Qasem Soleimani, second from left, in the operations room of the Shi'ite militias engaged in fighting alongside the Iraqi army to take control of Fallujah (Qasemsoliemani.ir, May 23, 2016).
1. On May 22, 2016, Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi announced the beginning of a campaign to liberate the city of Fallujah from ISIS. Fallujah, located 54 kilometers (about 33.5 miles) west of Baghdad, is the most important stronghold still held by ISIS in the Sunni Anbar Province (western Iraq). The campaign is being carried out by the Iraqi security forces with the participation of Shi'ite and Sunni militias, and with American support.
2. Since the beginning of the Fallujah campaign reports published by the Iranian media have emphasized the participation of Iran and the Iraqi Shi'ite militias operating under Iranian direction in the fighting. According to the reports, Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC's Qods Force, is present in the Fallujah area and plays a central role in conducting the campaign.
Qasem Soleimani in the Fallujah region after the campaign to liberate Fallujah began (Twitter, May 25, 2016).
3. The Iraqi Shi'ite militias, operating with the support and direction of Iran, are in fact participating in the Fallujah campaign. However, there is a significant disparity between the degree of involvement of Iran and its proxies in the fighting, and the way that involvement is represented by the Iranians. While the Iraqi security forces (especially the counterterrorism forces) have a main role in the fighting, Iranian reports give prominence to the role played by Qasem Soleimani and the Shi'ite militias. In effect, it would seem that the role of the Shi'ite militias is limited to besieging the city, and apparently the Iraqi regime does not intend to allow them to enter it. That is mainly because of American objections and Iraqi regime concern that the Shi'ite militias might take revenge on Fallujah's local Sunni population, which is liable to deepen the Sunni-Shi'ite schism and have repercussions for the continuation of the campaign against ISIS.
4. This is not the first time that there have been differences between the actual involvement of Iran and the Shi'ite militias in the fighting and exaggerated reports in the Iranian media. After the liberation of Ramadi (the capital of Anbar Province) in December 2015 the Iranian media gave prominence to the involvement of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Shi'ite militia forces in the fighting, even though their role in taking control of the city was marginal. After the liberation of Ramadi the Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias attempted to ensure their inclusion in the campaign against ISIS. However, the central government in Baghdad opted to continue relying on American support and non-Shi'ite forces.
5. In recent months there has been an increase in internal Iraqi criticism of Iran's involvement, on the grounds that Iran encourages the sectarian schism between Shi'ites and Sunnis and meddles in Iraq's internal affairs. Criticism reached new heights during the political crisis of April 2016 between Prime Minister Al-Abadi and the Iraqi parliament over the prime minister's proposed reform program. During the temporary takeover of the Iraqi parliament building by supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shi'ite cleric with political clout, Iraqi demonstrators shouted extreme anti-Iranian slogans and protested Iran's meddling in their country's politics.
6. The limited involvement of Iran and the Shi'ite militias in the fighting in Fallujah is also the result of the decline of Iraq's strategic importance to Iran and the subsequent downgrading of Iraq as an Iranian priority over the past year. While ISIS has clearly become weaker in Iraq and its threat to Iran has decreased, in Syria Iran has been forced to cope with the continuing predicament of the Assad regime, and the addition of Russian involvement in the fighting. Thus Iran has become more attentive to Syria than Iraq. Despite the achievements of the Assad regime's supporters in recent months, the war in Syria continues and Iran and the IRGC are still faced with a significant challenge, whose importance in Iranian eyes is currently greater than Iraq's.
7. However, despite the constraints and difficulties, Iran is still determined to position itself as a central factor in the continuing campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The involvement of the IRGC and the personal involvement of Qasem Soleimani in the campaign in Iraq are intended to signal that Iran still plays an important role in Iraq. They are also intended to signal that Iran is the most influential country in the Middle East and continues operating against its enemies in the Middle East, i.e., ISIS, the United States and Israel. Qasem Soleimani has personally become a symbol of Iran's regional power. The Iranian regime has, therefore, a vested interest in glorifying him both at home and abroad, even when the degree of his actual involvement in conducting the war in Iraq has significantly decreased.
8. With respect to Iraqi politics, the Iranian attempt to magnify the role of the Shi'ite militias, even if their role is marginal, increases both the sectarian schism and Sunni alienation towards the central government, and makes it difficult to proceed with the campaign against ISIS. It also magnifies the concerns of the Iraqi administration and the Shi'ites regarding Iran's influence on Iraq's internal affairs. That could be seen in the reactions of both Sunni and Shi'ite Iraqi politicians to Qasem Soleimani visit to Fallujah. The reactions came at a time when Sunni support for the Iraqi regime was considered of paramount importance, especially with the upswing of the campaign to rid Anbar Province of ISIS operatives, and with the campaign to liberate the ISIS stronghold in Mosul on the horizon.
Al-hashd al-shaabi ("the popular mobilization forces"), an umbrella organization of Shi'ite militias supported by Iran.
Three Sunni Iraqi lawmakers who related to Qasem Soleimani's visit to Fallujah claimed it could fuel sectarian tension and cast doubt on Baghdad's assertions that the offensive was an Iraqi-led effort to defeat ISIS (Reuters, May 28, 2016). However, the deputy chairman of the popular mobilization forces (the Shi'ite militias operated by Iran) told the Al-Sumaria News network that Iranian advisors had been fighting alongside popular mobilization forces since the beginning of the struggle, and that Soleimani was [in Fallujah] at the request of the Iraqi government and with the authorization of the Iraqi chief of staff (ISNA, May 29, 2016).