The battle for Falluja is between US and Iran proxies

Obama administration is determined not to hand Iran any easy victories that can be used to undermine its support in Iraq.

2016/06/19 Issue: 61 Page: 14

The Arab Weekly
Tom Regan

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.

Tom Regan, a columnist at, previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is the former executive director of the Online News Association and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1992.

As Printed
Editors' Picks

The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

Senior Editor: John Hendel

Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

Regular Columnists

Claude Salhani

Yavuz Baydar


Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

Thomas Seibert (Washington)

Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi


Ibrahim Ben Bechir

Hanen Jebali

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Contact editor

Subscription & Advertising:

Tel 020 3667 7249

Mohamed Al Mufti

Marketing & Advertising Manager

Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

Direct: +44 20 8742 9262

Al Arab Publishing House

Kensington Centre

177-179 Hammersmith Road

London W6 8BS , UK

Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

Follow Us
© The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved