On Christmas day,
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke to his country. He began,
appropriately enough, talking about Jesus. He wished Christians a Merry Christmas, extended to "all
Muslims, who believe in Jesus the Messiah, messenger of humanity and peace."
Holiday greetings out of the way, the prime minister moved on to what he really
wanted to address. He spoke of ongoing counter-terrorist operations, and the
need for tribal support. Maliki then talked about "what is referred to as the
‘sit-in protest,' which has become a base for the leaders of al Qaeda,"
repeating the phrase twice. This was a reference to the protest site near
Ramadi, the symbolic center of the mainstream Sunni protest movement countrywide.
Maliki went on,
saying "this we know because they have openly appeared on the podium, declaring
we are al Qaeda, and we cut off heads. They have openly raised the banner of al
Qaeda at the podium, and soon we will air the confessions" of terrorists
admitting they are based at the site. "Our intelligence from aerial and human
sources inside the site, confirm the presence of both Iraqi and foreign al Qaeda
leaders. The provincial government has also confirmed that there are 36 al
Qaeda leaders based there. So now there is a popular demand that the site be
elections set for April, Maliki's Christmas speech, a show trial-like airing of
"confessions" by detainees on state television, and a wide-ranging media
campaign in the days that followed were part of an effort to tie Ramadi protests
to al Qaeda. The case was largely wrong, and to an extent made in bad faith.
This and the December 30, 2013 bulldozing of the Ramadi encampment were among
several actions that led to the total breakdown in security in Anbar province at
year's end and exacerbated the security crisis there. However, the roots of the
current crisis go back over the past year.
The Rise, Success,
and Failure of the Sunni Protest Movement
The Sunni protest
movement began in late 2012 following the arrest of aides to then-Finance
Minister Rafia al-Isawi and threats to arrest him. Isawi is from Fallujah, the
volatile city in east Anbar. The protesters took a Ramadi encampment they
called "Pride and Dignity Square" as their center, and quickly spread to other
Sunni provinces. The protests were far larger than any Iraq had seen since
2003, and they quickly came to dominate the national political debate.
While the protests
were framed as spontaneous citizen reactions, and for many participants they
genuinely were, each protest site was run by political parties, or at more
radical sites, by insurgent front groups. The Ramadi site was dominated by two
forces, both part of Speaker Osama al-Nujayfi's Mutahidun, the state's largest
Sunni Arab coalition. One was the "Popular Committees," a group headed by
tribal "Awakening" leader Ahmad Abu Risha, and apparently run day-to-day by his
nephew, Muhammad Khamis Abu Risha. The other was the Anbar Coordinating
Committee, controlled by Ahmad al-Alwani of the Islamic Party. Nujayfi's allies
worked hand-in-glove with the Sunni clerical establishment, ensuring that their
protests were the most wellattended.
The second largest
group of protest sites, mostly located in north-central and northwestern Iraq,
was run by a front group for the Baathist Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia
(JRTN), which is headed by Izzat al-Duri, a former Saddam Hussein deputy. The
remainder of the sites were run by an eclectic mixture of insurgent fronts and
activist organizations. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), formerly
known as al Qaeda in Iraq, had a notable presence only in Fallujah. Although a
formal list of demands was published and accepted as "the demands of the
protesters," the document was drafted by the Ramadi leaders, and both Iraqi and
pan-Arab media gave Ramadi disproportionate coverage.
The movement never
had a serious chance of achieving its stated goals. It stated its demands absolutely,
and was too sweeping, demanding a total abolition of de-Baathification and
repeal of the death penalty for terrorism, which no Shiite prime minister would
accept. Although the Ramadi site's speakers were not al Qaeda, their message
was infused with themes of Sunni power and identity, they flew old Iraqi flags
with the three stars of the Baath Party, and speeches sometimes contained
anti-Shiite epithets. Within a few months, attendance began to trail off.
