What is happening in Iraq, Fallujah and al-Anbar province?


So is it 2004 or 2014?  Iraq is once again making headlines, and second-guessing over both George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s performance with respect to the US occupation of Iraq is in the news with the publication of former defense secretary Robert Gates. iraq flag icon

What do you need to know about Iraq these days?  Here’s a list of the top 10 question you probably have about the current turn of events there — and probably more than you wanted to know about the state of governance in Iraq today.

So did terrorists take control of Iraq last weekend?

Not quite.  A group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-‘Irāq wa-sh-Shām‎), which formerly styled itself as Iraq’s local branch of al-Qaeda, took control last Friday of parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, the two largest cities in al-Anbar province.  There are signs, however, that ISIS may already be retreating from Fallujah, with Sunni tribesmen (particularly loyal to neither the government nor ISIS) now wresting back control of both cities.  Iraq’s Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki signaled earlier this week that he planned on launching a military offensive to retake the city using Iraqi national forces, a move that seems surely to cause even more sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis.  For those of you who’ve forgotten, al-Anbar, at over 53,000 square miles, is the largest of 19 governorates in Iraq, by far the largest province.  Its population is just 1.56 million of Iraq’s 31 million people, but it forms part of the heart of Iraq’s Sunni population — about 97% of Iraq’s population is Muslim and about one-third of them are Sunni.  Al-Anbar’s geography is even more strategically vital, because it borders much of eastern Syria, northern Saudi Arabia and the northeastern tip of Jordan.

What is ISIS? I thought that was the spy agency in the animated Archer series.

ISIS formed in 2003 as a conglomerate of diverse Sunni groups, largely as a response against the US invasion.  It fairly quickly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and soon even became as al-Qaeda in Iraq, and it had its heyday between 2004 and 2006, when US forces killed its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  But ISIS’s modern iteration only really emerged in spring 2013, when it started making mischief in northern Syria, and the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo.  ISIS, like most hardcore Salafist groups, wants to institute sharia law throughout the Middle East, and ISIS’s leaders dream of creating a new caliphate that stretches from Arabia to central Africa.  More realistically, it’s now fighting for dominance in northern Syria and Sunni-dominated western Iraq.  Western media outlets are quick to proclaim this weekend’s turn of events as ‘al-Qaeda regains ground,’ but ISIS is really more interested in holding power in Iraq and Syria than in exploding planes into buildings in New York City.  Its current leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s wider anti-American goals, though, and that’s earned him a $10 million bounty, courtesy of the US state department.

Why is Fallujah such a big deal, anyway? 


Fallujah holds an important symbolic value because it was the hub of the Sunni counterinsurgency early in the US occupation of Iraq and, in 2004, it became the site of some of the heaviest fighting during the US occupation.  One story about Fallujah in National Journal this week managed to quote seven Americans (and not a single Iraqi citizen) about the costs of Fallujah’s recent tumult, and an NPR piece noted that many US veterans are crestfallen that their sacrifices a decade ago may have been for naught.  That tells you just how important Fallujah is in the narrative of the US involvement in Iraq.

After the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, US forces were actually forced by insurgents to withdraw, though in the second battle in November 2004, US troops finally took the city, but not without a year or two of further guerrilla attacks.  The two battles of Fallujah were responsible for some of the highest casualties of the Iraq War, though many more Iraqis died (some by the controversial use of white phosphorus) than US or allied troops.

The city, which lies on the banks of the Euphrates River, is just 69 kilometers away from Baghdad and, taken together with Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar governorate, comprises one of the chief Sunni-majority cities in Iraq.  Deposed president Saddam Hussein took extra special care to keep Fallujah in his good graces between 1979 and 2003.

So that means Iraq is moving back toward civil war? 

Not exactly.  But there’s definitely an uptick in sectarian violence in Iraq, and 2013 was the deadliest year in the country since the end of Iraq’s civil war in 2008.  Over 7,800 civilians and over 1,000 security force members were killed last year, and there’s every fear that the total could increase in 2014.  Al-Maliki, whose popularity is declining within both the Sunni and Shiite populations, has made some errors.  He antagonized Sunni protestors initially by shutting down a protest camp in Ramadi last April.  More recently, al-Maliki’s military offensive in December in al-Anbar, and the arrest of Ahmed al-Alwani, a top Sunni politician (and the killing of his brother) further enraged locals, opening the way for ISIS to step in last weekend.

Is this all Barack Obama’s fault?

Some conservatives in the United States argue that Fallujah and Ramadi are now falling to groups like ISIS because US president Barack Obama failed to secure a ‘status of forces’ agreement with al-Maliki’s government at the end of 2011.  And it’s true that Obama didn’t protest much in the face of al-Maliki’s resistance to a residual US military presence.  Their argument is that by pulling US troops completely out of Iraq, with no lingering security force, the United States abandoned its Iraqi allies before Iraq’s security forces were capable of dealing with threats like ISIS.  So US senators like John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are actually pinning the blame for the weekend’s assault on the Obama administration.

But it’s hard to remember now just how disenchanted the American public had become, as early as 2006, about the  US military engagement in Iraq — Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination and then the US presidency largely on the basis of his pledge to exit Iraq.  If US forces had remained in Iraq, it’s doubtful there would be much of an appetite among any sector of the American electorate for a third US-led battle to retake Fallujah.  While a small US force could have helped perhaps on the margins, the Obama administration didn’t invent Sunni-Shiite conflict or the Syrian civil war.  Furthermore, there’s a chance that a continued US presence in 2012 and 2013 could have further inflamed matters, thereby intensifying sectarian conflict.

Speaking of sectarian conflict, does any of this have to do with Syria and the wider Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East? 

