Iraq’s forces reached downtown Fallujah on June 17, 2016 marking a huge victory over the Islamic State. The militants held sway over the city for more than two years, and it had always been a hotbed of anti-government sentiment in the country since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Given those two factors it appeared that Baghdad’s forces would have a tough time breaking IS’s defenses as it did in previous battles like Ramadi, although the outcome was never in doubt. What happened instead was when the tough outer shell of the insurgent’s ring around Fallujah was penetrated there was a soft inside and quick progress although fighting is still on going.
Prime Minister Haidar Abadi announced the start of the Fallujah operation on May 22, 2016. As in previous campaigns the Iraqi forces began going from the outside in working to clear the surrounding towns first. Garma for example, which had been fought over for two years was freed on May 23. Within seven days the Golden Division was already starting its assault upon the southern section of Fallujah. Then in 17 days they were in the downtown freeing the government complex. Almost the entire northern section of the city is still under IS control, but it was a stunning advance in just under a month.
The previous effort to free Ramadi was much more of a slugfest. It started on October 2, 2015, and took more than two months to get to the downtown area. The entire city was not declared freed until the start of February 2016. There the Iraqi forces were caught up going through many of the same surrounding towns over and over before it could start attacking the major parts of the city itself. It was expected that Fallujah would play out much the same way since IS had controlled it for so long giving them ample time to build up IED fields, bunkers, tunnels, etc. Things turned out much easier however.
Part of it was the development of the Iraqi forces and their tactics in assaulting urban centers. For instance, they have learned to shore up their flanks while moving through streets by using bulldozers to build up berms to protect against car bombs. The commanding officer General Abdul al-Saadi said that the Iraqi forces were able to flush out IS units and that exposed them to air strikes. At the same time, it didn’t appear that the insurgents’ defenses were as strong as in previous battles. One sergeant from the Golden Division for example was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying that there weren’t as many booby-trapped homes in Fallujah as he had encountered in Ramadi. Together these two factors help explain the fast paced advance the government made through the city.
There is still plenty of fighting ahead as most of the northern half of the city is still under IS control. At the same time, the pace of the advance so far would suggest that taking the rest of Fallujah should go quickly as the first part did. This was a stunning victory for Baghdad, and a humiliating defeat for the Islamic State. The next big issue is how to rebuild the city as the government doesn’t have any money to do anything past restore the most basic of services.
Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, "Iraqi Special Forces Enter Center of IS-Held Fallujah," Associated Press, 6/17/16
AIN, "Freeing Garma and the dismantling of mined homes," 5/23/16
El-Ghobashy, Tamer, “Iraqis Celebrate Victory in Fallujah One Sniper Too Soon,” Wall Street Journal, 6/18/16
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "Iraq Launches Operation To Retake Fallujah From Islamic State," 5/23/16
Salaheddin, Sinan, "Iraqi Forces Push Into Fallujah as IS Bombings Kill 24," Associated Press, 5/30/16