Despite the movement
not being a serious threat to his government, Maliki reacted badly at first,
threatening to shut the Ramadi site down by force, saying "bring it to an end,
before it is brought to an end for you." After a rebuke from the Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani, Iraqi senior Shiite religious authority, Maliki quickly reversed
course and said he would follow Sistani's direction that the government fulfill
protester demands as long as they are consistent with the law and constitution.
established two committees in January 2013: a party committee and a ministerial
committee. The latter achieved real albeit limited results, releasing about
3,000 Sunni prisoners. A more sweeping set of statutory reforms was proposed in
March, including a significant softening of de-Baathification and other
measures. But in return, Maliki demanded a formal ban on the Baath Party. With
provincial elections scheduled for April and Shiite rivals attacking him over
the compromise, Maliki wanted cover.
The main Sunni
backer of the deal, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, was a political
rival to the Mutahidun. Therefore, the wing of the protesters that was in the
political process refused to back the deal, unwilling to give Mutlak a victory
before the elections, and the bills stalled. Maliki's coalition lost seats in
the election, held throughout Shiite provinces on April 20, and the last effort
to meet protester demands politically died at that point.
Yet that week a
tragic event occurred that would both re-energize the Sunni protests and push
them in a more dangerous direction. Near a protest site in Huwija, a Sunni Arab
area of Kirkuk province, gunmen killed a soldier following a Friday sermon that
could best be described as an incitement to war. The site was controlled by the
Baathist JRTN, and the soldier killed was a Sunni, a local recruit -- so if
Maliki had handled it properly, it was a great opportunity. Instead, after the
site had been encircled by an army unit for days without incident, special SWAT
forces which report directly to Maliki came in the morning of April 23 and
gunned down 44 protesters. While they were all no doubt JRTN supporters, they
appeared to have been entirely unarmed. Sunnis, and quite a few Shiites, were
outraged, and called for accountability.
Two videos leaked by
local soldiers framed how the massacre was later perceived. One was a couple of
days before the assault, and it showed an army officer pleading with protesters
to allow them to search the site for weapons, saying plaintively, "You are our people, we don't wan
to hurt you!" The other was the morning of the assault, and it showed a unit of
soldiers that had come at the site at an angle after the shooting started to
help protesters escape. The video showed unarmed men, some of them elderly,
running in fear. The videos helped cement a dichotomy in the public mind
between patriotic rank-and-file soldiers and murderous Maliki henchmen that to
this day explains continued Sunni support for army operations against al Qaeda,
but also deep distrust of Maliki's special forces.
The immediate impact
of the Huwija incident was to push the mainstream wing of the protest movement
toward militarization. Some protest leaders created a militia called the "Army
of Pride and Dignity," after the name of the protest site. Although it was
never a significant fighting force, videos of the rag-tag militia openly
recruited from former regime elements had a huge impact on Shiite perceptions.
And when on April 27 five off-duty soldiers were killed near the protest site,
the government accused protest leaders of the killings, and began announcing
While a major
confrontation appeared imminent, both sides backed down, with the militia
laying low and Maliki refraining from trying to enforce the warrants. And then
in June Anbar held provincial elections, and the Mutahidun bloc, whose parties
controlled the Ramadi site, won a plurality. They put together a coalition electing
Ahmad Khalaf al-Dhiyabi (al-Dulaymi), an engineer who was politically active at
the Ramadi protest site. This immediately restarted the crisis with Baghdad,
which declared that Dhiyabi was one of the protest leaders for whom there was
an arrest warrant.
Dhiyabi barely had
time to get the governor's chair warm before he changed his tone and started
looking to reconcile with Maliki. The protesters authorized him to open
negotiations, and they met on October 7, but his supporters could only express
dismay after he began adopting Maliki's line in interviews. In one interview he
was asked about the arrest warrant, and Dhiyabi explained that it had been a
misunderstanding, but had been cleared up.
By early fall, the
protests were struggling with an even bigger problem, which was waning support.
Attendance had rebounded after Huwija but was declining again, and mainstream
media had begun to mostly ignore them. After Dhiyabi's betrayal the clerics
began taking direct control, but the protests were essentially a Sunni echo
The Road to
On November 25, 2013,
Dhiyabi led a delegation to Baghdad to meet with Maliki. The meeting turned out
to be more important than it appeared at the time. Anbar leaders portrayed the
meeting as focused on protester demands, but the announced results instead
focused on economic benefits, including an oil refinery, airport, and
irrigation project. If those promises were far away, the benefits to Dhiyabi were
immediate -- Maliki agreed to allow him to replace the chief of police and head
of counterterrorism, hire more police under his authority, and strengthen his
authority relevant to army commands in the province.
