The offensive to liberate the Fallujah is 13 days old and appears stalled, apparently by a desire to avoid high losses to the attackers and the 40,000 civilians still in the city. This offensive comes after a lot of preparation. In mid-2015 over 10,000 soldiers and Shia militia moved in to cut the few supply routes ISIL forces in the city still had. ISIL took most of Fallujah in January 2014 but was prevented from advancing further or taking control of the entire city and its suburbs. Fallujah is important because of the crucial geographical position the city has occupied for nearly 3,000 years. Only 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, Fallujah is the gateway between the desert-like region to the west and the densely populated Tigris-Euphrates river valley to the east. The local Sunni tribes have cooperated with the government efforts to clear ISIL out of Fallujah but only if that was done without destroying the city or killing any of the largely Sunni civilians left there. That has slowed things down more than anticipated. ISIL is believed to be forcing thousands of Sunni civilians to remain so they can act as human shields. That had the desired result and in order to maintain the cooperation of the Sunni tribes massive use of artillery or air strikes has been ruled out. For over a year the government has used airpower (aircraft and helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles) and groups of soldiers and allied tribesmen to take out ISIL positions one at a time. This worked in theory but in practice there were never enough reliable troops or aircraft available do it on a large scale. The current offensive, led by several thousand Iraqi commandos, was supposed to overcome that problem. ISIL responded by more frequently and openly employing human shields. Several thousand civilians have managed to get out in the last two weeks and they report that ISIL has told civilians that anyone caught trying to leave the city will be killed. You can still get out, but it is very difficult and risky. ISIL seems to have seized some (a few hundred) civilians as human shields to “protect” specific buildings or fortified combat positions. ISIL puts some of these closely held civilians out so aerial reconnaissance can see them.
Over 40,000 civilians are believed to remain in ISIL controlled parts of Fallujah and ISIL is apparently willing to see how far it can go with the use of civilians as human shields. Troops who have advanced into parts of ISIL controlled Fallujah have discovered what many of the civilians have also been forced to do; help with the construction of numerous tunnels bunkers for ISIL fighters to live in, stockpile weapons and move around without being spotted from the air. Once the civilians are finished digging, ISIL specialists come in and place traps and explosives around the fighting positions. ISIL allows its civilian captives to receive enough food to avoid starvation deaths, but growing incidents of illness among the civilians, especially malnutrition related problems, are reported. The only positive side to all this is that there are not many ISIL gunmen in Fallujah. Civilians who escaped report that ISIL does not have sentries everywhere, just occasional visits by armed ISIL men delivering food to the cooperative and threats to shoot anyone caught leaving. While there may only be 2,000 or fewer ISIL fighters in Fallujah, they are under orders to fight to the death and most will do just that.
This is another example of how ISIL learns from its mistakes. Thus after losing the western Iraq cities of Ramada (by the end of 2015), Hit (this year) and some of Fallujah ISIL concluded that a key factor in the loss of these areas was the local civilians retaining access to some Internet and cell phone service as well as the presence of many satellite TV receivers. ISIL (and other Islamic radicals) have long tried to control use of all three of these items but has been unable to eliminate them from populations they control. Satellite TV is considered of little real value to ISIL and a major threat when local civilians have access. That’s because the Iraqi government has used satellite TV to warn civilians in ISIL controlled territory about what ISIL is up to, where the front line is and when to head for shelter (to avoid increased artillery or air attacks). These alerts make it more difficult for ISIL to find civilians to use (involuntarily) as human shields. ISIL appears to have shut down electronic communications in Fallujah, at least as far as most civilians are concerned.
Whatever new ISIL tactics that work, or fail, in Fallujah will show up in the defense of Mosul, the largest city ISIL still holds and the target of a major government operation to liberate it. The front line gets closer to the city center each day and ISIL has long realized that remaining cell phone and Internet service was being used to coordinate resistance by civilian and communicate details of ISIL defenses and movements inside the city. More vigorous searches to satellite TV receivers had reduced but not eliminated presence of households with access. ISIL has not displayed any sense of moral limits to what it can or cannot do, so Iraqis and Syrians alike are paying attention to what happens in Fallujah.
