Mosul and eventually the entire country.
In fact, for the past three weeks, anti-terrorism forces have made notable advances having freed most areas and villages on the outskirts of Fallujah. According to Ahmad al-Asadi, official spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, 38 villages and neighbourhoods have been reseized since the beginning of the operation.
Currently, the city is besieged from all sides but the military incursion is only being carried from the southern axis.
Several strategically important hurdles remain in the way of the liberation process and these include the geographical features of the land. Fallujah is located roughly 69 kilometers west of the capital Baghdad in the restive Anbar province. But unlike the rest of the desert region, Fallujah is the site of agricultural lands, orchards, and irrigation channels. These topographies had posed an obstacle before the movement of the forces but they were able to overcome them in later stages.
The Human Factor
One of the reasons ascribed to the delay in storming Fallujah from all axes is related to the humanitarian side of the battle. According to sources, the Iraqi army had kept short of a full attack on the city to give civilians time to flee.
“One of the obstacles delaying the assault on Fallujah is our concern over the safety of civilians in Fallujah. We have urged people inside Fallujah to leace the city to spare them and we will do our utmost to protect them. We may even delay the assault on the city for several days to give people more time leave,” Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization, told reporters a few weeks ago.
According to Iraq’s Ministry of Migration and Displacement, 868 families evacuated to military positions through safe passageways. However, many more remain in the city, a fact that will further complicate the operation.
Many of those who are still trapped are being used by ISIS as human shields.
“There are also reports of several hundred families being used as human shields by ISIL (ISIS) in the center of Fallujah,” UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said earlier this week.
The Lebanese Al-Akhbar daily has quoted sources as claiming that commanders from the Popular Mobilization Forces have met with Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi who admitted that he is being pressured to exclude the PMF from the assault on Fallujah.
The sources allegedly said Abadi told the PMF that the US is exerting part of the pressure and prominent Iraqi figures are also doing their part in an attempt to remove them from the Mosul equation beginning with Fallujah.
Iraq’s Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri said the PMF’s participation would lead to sectarian bloodshed under the claim that the resistance block is primarily comprised of Shiite fighters and Mosul is Sunni-dominated.
On the other hand, the country’s Foreign Ministry has made clear that the fight is not a matter of intra-Iraqi sectarian differences but a matter of uprooting the terrorist threat that ISIS represents. In this sense, all Iraqis must stand united against ISIS regardless of their sects.
The difficulties obstructing the path that leads to the liberation of Fallujah are many. Despite these obstacles, however, the Iraqi army along with the Popular Mobilization Forces are ready to surmount the stumbling blocks to reach the heart of Fallujah. As the battle for Fallujah intensifies, it is clear that while the fight is far from being unproblematic, it is within reach.