The deal was unusual
in the sense that Maliki generally resists devolving security control. Additionally,
Dhiyabi did not explain what Maliki got out of it, but it soon became clear
there was a quid pro quo. Council Chairman Sabah al-Halbusi suggested this the next day, saying the concessions would allow the protests
to be closed. The following day, Deputy Chairman Saleh al-Isawi said, "It was
Maliki who raised the issue of the sit-in, and demanded it be closed," adding
that Maliki told them terrorists were using the site as a base, but that it
could be closed peacefully.
fulfilling his end of the bargain immediately, and spoke to tribal leaders
about ending the now 11-month protest camp. On December 4, they met and held a
joint press conference at which a tribal leader rejected closing the
sit-in. After a journalist asked Dhiyabi if he was pushing to close the site,
Dhiyabi dodged the question and said the matter was being referred to the
In press conferences
on December 8 and 14, Dhiyabi strengthened his tone. In the first he strongly
criticized a renewed call by a protest leader to form a militia to protect the
protest site. But he merely warned of "politicization" of the protests and
proposed the sit-in be suspended through elections. In the next, this time
flanked by police officers, Dhiyabi took an even firmer tone, defending the province's police and the need to maintain
state monopoly on force against calls to an independent Sunni force.
In both conferences,
Dhiyabi's took a swipe at unnamed "satellite channels" promoting a return to
insurgency. This mainly meant Al-Rafidayn, the primary pro-insurgency
television channel, which is run by Harith al-Dhari's Muslim Scholars
Association (MSA), an organization that had backed the failed insurgency
through 2007 and never stopped promoting the overthrow of the new political
system. This is important to bear in mind given later events; the Sunni protest
movement had always contained a pro-insurgency wing and a wing in the political
process, and with Dhiyabi having been elected by the moderate wing only to
betray it, pressure was building.
On December 21, the army's
seventh division was undertaking a raid against ISIS near Rutba in western
Anbar when it fell into a trap that killed the division's commander and several
senior officers. This was a shock to the army, and so over the next two days
security forces launched a much broader offensive against the al Qaeda-originated
group. This offensive was focused in Wadi Huran and Wadi al-Abyadh, which are
located in northern and northwestern Anbar, respectively, in the desert, away
from the province's population centers and close to the Syrian border where
ISIS has bases.
Not only did Sunni
political figures endorse the operations, but the Anbar Tribal Council did so
as well. Sheikh Hamid al-Shuka, the council's chairman who is also the head of
the Albu Dhiyab tribe, said "the
tribes support the security services in their operations against terrorist
forces ... and condemn the terrorist attacks across the province, especially the
killing of Seventh Division Commander General Muhammad al-Kurwi." Sheikh Abd
al-Amir al-Kaylani, the council's secretary general, said, "the
council supports and blesses the operations of the Iraqi army against al Qaeda."
While Maliki faced threats of resistance related to the Ramadi site, since it
was clear he wanted to move against it, no mainstream figure opposed the army
At this point Maliki
had a historical opportunity to unite the country in a fight against ISIS,
which had not only been launching mass casualty attacks against Shiites but had
also conducted a relentless campaign of assassination and extortion against
Sunnis in Anbar and elsewhere. But instead he decided to use the national
groundswell to shut down the Ramadi protest site, which he attacked during a
speech on December 22 as operations were beginning. On December 25 he gave the
"al Qaeda headquarters" speech, focused on painting the sit-in as a hive of
ISIS activity. In so doing he obliterated the national consensus that had been
building over previous days.
There was a burst of
activity to prevent a confrontation. Nujayfi's Mutahidun intervened in a
high-profile way, claiming they had guarantees the Ramadi site would not be
shut down forcibly. Defense Minister Saadun al-Dulaymi, who is from Anbar but
has no real political support there, visited the province from December 24 to 25.