Meanwhile ISIL is still suffering most of its losses from continued attacks throughout Anbar province (most of Western Iraq) and around Mosul. The government forces use artillery and air power as much as possible and depend on superior information (intelligence) to locate suitable targets. More Iraqis are willing to risk their lives and inform on ISIL and that is having a major impact on Islamic terrorists in general. In a growing number of areas ISIL has retreated because the locals had become too effective at providing accurate targets for air strikes and artillery fire.
This civilian assistance is particularly effective in areas that are largely Sunni Arab. The Shia government notices and that is one reason the pro-Iran Shia militias have not been allowed to participate in the assault on Fallujah. Everyone (Shia and Sunni politicians alike) know that these militias are more fanatic than the trained soldiers and would likely ignore (as in kill any that got in the way) civilians ISIL was hiding behind. Sunni leaders have made it clear that this would most definitely reduce the number of useful tips coming in from Sunni civilians and that would lead to more Shia Iraqis (police, soldiers and civilians) getting killed. Even corrupt Shia politicians understand and respond to this math. This does not diminish growing Iranian influence inside Iraq, another thing that corrupt Shia politicians have to worry about.
Wars Within Wars
Meanwhile there is another war going on that does not involve ISIL. That is the continuing (since July 2015) conflict between Turkey and the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) based in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. Turkey went to war with the PKK because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. Since mid-2015 the Turkish war with the PKK has left over 5,000 PKK personnel dead (mostly in Iraq and Syria), which is about ten times the number of Turkish soldiers and police (mostly in Turkey) killed. Turkish warplanes continue to seek out and bomb PKK bases in more remote areas of Kurdish Iraq.
In Iraq this is mainly a problem for the autonomous Kurdish government in the north. Although the Kurds provide the most effective troops available to Iraq, the government in Baghdad is dominated by Arabs (who are nearly 80 percent of the population) who oppose Kurdish autonomy in the north and have refused to give the Kurdish north their fair share (17 percent) of government income. The national government also interferes with (halts, diverts) weapons and military equipment provided by foreign governments for the Kurds. Legally all such shipments for the Kurds have to go through the national government but a growing number of foreign donors are airlifting in weapons. This has led to the Kurds asking for direct foreign economic aid, which more aid donors are willing to provide, even though it violates international law. This self-defeating attitude towards the Kurds in wartime is seen by the outside world as another manifestation of the corruption and incompetence that has crippled the Iraqi government ever since Iraq was formed nearly a century ago. Most Iraqis are fed up with the corruption and bad government as well but speeches in parliament and larger (and more frequent) public demonstrations against corruption are not having a lot of impact. Meanwhile the Kurds sell oil from oil fields they control via a pipeline through Turkey. The Kurds are producing over 500,000 barrels a day but because to the low world price for oil, currently net (to the Kurdish government) only about $320 million a month. Meanwhile the Kurds cooperate with the Turks, otherwise they would have no way to export their oil.
The Iraqi Kurd’s willingness and ability to effectively deal with the PKK mess has convinced a growing number of foreign donors and financial organizations to deal separately with the Kurds to overcome the economic crisis caused by low oil prices and an uncooperative Iraqi government.
June 3, 2016: In the west an Iraqi air strike north of Fallujah killed Abu Bshir al-Sudani, a senior ISIL leader.
June 2, 2016: Iraqi Kurdish intelligence report they intercepted a written order from senior ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to his senior subordinates that gave detailed orders to abandon certain areas because the locals had become too hostile to ISIL and to move heavy artillery and some other major weapons from Mosul to the Syrian border. Western and Arab intel agencies are trying to authenticate this order, especially since it also includes a warning that ISIL headquarters may have to move to Libya. That has been suspected for some time but in the last week ISIL has suffered some major defeats in Libya and its main base there (the coastal city of Sirte) is in danger of being lost. Then again hostile forces (rebels and government) are closing in on the current ISIL capital Raqqa, in western Syria.
