BAGHDAD — Iraq’s powerful Shiite militias are vowing to drive Islamic State fighters out of Fallujah, setting off a panic in the city where U.S. Marines saw their bloodiest combat of the Iraq war.
The militias’ campaign to besiege the city 40 miles west of Baghdad comes as Iraq’s U.S.-backed regular armed forces are gearing up for a counteroffensive in Ramadi, which fell to the Islamic State two months ago.
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 U.S.-backed forces target Ramadi, the provincial capital, 40 miles farther west toward the border with Syria.
An attempt to enter Fallujah itself may still be weeks or months off, militia leaders said. However, their forces have pounded the city with rockets and artillery in recent days, and they claim to have gained territory around it. Meanwhile, the Iraqi air force has stepped up strikes.
Announcing this week that “the next battle will be in Fallujah,” Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, taunted the Islamic State militants, challenging them to hold off Iraqi forces as long as they did the U.S. Marines in the notorious battle in 2004. “Victory is guaranteed,” he crowed.
In the Sunni city, where local officials say about 50,000 civilians remain, the prospect of an offensive led by Shiite militias is causing deep concern.
Mosques have called on residents to donate blood this week to help treat people wounded by the bombardment.
Militia leaders say that retaking Fallujah is key because of its proximity to the nation’s capital and its symbolic importance to the Islamic State. But there may be other reasons for their decision to target the city, analysts said.
Until recently, the largely Shiite militia forces known as the popular mobilization units, or PMUs, had declared that their priority was retaking Ramadi, which fell to the Islamic State in May. U.S. officials, however, are pushing for Iraq’s regular security forces to play the lead role in that fight.
“Fallujah is where the PMUs 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.
As the factions vie for influence, the timeline for an offensive on Ramadi appears to be slipping.
U.S. officials had advised Iraq to launch a speedy counteroffensive, in order to prevent the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL, from establishing itself in the city. And Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had said the city could be retaken “within days” after his forces there withdrew.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss military planning, said that Iraqi officials had hoped to launch an offensive to reclaim Fallujah before tackling Ramadi but that the U.S. military had counseled them to focus first on Ramadi.
“ISIL has not had the time and opportunity to retrench in Ramadi like they have in Fallujah,” the official said.
U.S. advisers are also likely to be mindful of the U.S. military’s own 2004 battle in Fallujah — which claimed the lives of almost 100 U.S. Marines in some of their toughest combat since Vietnam.
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. They eventually won control of the city, but it fell to the Islamic State in January of last year.
Now, highlighting the Iraqi government’s challenge in reining in the country’s array of armed groups, the militias are pushing forward on a Fallujah operation. There were unconfirmed reports in Iranian news outlets that one of Iran’s top military commanders — Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps — was on the battlefield near Fallujah on Wednesday.
“Fallujah is the priority. It is very close to Baghdad, it’s a threat to Baghdad, and it’s considered a base for their leadership,” said Moeen al-Kadhimi, a commander in the Badr Organization, one of the Shiite militias fighting in the vicinity of Fallujah.
Sabah al-Noori, a spokesman for Iraq’s U.S.-trained counterterrorism units, said they were still focused on a Ramadi operation. “Will we end up in Fallujah? I don’t know,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul Abdullah, a spokesman for Iraq’s military, refused to comment on which city was the priority, saying the current focus is to cut supply lines across Anbar province.
Some analysts said that, if launched simultaneously, the two operations could complement each other. Knights said the militias’ offensive in Fallujah could succeed.
“It’s a fight they think they can win, and they probably can, especially if ISIL is distracted by a Ramadi op at the same time,” he said.
However, other analysts said the announcement of the Fallujah operation highlighted the government’s difficulties in forging a strategy against the Islamic State.
The Shiite militias’ moves in Anbar “illustrate how the army’s failure, Abadi’s enfeeblement, and the militias’ empowerment has left pro-government forces in strategic incoherence,” Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst who publishes Inside Iraq Politics, wrote in a recent analysis.
“In Ramadi, the withdrawal of some [militia] forces has left the army unable to take the city as planned,” he said.
Kadhimi, the Badr leader, said that an operation to take Fallujah could still be months off and that any battle for the city should include local Sunni tribal fighters.
The militia announcements have sparked panic in the majority-Sunni city, which is seen as a bastion of support for the Islamic State.
“We’ve said when it comes to an assault on the city, we’d rather police, army and local tribes” carry out the operation, said Eissa al-Issawi, head of Fallujah’s local council, who lives outside the city.
If the Shiite-dominated popular mobilization units lead the operation, “there would be much destruction, and much blood,” he said.
Iraqi officials say that around 100 people have been killed in shelling and bombing over the past two weeks.
Residents claim that the Iraqi air force is using “barrel bombs” on the city — barrels packed with explosives that are dropped out of aircraft and are known for causing many civilian casualties because of their inaccuracy. The government and military officials strongly deny the use of such weapons, which would go against a pledge by Abadi to stop the random shelling of civilians.
“We are caught between the government bombing and the armed groups,” said a Sunni religious leader in Fallujah, referring to the Islamic State militants. Like other residents, he spoke anonymously for security reasons.
Issawi said the local council is attempting to organize a safe exit for civilians, but residents argue that there is no way out. Other officials said Islamic State fighters have cut off exits from Fallujah.
“There’s a state of terror,” a 29-year-old resident said. “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.”
Mustafa Salim in Baghdad and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.