Unable to convince tribal leaders, he left the day of Maliki's speech promising
that "the government has no intention to raid or confront the site," and that
operations would remain focused on the desert.
On Friday, December
27, the eve of the crackdown, Maliki said, "Today is the last Friday sermon at
the Ramadi sit-in." But by this point it should have been clear the consensus
in favor of shutting it down was a Potemkin construction. True, Maliki had the
support of both Dhiyabi and Halbusi. But Halbusi recanted on December 17.
Officials meeting with tribal leaders encountered resistance, and the only
vocal tribal leaders supporting a shutdown were sheikhs on the payroll like Hamid Hayes. Support
for the sit-in had ebbed, and with the encampment perched aside the highway
linking Baghdad to Jordan and Syria, it had become a nuisance. Concessions on
substantive protester demands would probably have bought broad acquiescence to
a closure, but not a forced shutdown in exchange for a personal deal with the
From December 28 to 31
the government undertook a series of ill-considered actions that led to the
total breakdown of security, which has captured global attention the past two
weeks. It is unlikely that this breakdown would have happened absent the
temporal coincidence of these actions.
On Saturday morning,
December 28, Maliki's special SWAT forces conducted a raid in Ramadi in which
they arrested Member of Parliament (MP) Ahmad al-Alwani, the protest leader,
killing a number of people, including his brother and sister, in the process.
Officials explained they were actually there to arrest his brother, Ali
al-Alwani, who was wanted related to the soldiers' killings back in April, and
Alwani's security opened fire, forcing government forces to shoot back. If that
was what happened, then it would allow them to get around the fact that Alwani
has parliamentary immunity, since he was caught in the act.
Alwani's family told
a different story. They said the two houses, which are side by side, were assaulted
by security, and that Maliki's SWAT executed Alwani's brother and sister in
cold blood in front of him. Whether that is true or not, it is the account many
Anbaris believe, and the Sunni media is routinely recounting as fact.
It is easy to
understand why Maliki would target Alwani, one of the most unsavory figures in
Iraqi politics. Alwani's speeches are often laced with sectarian rhetoric -- a
December 2012 statement calling Shiites "children of fornication" led to
protests. Maliki's reference to protest leaders talking about cutting off heads
does not come from an al Qaeda leader, but from one of Alwani's most infamous
speeches in September 2013. While the speech was about Shiite militias, it was inflammatory
in light of events. And since such speeches regularly make it into Shiite
media, the phrase was the perfect dog-whistle for his voter base.
Later on December 28,
the official television channel, Al-Iraqiya, broadcast a show trial-like program with "confessions" of a series of young men
who claimed to have joined ISIS and discussed various attacks they executed
under the direction of protest leaders, including Khamis Abu Risha and Ali
Hatem Suleiman. The confessions were interspersed with flashes to scenes from
protests, some featuring Ramadi protest leaders and others al Qaeda flags, with
ominous music in the background, like a horror movie.
case does not bear scrutiny. The narrative the confessions weave, that the
purpose of the attacks was to spoil the elections, is especially illogical
since Alwani and Abu Risha were running in the elections and ended up winning a
plurality. The protest scenes with al Qaeda flags are from a notorious site in
Fallujah, not Ramadi. Additionally, Maliki's claim that Ramadi protest leaders
openly announced affiliation with al Qaeda, is false -- and it is well-known
the organizations running the protest site are mainstream Anbari movements.
This is not to say
that these men are not confessing to real crimes. The primary crime, the
killing of five soldiers in April, was near the Ramadi site where the
protesters had armed guards. Coming right after Huwija, some of the guards might
have seen the off-duty soldiers and decided to kill them. Also, the other
attacks to which they confessed were against government targets, not al Qaeda-style
mass-casualty attacks on civilians, and Khamis Abu Risha and Suleiman had
formed militias with the avowed aim of defending the protest site. The mistake
was the decision to identify the site, and thus the protest movement, with al
Qaeda, instead of the alleged crimes of some individuals.
Further insight into
the government's case comes from a 51-second clip of the cabinet meeting in
which Dhiyabi talked about the site. The video appears
to cut in after Maliki asked Dhiyabi about the site, and Dhiyabi said, "the
number of al Qaeda present at the site, and I think our information is better
than the security services, frankly, does not exceed, at the most, 30 to 40
individuals. Some have brought in weapons, and of those who escaped from Abu
Ghraib are five or six, maybe up to 10."
This is not a huge
number for the largest protest encampment in the country, probably only two or
three percent of the total. But at most "30 to 40 individuals" became "36 al
Qaeda leaders" in Maliki's speech, and the site as a whole "an al Qaeda
headquarters." Furthermore, it is not clear that the government has even tried
to identify these individuals. Protest leaders repeatedly stated that the site
was open to police inspection at any time, and there are no reports of the government
attempting to search the site and being refused. Nor have the alleged 36
individuals been identified, though they might include the 10 men in the
Also on December 28
a state of martial law took effect, beginning with a curfew. By December 30,
the day security forces bulldozed buildings at the protest site, cell phone
communications were cut in Ramadi and Fallujah, and residents complained that utilities
had gone out. Not only was imposing martial law inflammatory, but it was also
illegal, since the constitution requires parliamentary approval. Even before
this the army was restricting travel between Anbar and Baghdad, also without
By this point a new
insurgency was in full swing. The call went out to challenge the curfew by
force, and armed groups confronted security forces, leaving police cars and
even Humvees burning in the road and an undetermined number of people dead or
wounded. That evening the Mutahidun bloc and other Sunni leaders in Baghdad
held a press conference and threatened to first resign from parliament and then
leave the political process entirely, an act which would be an implicit
endorsement of the insurgency. They demanded that the illegal state of martial
law be lifted, and that Alwani either be freed based on his parliamentary
immunity or his case be transferred to an Anbar court.
Faced with the
possibility of total state collapse in Sunni areas, Maliki withdrew the army
from the cities on December 31. This was the last step that let all hell break
loose. Under normal circumstances police control security within the cities
while the army controls entry and exit. But the tribal-based local police
officers in Anbar can only function as part of state security when they are
defending their communities against outsiders like al Qaeda. With the federal government
itself besieging their towns, local police officers would not stand against the
insurgents, and so the army's withdrawal left both Ramadi and Fallujah
A final point of
government dysfunction was the political struggle over the police itself, which
is notable since the road to this disaster began with a November deal to remove
the police chief. Dhiyabi had wanted to get rid of Chief Hadi Rzayj because he
was a hold-over from the previous governor, Qasim al-Fahdawi, with whom Dhiyabi
has had a very hostile relationship. Defense Minister Saadun al-Dulaymi
publicly confirmed Rzayj's removal during a December 10 visit to Anbar.
This made Rzayj a
lame duck. But Maliki didn't get around to formally approving the change to the
new police chief, Ismael al-Mahlawi, until January 5, a week into the insurgency.
So Anbar went into its greatest security crisis in years with a police
leadership, which had spent the past six months just trying to hold on, waiting
to be replaced when the dam broke.
Baghdad's actions in
December were the greatest Christmas gift that Sunnis wanting to restart the
insurgency could possibly have received. Although official statements after
December 31 emphasized that security forces and tribal allies were fighting al
Qaeda, which to an extent they were, the majority of anti-government attacks
were by nationalist-Islamist groups that had remained latent since the defeat
of the insurgency in 2007, or had grown up more recently as elements of the protest
movement radicalized. What is worse, the raid on the Ramadi site caused the
mainstream tribal and religious leadership of Sunni Iraq to throw its weight
behind the insurgency.
The Anbar Tribal
Council, which supported Maliki's anti-ISIS operations the previous week,
declared a tribal mobilization. This included appealing for "resistance forces
who fought the Americans and former [regime] officers" to defend the province
against what it called Maliki's aggression. Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi, a
Jordan-based Anbari cleric who is arguably Iraq's most respected Sunni
religious authority, reacted similarly. On December 28, after Alwani's arrest,
Saadi called for Sunnis to prepare to defend the protest site, and then after
the government razed it, Saadi called for soldiers to defect from the army and
Sunni tribes to mobilize to defend the province. Saadi was a pillar of the
nationalist insurgency from 2005 to 2007, but in 2013 had come to accept the
legitimacy of dealing with the government; alienating him was a mistake.
