The battle for Falluja is between US and Iran proxies
If you thought that the nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran meant that relations would improve in other areas between the two countries, what is happening in Iraq should disabuse you of that notion.
US-trained and -backed Iraqi troops and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (known as the PMF and made up of Shia militias supported by Iran) are in the midst of a battle to free the Iraqi city of Falluja from the Islamic State (ISIS).
And therein lies the problem.
The Obama administration and US military leaders are extremely suspicious of the PMF because some of the militias fought against the United States a decade ago. The feeling of distrust is mutual. Neither side would trust each other for a moment but are thrown together by the circumstances of the battle against ISIS.
Caught in the middle is the Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi. It cannot afford to alienate the United States, which provides financial and military aid, but it also cannot alienate the main power in the region and a significant player in Iraq — Iran.
PMF fighters are situated on the northern border of the city and US-backed forces are approaching from the south. This situation has been made worse by allegations of torture, summary executions, beatings and kidnapping against the PMF.
A report from Human Rights Watch illustrated in graphic detail how some of the Sunni residents fleeing Falluja had been mistreated or killed by militias. It was so bad that Abadi condemned the killings and called for an investigation, saying he would punish those found responsible.
Also, after reports of brutality and torture by the PMF leaked, Iran’s highest Shia religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for “restraint” — but not actually for the acts of revenge to stop.
The steps to curtail the PMF and refocus on the battle have done little to improve the relationship between the two forces. The US administration is worried that acts of revenge by Shia militias against Sunni citizens will lead to civil war. Many of the US-trained Iraqi troops, in particular the elite counterterrorism service, tend to see the PMF as an opposing force — perhaps a force that one day they will have to face themselves.
It is not that the PMF is particularly interested in running Sunni-dominated cities in the central and northern Iraq but Iran does not want to let the US forces control everything that is happening in the fight against ISIS and is also interested in using the struggle in Falluja and the one to come in Mosul as propaganda tools to enhance its support in the country.
The Obama administration is determined not to hand Iran any easy victories that can be used to undermine its support in Iraq. This sentiment will probably intensify in the next administration.
After a slow start created by fleeing refugees, hundreds of hidden bombs and poor planning, the combined Iraqi forces have made steady progress.
In the end, however, the conflict between proxies of the United States and Iran will prolong the battle to defeat ISIS. Neither side will be willing to allow the other side to get too far ahead, which means it will probably be a very long time before their mutual enemy can be totally defeated.