Iraq’s Sunnis have become increasingly alienated from its Shia-dominated government. Al-Qaeda has been able to profit from its inability to offer cross-sectarian leadership.
The attempt at the turn of the year by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) to take and hold city quarters in Falluja, Ramadi and Khalidiya in al-Anbar province—successful in the case of the former—has provoked an enormous political crisis in Iraq. The insurgents and supporters chased police and soldiers away from their posts, burned police stations and freed prisoners from jail in al-Anbar cities. ISIS years ago announced itself an affiliate of al-Qaeda, though the designation is largely symbolic, since the organisation clearly does not take orders from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader who is probably hiding in Pakistan.
While the old Islamic State of Iraq was powerful in some areas at some times, it was a guerrilla organisation that faded away when confronted by conventional troops. ISIS had not actually held any part of Iraq on a day-to-day basis. It is likely that the idea of taking over al-Anbar cities was inspired by the ISIS operation in northern Syria, where it has taken territory away from the Baath government. ISIS fights for Sunni extremism on both sides of the border.
The organisation took advantage of al-Anbar anger at the government of Nouri al-Maliki. A week earlier al-Maliki had sent a special squad to arrest a prominent Sunni parliamentarian, accusing him of ‘terrorism’. It also took advantage of the Iraqi army busying itself on December 30 with dispersing a peaceful civilian protest outside Ramadi, which had closed the highway to Jordan to truck traffic. In the aftermath, some Sunni tribesman attacked Iraqi troops and some of them may have thrown in with ISIS. Popular anger chased many police from their stations, leaving the cities open to occupation by the insurgents. In the following days ISIS took over big swathes of some al-Anbar cities and its guerrillas took over the empty police stations.
On January 2, the Shiite government in Baghdad conducted negotiations with Ahmad Abu Risha and his anti-al-Qaeda tribesmen (the Dulaim). A deal was struck and Sunni tribal forces agreed to fight the ISIS units alongside the Iraqi police and army.
The next day, Iraqi troops and police launched a joint operation in Ramadi and Khalidiya to its south with Abu Risha’s tribal levies, pushing back ISIS in those cities. Abu Risha estimated that 60 ISIS fighters were killed during the operation and that the ISIS leader Abu Abdel Rahman al-Baghdadi was among the dead. He said 46 were killed in Ramadi and 16 in nearby Khalidiya, maintaining that 80 per cent of al-Anbar had been cleared of ISIS.
Al-Maliki needs to decide if he is prime minister of Iraq or prime minister of the Shiite south.
A spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite clerical leader followed by most Iraqis of that branch of Islam, praised Abu Risha’s tribespeople for fighting alongside government troops against the al-Qaeda affiliate. He seemed implicitly to criticise al-Maliki’s recent actions, saying that no one’s constitutional rights should be infringed because of the person’s sectarian allegiance. He also said the 2014 parliamentary elections offered hope to the country and demanded that voters be provided the security they needed to vote freely according to their consciences.
Abu Risha called his campaign tribal ‘revenge’ on al-Baghdadi. The Dulaim tribe of al-Anbar was first organised to fight al-Qaeda in western and northern Iraq by American generals, including David Petraeus, as ‘awakening councils’ or ‘Sons of Iraq’. Al-Maliki never liked this project, seeing the awakening councils as Sunni militias that might easily turn on his government. But it appears that he suddenly rethought this position in recent days. It is likely he promised Abu Risha substantial resources. There had been 100,000 Sunni fighters in the old awakening councils but after the US withdrew it was alleged that only about 17,000 obtained government jobs and many of the others complained that they were left defenceless—without arms or funds from the government and liable to reprisals from al-Qaeda.
The ability of ISIS to take over government buildings and police stations suggests a serious deterioration of capacity on the part of al-Maliki’s police and army in the Sunni regions west of Baghdad. That his government needed the help of Abu Risha’s Dulaim tribesmen suggests that his largely Shiite troops had been ineffective in this area.
Blame needs to be apportioned to ISIS, which is a horrible terrorist group full of hatred and intent on oppression of people, for its overweening ambition. Iraq is not Syria, where territory can be liberated in the medium to long term from government control.
But some of the blame attaches to al-Maliki, who helped provoke this uprising by driving so many al-Anbar Sunnis into the arms of ISIS by his brutal crackdown and his policy of almost completely ignoring Sunni complaints. Al-Maliki needs to decide if he is prime minister of Iraq or prime minister of the Shiite south. If he is the head of state for the whole country, he needs to find a way to make the Sunnis his constituency as well. That quest is impeded by his being head of the Shiite fundamentalist Islamic Mission Party (al-Da`wa), which is unlikely to get many Sunni votes.
Iraq needs a bigger, cross-sectarian framework for its politics if it is to avoid Syria’s fate.
Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of The New Arabs: How the Wired and Global Youth of the Middle East Is Transforming It (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
This article was first published on openDemocracy.net