(REUTERS/Ari Jalal) Iranian-backed Shia militias are preparing to launch an operation to retake Fallujah, a Sunni-dominated city in Iraq, from the Islamic State terror group, Loveday Morris of the Washington Post reports.
And it looks like it's going to get messy.
While Fallujah's proximity to Baghdad, Iraq's capital, makes it strategically important for the Iraqi government, sending in militias that have been known to burn down Sunni villages might not pay off in the long run.
Eissa al-Issawi, the head of Fallujah’s local council, told the Post that if the Shia militias are allowed to lead the charge to retake the city from Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), "there would be much destruction, and much blood."
US Marines fought the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war in Fallujah in 2004.
"Then fighting the Islamic State’s predecessor, the group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, Marines fought street to street, contending with sniper fire, roadside bombs and booby-trapped buildings," Morris notes.
ISIS captured Fallujah in January 2014, and is consequently entrenched in the city. And the Iran-backed militias don't have the best track record: They struggled to oust a much smaller group of ISIS militants from the town of Tikrit and the US had to provide air cover to finish the siege.
Some residents want to leave Fallujah to escape the upcoming fight between ISIS and the Shia militias, but that doesn't seem possible.
A 29-year-old resident told the Post: "There’s a state of terror. We know there will be an assault, we want to leave, but Islamic State doesn’t let anyone leave. They want to use us as human shields."
And it's not just ISIS the civilians have to worry about.
The Shia militias, backed by Iran, are apparently close to running amok. Michael Pregent, a former US intelligence officer and military adviser to the Iraqi security forces, wrote this week that the Shia-led government in Baghdad might have little control over the militias it allows to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh).
"The introduction of Shia militias into Sunni areas has a polarizing effect on the Sunni population," Pregent told Business Insider via email.
"They will be wearing green bandanas and have [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei posters on their windshields and they are intentionally sending a message to the Sunni population [that] 'things have changed and we are now in control,' meaning Iranian-backed Shia militias now run the security and political apparatus."
(REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani )
Morris wrote in the Post that "the move by the militias effectively carves operations against the extremists in Iraq’s Anbar province into two spheres of influence — with Iranian-supported militias zeroing in on Fallujah as US-backed forces target Ramadi, the provincial capital, 40 miles farther west toward the border with Syria."
The US has insisted that Iraqi security forces take the lead in the assault on Ramadi, so the Shia militias likely saw an opportunity with Fallujah.
"Fallujah is where the [Shia militias] know they can lead because leading the fight for Ramadi was never going to be an option for them," said Michael Knights, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Post.
(The Institute for the Study of War)
Meanwhile, Sunni fighters that the US says are key to defeating ISIS for good have been largely sidelined in the fight so far because Baghdad and Tehran are reportedly concerned that they might one day rise up against the government.
This all leads to the current predicament of having Shia fighters moving into Sunni areas, rather than Sunni fighters defending their own territory.
(Wikimedia Commons) Although Iraqi officials said in May that they've enlisted 1,000 fighters for a Sunni militia to aid the country's security forces in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, those fighters don't seem to be participating in the Fallujah operation.
And Iran's influence in the region is becoming increasingly obvious.
This week, Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was spotted near Fallujah:
Shia militias have emerged as the most effective fighting force against ISIS in Iraq, but some say the Shia fighters aren't much better than the ISIS terrorists they're trying to expunge. (Others, however, have welcomed the Shia militias as the best option for helping Sunni tribal fighters drive ISIS out of Iraq.)
Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and himself a former extremist, pointed out that, like ISIS, the Shia militias train child soldiers:
Just as Islamic State train child soldiers, here's the Iranian backed Hashed Ash-Shaabi doing exactly the same. pic.twitter.com/Z7vscPtPN2— Shiraz Maher (@ShirazMaher) July 8, 2015
Sunnis in some areas that Shia militias have liberated from ISIS have complained that the militias view them with distrust and are preventing them from returning to their homes.
"The militias see no difference between Sunni military-aged-males and ISIS fighters," Pregent told Business Insider recently. "They view Sunnis that have not left ISIS-controlled areas as collaborators and use heavy handed tactics against the population. ISIS will exploit these events to the detriment of the US strategy and Baghdad."
More From Business Insider