The Push to Regain Fallujah: Hopes and Problems


Fallujah represents a very important aspect of Iraqi history in that it has long been thought of by many as the center of resistance to foreign occupiers and a symbol of Iraqi nationalism. To the Americans, it brings back memories of bitter battles against the Ba’athist and Saddamist diehards. The Iraqi people want some good news after years of bitter wars internally and with neighbors. The almost daily news of bombings and  civilian suffering  has left a deep hunger for positive developments, and the current offensive and retaking of a number of towns and cities has seemingly begun a drive to bring some relief to a war weary population.

 But the once very promising Iraqi Anti-terrorist  offensive seems to have slowed down considerably.  Partly as it is frequently announced, there are supposedly 50000 or more, civilians trapped inside Fallujah and outside Western powers and humanitarian agencies are advocating a cautious approach to the  city to spare civilian lives.

This is true  but the major  problems are a divided and disunited anti Da’aesh campaign, and continuing interference in Iraq by her neighbors and a still divided Iraqi nation, struggling with sectarian problems  and cultural inhibitions that plague the attempt to rebuild an Iraqi military;

 The current offensive on Fallujah and toward Mosul illustrates the potential environment for continued war after the Da’aesh ( ISIS or Islamic State) are destroyed.mosul2US Caption Patrol in old city of Mosul about 2006 from web site BlackFive


The anti-Da’aesh forces are operating against them with five separate military or semi-military organizations. The one doing most of the fighting is the so called “Golden Division” a brigade – sized unit actually the 1st ISOF brigade, one of four brigade sized units under the counter terrorism command.

These units, which come directly under the Prime Minister of Iraq,  have lately been trained by US advisers. After a hiatus following the breakdown of the Status of Forces Agreement) SOFA) talks, there was a period of the Iraqi trying to go it alone. But after the Mosul fiasco happened, in which the regular Iraqi army melted away without a fight, leaving masses amount  of equipment to the Da’aesh, the American advisers began returning. It is by far, especially the  1st  ISOF Brigade ( the Golden Division) the most professional and best fighting unit in Iraq. Some say the best in the Arab world.

They are, however, almost totally supported by the Americans in intelligence, logistics and air power. As they are presently constituted with the very best of American equipment,  with heavy weapons  MIAI tanks. and artillery, they are a long way from the  original American concept of the unit, which was to be a lightly armed counter-insurgent unit  composed of multi- sectarian elements of the population.

As constituted now it is more of an elite mechanized Infantry  unit composed of primarily Shi’a s but not out of proportion to the population. It has been the spearhead  of the offensive slowly clearing Anbar of the Da’aesh and other terrorist organizations.

Apparently the other three ISOF units are not totally prepared for combat, in terms of training standards or  personnel fill. The assessment process to  weed pout ineffective soldiers has been disqualifying  a large percentage of volunteers.

Even though they are paid substantially more than the ordinary soldier,  the constant battle engagement of the ISOF probably has a sobering effect on potential  recruits.

In recent news and video reports on the “Golden Division” the officers and men speak of the excessive time away from home, and one commander apparently carried a burial shroud with him. In one recent video clip  showed the “Golden Division” clearing the town of Heet using tanks and heavy equipment, and backed up by American and Iraqi airpower,a town in which they estimated the militants had 60 or 70 militant fighters.


The obvious question: how will they fare against thousands of militants in a heavily fortified Mosul which is honeycombed with tunnels and trenches amidst a medieval Arab  city, one of the most difficult urban  environments to fight in, (see my article “Urban-Warfare Lessons of the Jordanian Palestinian Conflict of 1970,”Special Warfare, Fall 2001.

Mosul is a   city with more than a million inhabitants, who in many cases , have no where to go and face retribution as the follow-on regular troops, Minister of Interior police and Militias pour in. Over the time they have been under Da’aesh rule the Sunni residents of Mosul have been inundated with messages of hate and fear for the mostly Shi’a soldiers of the Iraqi army and militias. While many Mosul residents may be unhappy with their Da’aesh masters, the rule of Saddam illustrates that fear far outweighs any desire to revolt. Mosul will be tough to take and occupy.

