The continuing fight to recapture Fallujah from ISIS has captivated the world audience, but is far from over, expert observers say.
"This fight for the city is just starting," James Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, told AMI Newswire. "You can't predict how this will go. We've seen cases where it can drag on for months, and others where it can crumble quickly."
Over the weekend, reports from Iraq have shown considerable momentum to rout ISIS from Fallujah, which has been in its grip for more than two years.
American-led coalition air strikes near the city demolished a number of ISIS targets, the Pentagon reports, taking out tactical units, fighting positions, machine guns, and other weapons.
On the ground, Iraqi forces - accompanied by a bevy of allies - have entered the city, and encircled and trapped the jihadists.
While some jihadists are reported to be fleeing the city, others are said to be digging in, using civilian human shields, or staging diversionary attacks hoping to draw opposing forces away from Fallujah.
One dispatch sent privately to AMI revealed that ISIS fighters had been instructed to set different types of IED's to kill civilians, and to blame the atrocities on the pro-government Popular Mobilization Unit as part of a smokescreen to cover ISIS's withdrawal from Fallujah.
The sinister plan, if true, would not be out of character for ISIS.
"Fallujah was the most hostile major place in Iraq from the moment we got in there," said Jeffrey, who was ambassador in Iraq in 2010-2012.
The multifaceted, faction-riddled situation in Iraq is difficult even for insiders to understand, observers caution.
"Connecting the dots in Iraq is a Chinese puzzle of a thousand pieces without a picture of what it's supposed to look like when put together," said Frank Gallagher, a former Recon Marine who was agent in charge of Ambassador Paul Bremer's security detail when he was Presidential Envoy to Iraq in 2003. "It's beyond perplexing."
By all accounts, though, recent turmoil can be traced to March 31, 2004, when insurgents attacked a convoy containing four Blackwater guards who were protecting a food delivery going through Fallujah. The guards were dragged from their vehicles, slaughtered, and hung from a bridge.
"It was horrible to live through," said Gallagher, who at the time was in charge of security for Blackwater in Iraq. "I got a call saying 'we think our guys got hit.' I went up to our office, and about 14 of my guys were all jocked up and ready to go somewhere. They said: 'We're going to Fallujah to kill those mother***kers.'
"I had to take all the keys to all the vehicles, because everyone was very upset. They wanted to drive to Fallujah."
The United States government instead sent in the U.S. Marines, who spearheaded Operation Vigilant Resolve, otherwise known as the First Battle of Fallujah. A series of political conflicts brought the operation to an early end. Seven months later, Operation Phantom Fury, also led by Marines and supported by Army mechanized infantry and cavalry units, crushed the enemy in brutal house-to-house combat. The Marines later would call this their greatest urban battle since the 1968 battle for Hue City in Vietnam.
But the aftermath brought scant relief. Said Jeffrey: "Fallujah just festered."
And, in the intervening years, the political situation in Fallujah left open ground for an encroaching ISIS.
"There were robust political failures on all sides," said Landon Shroder, CEO of Applied Mathematics, a 501 (c) 3 organization that offers counter-messaging to dissuade potential recruits from aligning with ISIS. "The Iraqi government shares the blame. They marginalized and isolated the Sunni population, and opened the door for ISIS to come in."
Now, the occupiers will be tough to eradicate.
"These guys have been dug into Fallujah since January 2014," Shroder said. "They have had all this time to prepare for the defense of Fallujah. They won't make it easy."
The world audience is left to watch developments as they unfold in the media.
"This is really picking up momentum now," Jeffrey said. "It will be significant now, and in the days after, when they start picking up the pieces."