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Evasive Victory: Why Baghdad's Future Depends on Retaking Fallujah

© AP Photo / Rwa FaisalSmoke rises from Islamic State group positions after an airstrike by U.S.-led coalition warplanes in Fallujah, as Iraqi security forces and allied Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces and Sunni tribal fighters, take combat positions outside Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, May 23, 2016
Smoke rises from Islamic State group positions after an airstrike by U.S.-led coalition warplanes in Fallujah, as Iraqi security forces and allied Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces and Sunni tribal fighters, take combat positions outside Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, May 23, 2016 - Sputnik International
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The operation to free the second largest Iraqi city under Daesh control, Fallujah, is currently underway and Baghdad's future both literally and figuratively depends on the outcome. The victory could pave the way for an offensive on Mosul, protect the capital from terrorist attacks and help bolster Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Iraq's elite counter-terrorism forces gather ahead of an operation to re-take the Daesh-held City of Fallujah, outside Fallujah, Iraq, Sunday, May 29, 2016. - Sputnik International
Iraqi Army Storming Daesh Stronghold of Fallujah
Fallujah, located less than 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of Baghdad, was the first city to fall, when Daesh decided to extends its control from Syria to Iraq in January 2014.  It could now become the latest success story for the Iraqi security forces and their allies, who have been on a roll for the last seven months.

Daesh has been steadily retreating both in Iraq and Syria, thanks in no small part to Russia's counterterrorism efforts. Baghdad-led forces and Peshmerga pushed Daesh out of the cities of Sinjar, Ramadi and al-Hit, while the Syrian Arab Army and Kurdish militias drove the militants out of Palmyra and al-Shaddadi.

​The victory in Fallujah will reinforce this trend at a time when Daesh's revenues and ranks are shrinking, but it will not come easily.

"Defeat in Fallujah should be inevitable, and if the cordon built up over the past few weeks and months has been even partially effective it should have made [Daesh's] ability to move fighters in or out difficult but not impossible," Associate Professor Rodger Shanahan of the Lowy Institute observed.

The operation meant to liberate the city was announced at a time when Baghdad has experienced the worst wave of violence in a year. More than 150 people were killed in the capital in a series of terrorist attacks earlier this month. Daesh targeted both Shia districts of Shaab and Sadr City, as well as a Sunni neighborhood of Tarmiya.

© AFP 2021 / AHMAD AL-RUBAYESupporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr flee the smoke grenades fired by security forces during clashes after demonstrators broke into Baghdad's fortified "Green Zone" on May 20, 2016
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr flee the smoke grenades fired by security forces during clashes after demonstrators broke into Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on May 20, 2016 - Sputnik International
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr flee the smoke grenades fired by security forces during clashes after demonstrators broke into Baghdad's fortified "Green Zone" on May 20, 2016

The assaults "likely accelerated the antigovernment protests over corruption and mismanagement that have already been at a boiling point since last summer," making steps aimed at "preventing further mass casualty attacks" in the capital a priority for the government "whose popularity is at a nadir among the Iraqi populace," Daniel R. DePetris of the Raddington Group wrote for the National Interest.

Iranian soldiers participate in military manoeuvres - Sputnik International
How Iranian Military Helps Oppressed Civilians in Syria, Iraq
If Iraqi security forces, assisted by US warplanes and the Popular Mobilization Units, push Daesh out of Fallujah, al-Abadi will receive the boost he desperately needs to push through the cabinet reshuffle that he has long advocated and maintain his grip on power. The Iraqi prime minister has tried to appoint technocrats to his government, but the initiative was blocked by main parties.

Surprisingly, regardless of how the offensive on Fallujah goes, it could both speed up and delay the operation to free Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and the key Daesh stronghold in the country.

"If the offensive to clear and hold Fallujah takes longer than anticipated, Baghdad may need to redeploy troops designated for Mosul towards Fallujah to ensure that the city is adequately protected from [Daesh] counterattacks," DePetris explained.

Yet, even if Iraqi army succeeds and even if Fallujah receives enough protection, Daesh is likely to employ its once successful strategy of wreaking havoc in the country through indiscriminate bombing campaigns.

​The terrorist group "may well see strategic utility in suffering a defeat while imposing an enormous cost in civilian lives and damaged infrastructure. This could breed ongoing ill-well among the Sunni Iraqi population, laying the groundwork for a sympathetic Sunni environment into which some of its Iraqi members could continue to operate after IS loses its territory," Shanahan explained.

This is precisely the strategy that helped Daesh take large territories in Iraq under control in the first place.

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