President Nouri al-Maliki’s inability, or unwillingness, to address Sunni concerns has resulted in a complete collapse of the security situation in Iraq’s Anbar Province and an alienation of crucial tribal allies.
Sunni protests against Maliki’s “sectarian” government have been ongoing for more than a year. These protests have been motivated by the need for government reform and their legitimacy has been attested to by some powerful Iraqi Shiites, like Moqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Maliki attempted to address these issues by means of a reform package put forward in early 2013, but was quickly defeated in parliament that April by his (numerous) political rivals, both Sunni and Shi’i. In December 2013, Maliki declared the protest camps, which had cropped up in Ramadi, Fallujah, and other cities in western Iraq, to be “headquarters for the leadership of al-Qaeda.” On 21 December 2013, the Iraqi military attacked an Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) training camp in western Anbar and on 28 December, “counter-terrorism forces” raided the home Ahmad al-Alwani, a Sunni lawmaker, in Ramadi. When powerful Sunni tribes protested against these provocations, Maliki was forced to withdraw his military and security forces. Just as quickly, fighters loyal to ISIS began demonstrating in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Tarmiyyah, attacking police stations and other government offices and flying the black banner of the Islamic State in Iraq.
One worry has been the seeming ease with which ISIS was able to take over these cities, but a bigger concern is the degree of support they have received from local Sunni tribes in Anbar Province. Maliki’s policies have alienated and disenchanted many of Iraq’s Sunnis, making their defection to al-Qaeda-oriented groups anything but surprising. According to the New York Times, “Some armed tribesmen with little sympathy for Al Qaeda and its desire to set up a Sunni Islamic state in Iraq have now apparently decided that the government is their greater enemy.” What is much more important than regaining control over territory west of Baghdad, whether Maliki knows it or not, is reestablishing a consistent relationship with Sunni tribes – a relationship that at one time helped to nearly destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Reestablishing control of Fallujah and Ramadi without at the same time rebuilding the alliance with Sunni militia groups would be a hollow victory for Maliki and his government. According to Falih Eisa, a member of Anbar’s provincial council, “[W]e are doing our best to avoid sending the army to Falluja … now we are negotiating outside the city with the tribes to decide how to enter the city without allowing the army to be involved.” Street battles and house-to-house raids would do nothing to improve relations between the Iraqi government and already angry Sunnis in Anbar.
Surgical strikes on ISIS positions that would minimize civilian casualties are nearly impossible at this point. The Iraqi Air Force is not up to the task; American policy makers (and probably Europeans as well) have been loath to rebuild and restock Iraqi aircraft. A shipment of F-16’s is scheduled for delivery the fall of 2014, but until then Cessna trainers armed with Hellfire missiles is all that can really be mustered in terms of close air support in retaking Fallujah, Ramadi, and other surrounding cities in Anbar. Some sources have reported air strikes on parts of Ramadi and Fallujah, but the effectiveness of these attacks must be questioned. The plan now seems to be to blockade the cities and wear down ISIS fighters inside.
Iraqi government officials are now stating that operations in Ramadi have met with some success and parts of that city have been reclaimed. It will be a difficult balancing act for Maliki to reassert control of Anbar while at the same time not further angering Sunni tribes there. There are some positive indicators though. The head of the Dulamyi tribal confederation has urged all tribes “to carry weapons and stand beside the Armed Forces to combat the remnants of the terrorists al Qaeda and the ISIS,” according to Al Iraqiya TV. The Iraqi military and tribal allies are also cooperating in operations (or the planning of operations) in the cities and towns of Rawa, Anah, Haditha, and al-Qaim.
However, other Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq, such as Nineveh and Diyala, are experiencing heightened levels of unrest and violence. It appears that the capture of Fallujah and Ramadi has emboldened ISIS fighters all over Iraq. Attacks bearing the signature of al-Qaeda have increased throughout the country. On Sunday, a coordinated attack on restaurants and cafes in Shaab, a suburb of Baghdad, killed 11 and wounded 30. On Monday, a suicide bomber killed two and wounded 55 in Kirkuk, a roadside bomb targeted an army patrol in the Madain area south of Baghdad, and another bomb hit a patrol made up of pro-government militiamen in Jisr Diyala killing one and wounding four.
Perhaps this latest outbreak of violence will impress upon Maliki (or at the very least remind him of) the importance of his tribal allies and just how fragile the Iraqi state and its military really is. ISIS has been particularly adept at capturing and holding territory in Syria; this may not be the case across the frontier in Iraq.