Indeed even after
the breakdown, the government seemed oblivious to the need to build a bridge to
mainstream but opposing Sunni clerics. The government has been detaining and
releasing clerics supporting the mainstream wing of the protests over the past
year, and Sunnis rightly or wrongly blame a series of assassinations on Shiite
militias the government tolerates. Continuing this, on January 1, the
government announced an arrest warrant for Sheikh Muhammad Taha Hamdun, the Samarra
imam who has been the protest's de facto leader since August 2013. On January
12, Muhammad Radwan al-Hadidi, a Mosul imam, was assassinated, a killing which Sunnis blame on Shiite militias.
beneficiary of the chaos was ISIS. Its high-profile convoys with Toyota trucks
carrying men with automatic weapons and black flags coming into the two cities
were a propaganda coup, albeit one exaggerated by international media's focus
on "the return of al Qaeda." In both Ramadi and Fallujah ISIS ran convoys into
the city, taking over government buildings and police stations. On January 3,
ISIS gunmen surrounded the main mosque in Fallujhah's city center and after
Friday prayers took the podium, raised their trademark black flag, and declared
an Islamic emirate.
A range of
international media outlets reported ISIS's dramatic return as "al Qaeda Seizes
Fallujah," but inflated the situation since the gunmen only controlled limited
sections of the city. The mischaracterization appears to have been based on the
government habit of calling all hostile gunmen "al Qaeda," since the entire
city had indeed fallen to insurgents. More realistic was a security
statement on January 2 that
the total number of ISIS gunmen was about 600, and that "ISIS controls about
half of Fallujah, and the other half is controlled by tribal gunmen fighting
the government since the shutdown of the Ramadi site."
ISIS had an
advantage in organization and training and may well have controlled half the
government buildings at one point, but it quickly began to lose control and
within a week the "emirate" had disappeared. Six hundred militants, however well
organized, were not going to hold a city of 350,000 people, full of armed
These non-ISIS insurgents
who currently remain in control of Fallujah and significant portions of the
rest of the province appear to break down into three main groups. The largest is
the Military Council of the Tribal Revolutionaries (MCTR). Based on its rhetoric,
support from specific insurgent media, and commentary from other Iraqi sources,
the MCRA appears to be a new umbrella group for the old nationalist insurgents,
including Harith al-Dhari's Muslim Scholars Association (through a group called
the "1920 Revolution Brigades"), JRTN, the Islamic Army, the Rashidin Army, the
Iraqi Hamas, and Abdullah al-Janabi's Fallujah-centered Mujahidin Shura
Council. It is especially strong in the Fallujah area, but also has a presence
outside Anbar, including in Ninawa and Salah al-Din.
The second is the
similarly-named Anbar Tribes Revolutionary Council (ATRC). This group was
formed prior to December 2013 from disaffected leaders of the protest movement
in order to provide a military defense for the Ramadi protest site. It is
nominally headed by Suleiman, and unlike the MCTR, does not aim to overthrow
the current system of governance, but rather defend Anbar from what it views as
the current government's aggression. While insurgents in general are
distinguishing between local police and federal forces, Suleiman made a further
distinction in his January 3 statement between the federal army and Maliki's special forces. This draws
on the view, widespread among Sunnis especially since Huwija, that the army
contains patriotic Iraqis but, as an institution, has been abused by the prime
Aside from having
different leaders and aims, these two groups are not on good terms. Not only
does the MCTR view the ATRC as insufficiently revolutionary, but much of its
propaganda attacks Suleiman personally for his past work within the political
A third group is the
more nebulous Army of Pride and Dignity (APD). The APD took the name of the
protest site, and the original militia Suleiman helped form after Huwija in
April 2013, but it is not the same organization. Based on APD propaganda,
including its Twitter account -- which like the MCTR vilifies Suleiman -- it
may actually just be an arm of the larger group. Or it could have no central
command, serving as a label like the "Free Syrian Army" which any group of guys
with guns can adopt.
