by Wayne White
In their boldest action yet, al-Qaeda linked Sunni Arab extremists seized portions of the large Sunni Arab cities of Fallujah and Ramadi last Monday. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sent in his security forces. Later, Sunni Arab tribal elements opposed to the extremists joined government forces outside both cities, especially Ramadi, but other tribesmen reportedly have been helping the militants in Fallujah. Efforts to restore order to date have been disappointing.
A few observers have likened the alliance of some tribal elements with Maliki against the militants to the landmark deal between American forces and Iraqi insurgents in 2006-2008. Yet, this new arrangement could mean little over the long haul since Maliki continued cracking down on Sunni Arabs right up to this blow-up.
Indeed, Maliki’s troubled relations with Iraq’s Sunni Arabs appear to have played a role in triggering these events. On Dec. 30 government forces moved to dismantle a large camp of protestors along the key road outside Ramadi that had existed for a year. It was one of many protests in various cities and towns across the largely Sunni Arab al-Anbar Governate. Such demonstrations against the Maliki government’s treatment of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs (emboldened by the largely Sunni Arab rebellion in neighboring Syria) underscore how much anger has built up in response to Maliki’s various actions against this important community.
Prior to the crackdown on the camp, on Dec. 30 Maliki arrested a Sunni Arab member of parliament, Ahmad al-Alwani (who had supported the protests), at his home in Ramadi. The all too familiar charge reportedly was “terrorism.” The arrest turned violent as Alwani’s guards tried to protect him, with security forces killing five guards along with Alwani’s brother.
Alwani’s was only the latest of a long series of arrests, firings, and even assassinations of a number of senior Sunni Arab figures spanning several years. Thus, Maliki’s call today for the Fallujah tribes to “expel” extremists from that city to avoid needless bloodshed while the Iraqi army pauses before an assault may have little effect. Many residents have left, but militants still hold important positions there.
This daring challenge comes mainly from the Syrian-based Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL hopes to link its holdings in Eastern Syria with corresponding areas of control in Iraq’s majority Sunni Arab northwest. Back in September, ISIL bombed four key bridges linking important Iraqi border towns with urban centers closer to Baghdad to hobble the government’s ability to respond effectively to ISIL’s rising activity in areas close to Syria. In late November, ISIL fighters paraded through a main square of Ramadi to rally support.
On Dec. 26 nearly 20 Iraqi soldiers were killed in al-Anbar by suicide bombers, including the commander of Iraq’s 7th Division. Four more soldiers died on the 29th in a militant attack on their barracks 20 miles northwest of Baghdad. A large group of Sunni Arab gunmen stormed three police stations in and around Fallujah and Ramadi on Jan. 1 freeing prisoners and seizing weapons and ammunition. Meanwhile, a backdrop of near continuous urban bombings against Shi’a and government targets continues in northern Iraq and Baghdad, with three targeting Christians on Christmas Day.
Recognizing that the situation in Iraq was heating up noticeably, Washington expedited the delivery of 75 air-to-surface “Helfire” missiles to the Iraqi air force in December as well as drones. The government put these munitions to use quickly: several of the missiles reportedly have been used against ISIL positions since late last week.
Beyond sending such aid, however, Washington has chosen to keep some distance from the crisis in Iraq. After all, Maliki has held the US at arm’s length since 2010, ignoring US entreaties to follow the American lead in reaching out to an Iraqi Sunni Arab community seeking to bury the hatchet with Baghdad and help battle al-Qaeda. Shoving aside the notion of putting US “boots on the ground,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on Jan. 5: “We will help them…but this fight, in the end, they will have to win.” Nonetheless, concerned about this fresh al-Qaeda challenge, the US has been making calls to relevant Iraqi Sunni leaders and tribal sheikhs to do some jawboning
ISIL militants have been in control of portions of both Fallujah and Ramadi since Dec. 30. In both towns, there has been fighting between ISIL fighters on the one hand and government forces as well as Sunni Arab tribesmen opposing ISIL militants on the other. In Fallujah, however, ISIL has held the center and south of the city with much of the rest of it in the hands of tribesmen who oppose the entry of government forces. Yesterday, this forced government forces to withdraw to the edges of Fallujah, according to Hadi Razeij, al-Anbar’s police chief. Anbar Military Command chief General Rasheed Fleih admitted that it could take several days to oust ISIL from its holdings in the embattled cities.
It is not surprising that Iraqi government forces are having difficulty restoring order. The army does not possess the same level of training, firepower, tactical savvy, or intelligence mustered by US forces during the American fight with Sunni Arab insurgents beginning over ten years ago. Yet, even US forces struggled to crush the insurgency (including fierce militant resistance in Fallujah), finally accepting a deal with a majority of the insurgents who sought to end the bloody struggle in what has been known as the Sunni Arab “Awakening.”
Many ordinary Iraqis are de facto participants. Quite a few angry Sunni Arabs have approved of attacks against Maliki’s government specifically and Iraqi Shi’a more generally. Likewise, many Shi’a have supported Maliki’s tough stance toward Sunni Arabs. Nonetheless, influential Shi’a clerics, many Sunni Arab tribal leaders, and their followers have shunned the violence emanating from both sides, but without much effect. So millions of war weary Iraqis — Shi’a, Sunni Arab, and Christian — are caught in the middle, many of them victims of violence. It comes as no surprise that the number of Iraqi refugees entering Jordan recently has spiked.
If this situation can be brought under control, at least beyond areas close to the border that could remain under ISIL influence, there might be a positive result. If enough Sunni Arab tribes and other elements react negatively to this ISIL power play, Maliki could get a second chance to allow them to join the political process in Baghdad. Yet, given the dismal track record of Maliki and his Shi’a cronies, there is only an outside chance that a more sensible political course will now be adopted — one that also could enable the government to use such allies to improve its effort to reduce the suicide bombing campaign that has long battered Shi’a especially.
First, however, Maliki must convincingly defeat ISIL in the current fighting — and without running amok in a way that results in unacceptably high Sunni Arab civilian casualties and great destruction. In his message today, Maliki called on Iraqi troops not to attack residential areas in Fallujah, but since this almost certainly will occur, the statement probably was merely to distance himself from the inevitable.
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