The second military force to be considered is the regular army, a huge force  of a million men, which was rendered ineffective after the Mosul debacle, with 60 Battalions disappearing and five divisions declared ineffective.

Based on what I have read and heard the number of effective divisions are no more that two or three, a fact known to the Grand Ayatollah Al Sistani who ordered the militias into the streets to give assurances to a population fearful of a Da’aesh takeover of Baghdad.

As it stands now the regular army is still suffering from a massive morale problem and the usual cultural inhibiting cultural attributes I made clear in my article, “Why Arabs Lose Wars.” at .  

Nepotism, the element of wasta, ghost soldiers, hoarding of ammunition, and spare parts, and the low quality of recruits. For a time there were American  officers and NCO’s embedded with the training units to produce a more professional officer and NCO corps but many of these Iraqi officers were removed by PM al-Maliki to install officers with strong loyalties to him personally and the Dawa political party.

More to the point, the American military culture  has not “taken” within Arab culture. Application of Western training methods have limited effects unless it is a prolonged and intensive process. see my article  Western Training of Arab Armies, (formerly  on the MERIA Web)

The  third force of the Iraqi military forces are those of the Ministry of Interior (MOI). This ministry is the only security ministry that was not disbanded after the American liberation of Iraq. Despite the be Ba’athist program  which was so severely criticized, many of the Saddamist officials remained in the ministry (sidebar: One must wonder had most of the Ba’athists remained in their posts in the military and bureaucracy what the Iraqi government would look like today).

The MOI is by far the most corrupt and feared bureaucracy in the Iraqi structure. It maintains  several quasi military  formations, including a counter-terrorist unit. Early on in the war the MOI supported the much feared  “Wolf Brigade” which was primarily a reprisal unit, composed of Shi’a militants, who exacted revenge on the Sunni population.  There are probably over  500,000 men under arms who receive pay from the MOI. They are ill trained and of marginal use against the Da’eash but are used to keep the population in check and provide employment.

wolf brigade

Soldiers of “Wolf ” brigade

The fourth force are the militias who are themselves split into a number of different militias, in fact about 40 different organizations, including three main ones, the Asa’ib ahl el Haq, and Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the Badr organization. Sometimes they cooperate, sometimes they fight each other. Most are supported in some way by the Iranian government, specifically the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IGRC), specifically its Al Quds force headed by Iranian general Qasim Soliemani. Their part in the  war against the Da’aesh has been primarily to train to these militias a certain elementary level.

With a few exceptions, such as the Hezbollah units trained by the Iranian Al Quds forces,  (some of which have been employed against the Da’aesh in Syria) they  are not well trained for conventional urban warfare, but serve the Iranian purpose  of  counter-balancing the Iraqi regular military and  creating discord among the Sunni inhabitants, especially those liberated from Da’aesh control by the Iraqi ISOF.  Their strategic value is to ensure that the U.S. does not re-assert influence over Iraq. Much of the Sunni  tacit support for the Da’aesh movements is their fear of the Shi’a militants whom they assume will exact revenge for the many years of  continuous killing of innocent Shi’a people of Iraq, while the Sunnis of Iraq and the neighborboring Arab countries did nothing, or tacitly supported it.

Qasim Soliemani Caption: Qasim Soliemani Iranian commander of the “Quds” organization

The Iran’s objective is very simple: To contain the Sunni extremist elements, ensuring that Iraq remains under a Shi’a government beholden to the Iranians,  but never to allow Iraq to become united, or again a strong Arab country opposed to Persian hegemony.

Finally add to the miasma of the disunited, confused  push against the Da’aesh, the fairly effective Kurdish forces. (who are not united either: still divided between the Barzani and Talabani clans). One thing should be clear to all is that the Kurds will not shed their blood for the benefit of the Iraqi government.They are defending their people and territory and whatever land they occupy they will hold for part of the incipient Kurdish state.

So with these impediments it is no wonder the Iraqi push against Fallujah and Mosul will be a long and inconclusive operation.


About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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