France 24 hosted an interesting debate yesterday (30/05/2016) on the current military operations against ISIS in Fallujah and Raqqa. The guests included: journalist Wassim Nasr; former head of the French UN Military Mission to Iraq, Dominique Trinquand; Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Michael Pregent; and Senior Fellow at SAIS-John Hopkins University, Dr Abbas Kadhim. When it came to the Fallujah operation all the speakers (with the exception of Dr Abbas Kadhim) presented a similar narrative. The Fallujah operation, they claimed, was ‘being led by Shi’a militias’ beholden to Iran and under the direction of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Upon defeating ISIS, it was argued, these militias would occupy Fallujah placing its Sunni inhabitants at the mercy of these Shi’i sectarian groups.
Michael Pregent was sharply critical of Obama’s Iraq policy, arguing that the US was providing military support to known terrorists in al-hashd al-shaabi such as hashd commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (linked to Kata’ib Hezbollah), Qais al-Khazali (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq) and Akram al-Kaabi (Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba). According to Pregent, Obama’s reluctance to engage more fully in Iraq had precluded the emergence of a genuine counter-insurgency strategy (along the lines of the sahwa / Sons of Iraq model) which would build a Sunni-Iraqi force to combat ISIS and retake Sunni towns. The current operation, Pregent argued, was handing the battlefield to Iran and its sectarian proxies and would only recapitulate the conditions in Sunni parts of Iraq that had given rise to ISIS in the first place.
Taking a similar position, Wassim Nasr argued that the Fallujah operation, bringing the US and Russia together in support of Iranian-backed Shi’i militias, is playing into the ISIS narrative that Sunni-Arabs as a community are victimised, surrounded and under siege by a broad coalition of hostile enemies. According to Nasr, therefore, the Fallujah operation is not only likely to fail in practical terms, because the Shi’i militias cannot win over the local Sunni population, but will also be a strategic failure in terms of ‘perception’, dealing ISIS a short-term military defeat while making ISIS’s narrative of Sunni victimisation an objective reality.
The question of perception
How helpful is this analysis of events in Iraq? The question of ‘perception’ is clearly important and is often invoked by those fearful that the West’s Middle East policy has been counter-productive because it has reinforced the al-Qaeda-ISIS narrative of victimisation and external aggression on ‘Muslim lands.’ There is, however, a complicating factor here. The al-Qaeda-ISIS narrative is malleable and conspiratorial i.e. it will adapt to its external environment and reconstruct its narrative accordingly. When ISIS is winning battles and seizing territory its narrative emphasises the centrality of the caliphate as a physical reality, that its battlefield victories reflect divine providence and favour which will sweep its weak and divided enemies before it. ISIS as an irresistible military force has been an incredibly powerful symbolic narrative in parts of the Sunni world. By contrast, when ISIS is on the back-foot, losing military engagements and territory, the narrative is reshaped to emphasise victimisation, encirclement, and a siege mentality. Suddenly, the importance of territory is dismissed, as ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani stated as the Fallujah operation got underway: losing territory was inconsequential, ‘the only defeat is losing the will to fight.’ The physical caliphate can quickly be redeployed as a metaphysical entity existing in the interstices of a globalised world. None of this is to argue that perception and winning hearts and minds is not important. But the limits of this approach ought to be recognised. Those fighting ISIS should not to make concern for ‘perception’ a straight-jacket which limits their strategic options since it is plausible that all viable courses of action will ‘reinforce the ISIS narrative.’
Who is leading and participating in the Fallujah operation?
Does the analysis that Iranian-backed Shi’i militia with US military support are leading the Fallujah operation as a prelude to occupying the city actually correspond to the reality of events in Iraq? It will be argued here that the picture is more complex in two important respects. Firstly, because it obscures the important role of non-militia actors accountable to different command structures, most notably the Iraqi army and police. Secondly, the notion that those participating in the Fallujah operation are uniformly Shi’i actors ignores the reported role of local Sunni tribes. The remainder of this post will explore the role of these two groups of actors in the Fallujah operation in the hope of shedding some light on these complex issues.
Iraq’s Special Operating Forces (ISOF) and Special Tactical Regiment
The infamous photo of Qassem Soleimani, Iranian Quds Force commander, in an operations room near Fallujah with key hashd leaders Hadi al-Amiri, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and Akram al-Kaabi (commander of Harakat al-Nujaba) has been treated as definitive proof that Iran – through Soleimani and the Shi’i militias under his influence – is leading the Fallujah operation. There is a risk of over-interpreting Soleimani’s role. It is clear that hashd units are playing an important part in the operation, but they are doing so, for the most part, alongside Iraqi military and police units. In particular, Iraq’s Special Operating Forces (ISOF) and Special Tactical Regiment (STR) appear to be playing a leading role. It is these forces which are preparing to storm the city itself, while hashd commanders have confirmed that they have no intention of entering the city. Hadi al-Amiri, for example, stated that ‘the forces of al-hashd al-shaabi will only participate in the operation of encircling the city and will leave the task of storming the city to the army’, he continued ‘al-hashd al-shaabi will only enter the city if the army fails in its attack.’ Similarly, Muen al-Kadhimi, a senior Badr commander, stated that ‘the distribution of roles amongst the military components will give the opportunity to the Anbar tribes to liberate the city’.
