Operation Save Haider al-Abadi has now begun in Iraq. No, that’s the not the official name of the offensive that Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias are now mounting to drive ISIS fighters out of Fallujah, but it might as well be.
The Iraqi prime minister teeters on the edge of total powerlessness. His impotence has been revealed by humiliations from both Shiites and Sunnis. In the past week, on the Sunni side, ISIS has carried out suicide bombings in Baghdad that have killed more than 200 people. On Friday, on the Shiite side, firebrand Muqtada al Sadr once again sent his followers to invade the Green Zone — the seat of Iraqi government. The Iraqi security forces appeared helpless to stop the Sadrists.
Not to be outdone, other Shiite factions have sent their armed fighters into the streets of Baghdad, lest Sadr render them irrelevant. The Associate Press quoted a shop-owner located near the Green Zone who was “shocked by the flood of Shiite fighters”:
“I thought the state had collapsed and they were moving in,” he said. Now instead of worrying about Islamic State group attacks, he said, “I’m worried about fighting among the Shiites. Everyone has a gun and money, and now they’re out in the streets.”
In an attempt to show that his government is not entirely feeble, Abadi ordered troops to assault Fallujah, much to the displeasure of American advisers who would rather the Iraqi forces concentrate on the larger objective, which is Mosul. That Iraqi forces have been deflected from Mosul is a sign that the ISIS suicide bomber offensive has worked.
The very fact that Iraqi forces have to attack Fallujah is grimly ironic, given the two major battles that U.S. forces fought to regain that city in 2004. All those gains, which came at such high price in lost lives and limbs, were squandered by President Obama’s ill-considered pullout in 2011, which allowed ISIS — the successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — to march right back in.
The chief weapon that ISIS deploys is not suicide bombers but Sunni grievances. As long as Sunnis remain embittered by what they view as the exclusionary rule of Shiite extremists in Baghdad, they will continue to back either ISIS or some other radical Sunni group as the preferable alternative.
Sunnis will not be reassured to see the photos circulating online, which purport to show General Qassem Sulemani, commander of Iran’s terrorist-exporting Quds Force, meeting with Shiite militia commanders to plot the Fallujah offensive. As one recent refugee from Fallujah told the Wall Street Journal, “Families in Fallujah are scared because they believe that the Shiite militias are going to enter Fallujah and do reprisal killings. This worries them a lot.”
Sunnis have reason to worry, given the grim record of Shiite militias carrying out ethnic cleansing and torture against Sunnis. The only way to truly defeat ISIS is to convince the Sunnis that the government in Baghdad will protect, rather than victimize, them. Because they have no such assurances today, any battlefield victories against ISIS are likely to be fleeting.
ISIS itself is AQI 2.0. Even if it is defeated, which is not likely to occur anytime soon, AQI 3.0 will inevitably arise, so long as Sunnis feel aggrieved. Alas, neither the Iraqi government nor its U.S. backers have made any appreciable process in assuaging Sunni concerns. It’s much easier to concentrate on pursuing narrow tactical results, even if the result is a strategic defeat.