Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Qods Force – the dirty-tricks unit Iran deploys to destabilize foreign governments, involved in terrorist attacks against American soldiers during the occupation of Iraq – has been sighted near the besieged city of Fallujah, as the battle to eject the Islamic State heats up.
Soleimani is “helping direct operations for the plethora of Iranian-backed militias taking part in the fighting,” according to the Long War Journal.
A photo of Soleimani coordinating with militia leaders in a “Fallujah operations room” was posted to the Facebook account of a militia fighter. Two of the Shiite commanders appearing in this photo have been designated as terrorists by the United States government. A third, Hadi al-Amiri, fought against Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in the Eighties, and has hailed Soleimani as his “dearest friend.”
As The Long War Journal notes, Soleimani has popped up in conflict areas across Syria and Iraq to coordinate Iranian proxy fighters, with a confirmed appearance in the Syrian battleground of Aleppo just last week.
He was granted millions of dollars in sanctions relief by Barack Obama’s Iran deal, a deeply embarrassing fact the Administration falsely attempted to deny. The supposedly “moderate” president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, recently praised Soleimani’s “heroism and courage” for his work in various theaters, including the Palestinian conflict with Israel.
Meanwhile, the battle against ISIS in Fallujah is ramping up. The Kurdish Rudaw news service posted some video of Iraqi forces closing in on the city, confidently predicting a swift defeat for “ugly ISIS.” One Iraqi commander claimed to have already “destroyed some ISIS hideouts and killed a big number of them.”
Iraqi forces also said they have assisted a number of civilians fleeing from the area around Fallujah. “We’ve got information that ISIS kill people as they flee, or use them as human shields, but we’ll keep providing safe corridors for them,” said one Iraqi officer interviewed by Rudaw.
Interestingly, one of the soldiers filmed by Rudaw said he was a Yezidi, a member of the heavily oppressed religious minority that was nearly wiped out by the Islamic State. He spoke of fighting alongside both Shiites and Sunnis to retake Fallujah.
Another Rudaw report cited Iraqi commanders saying they had cleared ISIS from over a dozen areas around the city, killed 163 militants, and disarmed 168 explosive devices, plus 22 car bombs. 15 civilians and 35 Iraqi and allied militia forces were also killed.
Qasm Araji, a member of the Iraqi parliament, said that a new tactic employed against ISIS involved “flooding the southern parts of Fallujah with water in order to clear them of landmines and bombs planted by ISIS.” He said this tactic “helped open a large corridor for our forces and defeated ISIS’ frontline positions.”
However, NBC News quotes civilians living on the outskirts of Fallujah who say Islamic State forces “all disappeared suddenly” as Iraqi government forces advanced. It is not clear exactly where the militants went, since they were supposedly both cut off from falling back into the city, and blocked from escaping the area.
Isa al-Isawi, Fallujah’s local council chairman, predicted that retaking the city “is not going to be an easy fighting at all.” He said fleeing civilians have reported ISIS militants digging in for a hard fight, planting booby traps, and lining up civilians as human shields.
The NBC report notes that some Iraqis are suspicious of “civilians” fleeing Fallujah, believing they might be ISIS sympathizers.
The Daily Beast reports a variety of opinions from U.S. military officials about their expectations for the battle of Falljuah, with some concerned that the city is too important to the Islamic State’s operations in Iraq to be relinquished without a stiff fight, while others believe ISIS is stretched too thin in Iraq to protect anything except its “capital” of Mosul.
“Anyone who predicts how long Fallujah will take is wrong,” one defense official told the Daily Beast, while another said “it’s probably going to be a long fight.”
One grim data point to consider is that Fallujah is comparable to Ramadi in terms of the ISIS forces in theater, but Ramadi was liberated by top-of-the-line Iraqi special forces and army units, while Fallujah will be heavily dependent on frankly sinister Iran-backed militia forces and a hodgepodge of Iraqi military and police.
What makes this a grim data point is that Ramadi wasn’t so much “liberated” as destroyed. American media hasn’t been very interested in reporting that detail, because Ramadi was portrayed by the Obama Administration as a smashing success, but the city is what got smashed.
With Qassem Soleimani and his terrorist henchmen on the field, and ISIS determined to use every war crime at its disposal to repel the invaders, the citizens of Falljuah have every reason to be nervous.