ISOF is Iraq’s most proficient fighting force numbering several thousand fighters trained and developed by the US as elite counter-terrorism units. Joel Rayburn, a US military intelligence officer who served in Iraq, has described ISOF as ‘perhaps the most effective and experienced counterterrorism force in any Middle Eastern country.’ ISOF is technically within the military chain of command but this became controversial during Nuri al-Maliki’s premiership as he sought to make these forces accountable directly to himself through the Office of the Commander in Chief. Maliki’s web of quasi-official bodies through which he tried to gain control of various military and intelligence units still exists, although their continued effectiveness, which depended on his personal patronage, is far from clear. Whether ISOF is more directly accountable to the military or to executive office, this force is not usefully understood as being operationally under the control of Soleimani or al-hashd al-shaabi. Rather, it is more closely associated with the interests of those in the military and executive structures who are pushing back against the hashd’s and Iran’s influence within Iraqi politics and on the battlefield.
Another elite unit participating in the assault on Fallujah is the Special Tactical Regiment (STR) of the Anbar police force. As with ISOF, the STR, which has around 400 members, was trained and armed with sophisticated modern weaponry by the US. The unit has played a leading role in the liberation of Ar-Rutbah (located in western Anbar) and Ar-Ramadi. The unit’s commander, Colonel Adel al-Alwani, stated that their training was completed under the auspices of the international coalition and that they were ready to fight Daesh, working alongside ISOF to liberate the city of Fallujah.
This evening al-Jazeera is reporting that, according to a Major in the Anbar police force, planes from the international coalition have prevented militia units from al-hashd al-shaabi from entering Fallujah. According to the source the militia were attempting to move mobile rocket launchers into Shuhdaa in southern Fallujah in order to attack the city. This led to a verbal altercation between the militias and ISOF units culminating in the bombing of the militia by coalition planes and their retreat from Shuhuda (no fatalities are reported as the bombing was carried out at a distance as a warning.) This development illustrates the complexities of events on the ground in Iraq that are obscured by the overly-simplistic narrative of Iranian-backed Shi’i militia leading an attack with US military support.
Pregent lambasts the Obama administration for providing military support to Shi’i-Iranian-backed militia in the Fallujah operation and failing to build a Sunni force to undertake counter-insurgency. However, it is clear from these examples that the situation in Iraq is far more nuanced than Pregent suggests. It is not Iranian-backed Shi’i militia that are taking the lead in the attack on Fallujah, but elite units accountable to the Iraqi state and trained and armed by the US for this very purpose. In this respect, US military support for ISOF and STR makes a good deal of sense, fulfilling the purpose of the US involvement in the developing and training of these elite units to build the capacity of the Iraqi state and combat ISIS.
Fallujah’s Sunni Tribes
The narrative of Iranian-backed Shi’i militias leading the Fallujah operation also neglects to consider the role of local Sunni tribes. It has been reported extensively that four of Fallujah’s most prominent tribal groups are participating in the operation. These include members of the Albu Issa, Al-Jumeilat, Al-Mahamda, and Al-Halabsa tribes, all part the Anbar-based al-Dulaim tribal confederation. The total number of tribal fighters from these groups is reported as being around three thousand. The precise nature of their involvement in the operation is unclear at this stage. General Abdul-Wahab Al-Sa’adi, who holds the official operational command of the attack on Fallujah, stated today that the actual assault on the city was underway with the army and police attacking from three sides with ISOF taking the lead and the international coalition providing air cover. A detailed breakdown of engagements suggests that hashd forces have been active in taking sites on the perimeter and approach to the city, e.g. the Liwa Ali al-Akbar took al-Shiha to the east of the city alongside the 14th and 53rd army divisions, while hashd units alongside federal police have secured areas north of the city. The participation of the Fallujah tribes is frequently mentioned in Iraqi reporting, but only in vague and general terms, there are no specific reports of their participation in any particular engagement. It is plausible that the local tribal fighters will participate more directly after ISIS has been defeated in Fallujah, acting as a local Sunni force which will move in once ISOF has completed its tasks.
The purpose of this post has been to explore some of the actors involved in events in Fallujah and, hopefully, to complicate their reduction to an Iranian-backed Shi’i militia-led operation. This narrative ought to be treated with a degree of caution. On the one hand, the US foreign policy establishment, for which Obama has shown little regard, tends to embrace a particular set of priorities on Middle East policy in which the Iranian threat figures prominently. Their desire for a more robust US intervention in the region, as a substitute for what they perceive as Obama’s weakness and accommodation with Iran, seems to throw up some fairly un-nuanced and, at times, unhelpful analysis of American and Iranian interests and actions in the region, and in Iraq in particular. On the other hand, there is a coincidence of interests between this narrative and some aspects of Sunni-Arabist discourse which tend to ascribe a certain role and function to Iraq’s Sunni community, conceived as a homogeneous entity within a wider regional sectarian framework. This role often doesn’t correspond to the more complex reality of Iraq’s Sunni community which is characterised by a diverse set of interests, identities, and strategies of political action.
 See Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad, Hurst & Company, London, 2005; and Oliver Roy, Globalised Islam: The Search for the a New Ummah, Hurst & Company, London, 2004.
 Joel Rayburn, Iraq After America, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 2014, p.56.
 See discussion in: Joel Rayburn, Iraq After America, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 2014, pp.56-60.