Having empowered the
insurgency, the government then proceeded to make the crisis worse by shelling
Fallujah, and has continued to do so more or less continuously. While the army
claimed it was shelling terrorists, Sunni media was flooded with residents
saying they were firing randomly into the city. The Mazra arms depot east of
Fallujah is an example of this; while there were early reports that ISIS had seized
the base and pillaged the armaments there, this was based solely on a
government claim, since it was calling every group it was fighting "al Qaeda."
But while ISIS never claimed control of Mazra, numerous sources supporting the
MCTR claim "tribal revolutionaries" have. There haven't been any reports of
ISIS or the insurgents committing atrocities, so the likelihood is that most of
the civilian casualties will have been caused by the army.
and Dhiyabi, now closely linked in the popular mind, were not on the same page.
One indication was that Dhiyabi was telling Sunni media that ISIS was mortaring
Fallujah, as the army was saying that it was doing so targeting "al Qaeda." Furthermore, both the governor and
the provincial council publicly announced they had adopted a plan to allow Janabi to
take control and head a tribal military council to bring order to the city as
an alternative to ISIS.
Dhiyabi must not
have consulted Baghdad on this, since Janabi is only somewhat more moderate
than al Qaeda, and indeed the army immediately began attacking Janabi's organization.
On January 7, the government claimed it killed Abu Tafil al-Qawqazi, a Janabi
lieutenant, insisting at the same time that Janabi was al Qaeda. Janabi distanced himself from al Qaeda a few years ago, and did so again this
threats to storm the city, Maliki appears to have thought better of it and on January
8 announced the army would not attempt to take the city by force "so long as
the tribes" fight al Qaeda. The difficulty is that ISIS has now gone underground,
and MCTR insurgents control most of the city. Even most government statements
have become more realistic, in many cases acknowledging that it is not just
fighting al Qaeda, but "outlaws" or "gunmen."
Two weeks after the
crackdown that sparked the crisis, life in Fallujah has partially returned to
normal, albeit under partial insurgent control. On January 11, the provincial
government in Ramadi moved to appoint a new
mayor in Fallujah, Zubar Abd al-Hadi al-Arsan, and a new police chief, Muhammad
Aliwi al-Isawi, although since he was the acting chief when the security
collapse occurred, this may not inspire confidence. Residents continue to
complain of shortages of food, water, and other essentials, and the army
continues to shell the city, as if this were a way to defeat the insurgency.
But the specter of another full-scale Battle for Fallujah appears to have
The short-term task
is to get back to the status quo before Maliki's "al Qaeda headquarters"
speech. Security forces need to focus operations on known ISIS bases in the
desert and the Baghdad belt, operations which, when conducted in a precision
manner, have strong Sunni support. As for the non-ISIS insurgents who make up
the majority of Sunni militants, they were a problem before, but were
contained. Most Sunnis haven't forgotten the horrible results of the last
insurgency, and Anbar is almost entirely dependent on the federal budget, which
is itself based largely on oil revenue from the Shiite south.
voters participated in last year's provincial elections at about the same rate
as Shiites, and protest attendance gradually declined over the course of the
year. It took a colossal degree of ineptitude, magnified by blatant political
opportunism, to create this crisis.
In the longer term,
all must recognize that alleviating the security threats coming from the Sunni
provinces will require years, not weeks or months. Iraqi officials are right to
claim that they need better weapons to fighter terrorism, especially in terms
of reconnaissance technology. But much more important, though, are internal
reforms -- transparency in the arrest of suspects, ensuring that those arrested
actually get a trial and aren't held for years without charge, strengthening
the local police, changing army tactics toward population-centered operations,
and above all enforcing parliamentary oversight over security and division of
powers between Baghdad and the provinces. However much blame can be rightly
apportioned to Sunni protest leaders for the obstinacy, Baghdad can do more to
resolve these problems than any other actor through a comprehensive change in
its own methods of governance.
Kirk H. Sowell is a
political risk analyst based in Amman, Jordan, and editor-in-chief of Inside
Iraqi Politics (www.insideiraqipolitics.com). Follow him on Twitter: @uticensisrisk.