Yes.  The most potent worry is that the Syrian civil war will engulf the entire region.  Syria’s conflict, about to enter its third year, pits the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad, who is Alawite (a branch of Shi’a Islam) against a group of largely Sunni rebels.  Within Syria, however, the Sunni rebels are fighting as much among themselves as against Assad.  Among the Sunni rebels, relatively more radical groups like ISIS and the only slightly less radical jihadist Islamic Front ( ‏الجبهة الإسلامية‎, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah) are increasingly gaining the upper hand against more moderate forces against more moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army (الجيش السوري الحر‎, al-Jaysh as-Sūrī al-Ḥurr), whose leader, general Salim Idris, allegedly fled Syria in December.  No one doubts that the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia, egged on by a Wahhabist religious elite, is funneling money and arms to the rebels, and no one doubts that the Islamic Republic of Iran, where 90% of the population is Shiite Muslim, is supporting Assad.  So is Hezbollah (حزب الله‎), the Iran-affiliate, Shiite Lebanese militia, which has catalyzed an increasingly radical Sunni response in Tripoli, Beirut, Saida and other major Lebanese cities, leading to a precarious tit-for-tat of explosions and assassinations.  That means that like Iraq, Lebanon is also at risk of becoming a pawn in a wider regional sectarian conflict.

Will the United States intervene?

No.  Under absolutely no circumstances is it conceivable that the United States will send troops, as ‘advisers’ or otherwise, back to Iraq.  But that doesn’t mean the United States has zero interest in the outcome.  The Obama administration is squarely backing al-Maliki in his efforts to secure al-Anbar, and it wants to send Apache helicopters to Iraq’s government to assist in any mission to retake the city by force, though the US Senate is less enthusiastic about that plan.  Ironically, Iran’s government has also pledged its help to al-Maliki’s government, making for some awfully awkward political bedfellows.  Generally speaking, the growing sectarian rift in the Middle East has forced a kind of double bind for the United States — in choosing sides in Syria and, to some degree in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere, it must either support, on the one hand, Sunni jihadists and Salafists with ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that the United States has been fighting to marginalize since 2001 or, on the other hand, Shiite leaders with ties to other longtime enemies like Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad administration (in a way that will further antagonize Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally).  It’s no wonder the Obama administration wants to wash its hands of the entire mess.

Will the Iraqi unrest have reverberations for the planned drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan? 

Probably.  It means that Obama will certainly exert more pressure on Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s replacement (Afghan elections are due on April 5) for the kind of ‘status of forces’ agreement that the United States didn’t aggressively pursue in Iraq.  The greater worry is that the lesson that US military leaders take away from the most recent Fallujah debacle is that the United States can’t afford to leave Afghanistan to its own devices.  With Afghan security forces, if anything, in worse shape than the Iraqi security forces in 2011, and with the Taliban resurgent in large swaths of southern Afghanistan, it seems almost certain that Taliban forces will consolidate or retake additional territory upon the US military drawdown.  Moreover, Afghanistan has been a key hub for US special forces and CIA drone operations in northwestern Pakistan, making a post-occupation arrangement with the Afghan central government even more important in the eyes of US policymakers.

So I hear there are supposed to be parliamentary elections on April 30.  What will the current unrest mean for voting? 

It’s unclear.  For now, the elections will still go forward to determine the membership of the 325-seat Council of Representatives (مجلس النواب العراقي‎ Majlis an-Nuwwāb al-ʿIrāqiyy), Iraq’s unicameral parliament.  Despite the sectarian violence between Sunni Iraqis and Shiite Iraqis, the parliamentary elections are shaping up to be a contest between dueling Shiite elites.  Al-Maliki will be seeking his third consecutive term at a time when his popularity is declining, no thanks to the kinds of miscalculations that have made the ISIS assault on Fallujah possible.  Unrest could endanger Iraq’s growing, if precarious, economy. GDP growth rose by average of 8.5% in 2011 and 2012, and GDP per capita has climbed from $1,300 in 2004 to $6,300 in 2012.

Al-Maliki leads the State of Law Coalition (إئتلاف دولة القانون, ‎I’tilāf Dawlat al-Qānūn), a mostly Shiite coalition of various political movements in Iraq.  But it will be challenged by two discrete Shiite political groups in the upcoming parliamentary elections.  The first is the populist, conservative Sadrist Movement (التيار الصدري, al-Tayyār al-Sadri), which is led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who rose to fame as a Shiite militia leader during the Iraq war and remains one of Iraq’s most important religious leaders.  The second is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ICSI, المجلس الأعلى الإسلامي العراقي‎, Al-Majlis Al-A’ala Al-Islami Al-‘Iraqi), which finished a strong second in 2013 local elections.  Given the growing proximity between ICSI and the Sadrists, there’s a strong chance that ICSI leader Ammar al-Hakim could emerge as a credible candidate to replace al-Maliki as prime minister.

Oh yeah, Kurdistan.  What’s going on there these days?

Kurdish Iraq remains largely autonomous from the rest of Iraq, and its relative prosperity and stability are probably the most successful accomplishment of the US occupation.  Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP, پارتی دیموکراتی کوردستان), has led Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005, and Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK, یەکێتیی نیشتمانیی کوردستان), has served as Iraq’s largely ceremonial president since 2005.  But Talabani suffered a stroke last year, and he played virtually no part in the most recent regional elections that took place in September 2013.  That vote resulted in a huge victory for the KDP — the PUK actually fell to third place in the vote.  That means that the ascendant KDP is likely to do well in April elections and, if it succeeds, will become a potential kingmaker between the pro-Maliki loyalists and the anti-Maliki Shiite bloc of Sadrists, ICSI and others.

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