June 1, 2016: Iraqi deaths from terrorist (mainly ISIL inspired) violence were up 17 percent in May (to 867). Civilians accounted for 52 percent of the May deaths, down from 55 percent in April and the 60 percent that had long been the norm. This shift comes from increased attacks by the security forces on ISIL, better security to deal with ISIL terror attacks on civilian or military targets and, finally, the diminishing strength if ISIL after nearly a year of defeats. Electronic chatter confirms what ISIL deserters and prisoners report about low morale and fewer recruits. At least a third of the May deaths are believed to be the result of the offensive against ISIL forces in Fallujah that began on May 22nd.
There was a sharp drop in deaths in April (to 741) after spiking in March (to 1,119 dead). Before March the losses had been more like April and had been that way since late 2015. This was the result of ISIL responding to several recent defeats by increasing its use of suicide bombing attacks against civilian targets. The government managed to adapt, with big help from local militias, and security improved. In contrast during August 2015 1,325 Iraqis died, 1,332 in July, 1,466 in June and 1,100 dead in May. The increase after May was largely because the government began its promised June offensive a little late but still in June. After January 2015 (when nearly 1,400 died) monthly terrorist related deaths were usually 1,100-1,200 a month for most of the year. This is because most of the ISIL violence was of the terrorist, not military, variety. Another factor is the difficulty obtaining accurate data on casualties in ISIL held areas. Thus the actual Iraqi total deaths since late 2014 are much higher once you include ISIL losses. Many (up to half) of the ISIL dead are not Iraqis. Since late 2015 ISIL losses have been heavy, usually more than Iraqi losses.
The death toll for all of 2015 was about 13,400, compared to 15,600 in 2014. That’s still a big jump from 2013 when the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians killed by Sunni Islamic terrorists. The total 2016 deaths are expected to be at least 20 percent lower than 2015. While 2015 was 14 percent less deadly than 2014 both years were much less than the worst year. That was 2007 when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship. Still Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the 2015 death toll was 55,000, which was down 38 percent from the 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 69,000 dead (down 24 percent from 91,000in 2014) for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll has declined in both Iraq and Syria because ISIL has become less effective and in Syria there is a lot more war weariness. Most of the rebels and government forces in Syria are just playing defense and even ISIL has been less active in attacking compared to 2014.
May 25, 2016: In the west an American air strikes in Fallujah killed Maher al Bilawi, the commander of ISIL forces in Fallujah. The several missile and smart bomb attacks also killed several other ISIL personnel. It took several days confirm the impact of these strikes. No news of how the target information was obtained, mainly because if ISIL knew the details they would change their methods to better hide that information.
May 22, 2016: The military, police and Shia militias began a major attack on ISIL held Fallujah.
May 20, 2016:
Under orders to use lethal force against anti-corruption demonstrators in the Green Zone, security forces killed at least four protestors and wounded nearly a hundred before all of the protesters were forced from the zone. Such incursions began on April 30th when, for the first time, demonstrators forced their way into the heavily guarded Green Zone and briefly occupied the parliament building. Iraqi soldiers and police took over all security for the Green Zone back in 2010. Before that it was handled by Americans and American contractors. This ten square kilometer (four square mile) sanctuary in downtown Iraq was long a sanctuary for Americans and senior Iraqis. Most Baghdad residents wanted the Green Zone, and the way it disrupted major traffic patterns, eliminated after the Americans left. But rich and powerful Iraqis wanted to live in the Green Zone, as protection from criminals and terrorists (both of whom murder, kidnap and rob the rich). So the Green Zone lives on, under Iraqi management. But the Green Zone also became the target of increasingly frequent and well-attended demonstrations protesting the inept and corrupt government. There were no casualties during the first incursion into the zone but that eventually changed. This was the second time protestors for in and the guards had orders to use force. Most of the demonstrators who made the first incursion of the Green Zone were followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a prominent and well connected Shia cleric. But after that many more demonstrators joined the weekly anti-corruption protests and the continued efforts to do so in the Green Zone.
May 19, 2016: In the west Iraqi and Jordanian forces launched a joint operation to clear ISIL forces from the area where the borders of Iraq, Syria and Jordan meet. Iraq is now back in control of the main border crossings in this area.