North Africa, West Asia

Anbar – thorn in Maliki’s side

Anbar province has emerged as the fulcrum of a rising Sunni resistance against Iraq’s Shi’a controlled government and it could have a major impact on the formation of the next government.

Samuel Morris
30 March 2014

The ongoing situation in Anbar has been threatening the fragile stability in Iraq. Emboldened by the brutal conflict in Syria militant Islamist groups are putting Nouri Al-Maliki’s premiership to the test. With large parts of the Anbar province effectively lawless and its two main cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, both out of the central governments control, Maliki’s response and its impact on the fast-approaching elections are key.

Over the last two years, western provinces in Iraq such as Anbar, Nineveh, and Salahadin have witnessed large scale, well-organised and well-managed demonstrations. Both Fallujah and Al-Ramadi have acted as centres for these protests. The ‘Anbar Protests’ began as peaceful demonstrations by Iraqi citizens demanding improved standards of life, including better job opportunities. These demands were followed by calls to release detainees and later to amend the de-Ba’athification law. The escalation of demands mirrored the deterioration in Sunni relations with the government and is causing a dangerous level of conflict and instability.

The current crisis was effectively triggered by Nouri Al-Malaki’s response to the Islamic state of Iraq and Sham’s (ISIS) activities in the west of Anbar province. ISIS had set up training camps in Wadi Horan, near the Iraqi-Syria border. On December 21. ISIS were successful in killing a number of senior army commanders, including the head of the 7th division.

Maliki was forced to react, he moved forces into Anbar. However, he also moved against the political protests in Anbar, not just ISIS. On December 30, Maliki made an ill-timed decision to shut down a protest site in Ramadi and arrest Ahmed Al-wani of the Iraqi Islamic Party. Al-wani had been one of the protest leaders in Anbar. Within a handful of days the province of Anbar was drawn into bitter conflict.

The arrest of Al-wani, during which they managed to kill his brother, and the shutdown of the Ramadi protest camp proved to be a miscalculation. The Sunni section of Iraq’s society had been feeling increasingly marginalised. This stemmed from their perceived disenfranchisement at the hands of Iraq’s Shi’a. The feeling was exacerbated by the resignation of Sunni Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, and the flight of the Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, accused of terrorism.

Ultimately it is not a question of whether or not there has been Sunni marginalization. If the community feels marginalized then the outcome will be the same. This feeling of marginalization set off the series of mass protests and mobilized the Sunni section of Iraq’s society. It has led to a core of resistance to Shi’a rule that has been exacerbated by the Syrian uprisings. However, it is important not to isolate these events. The Anbar situation is not solely caused by Maliki’s response. They were just the trigger for the Sunni/Shia divide in post-Saddam Iraq, that may have been contained but never really addressed.

An ultimatum was made by tribal leaders to release Al-wani, and by the December 31 Maliki agreed to remove state security forces and let local police back in. This was the window for ISIS to step in. The government crackdown gave the militants the perfect excuse. A few days later they announced their presence in Fallujah, and there has been a fight for control ever since. The Iraqi army has increased its air strikes and artillery fire and ISIS are claimed to have moved 400 fighters into the city.

The growth of ISIS can be directly tracked to the Syrian revolution and the group has now become the most coherent best and best-funded group in both northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria. It has been steadily building up its capabilities over the last two years and seeking to unite its struggle in Iraq with Syria. It dominates areas of Anbar, Diyala and Mosul, and is attempting to carve out an Islamic emirate between Syria and Iraq.

Abu Bakir al-baghdai, current leader of ISIS, announced a campaign of ‘Breaking the walls’ in July 2012 that made freeing its imprisoned members and skirmishing with Iraqi security forces a top priority. His preference for a tactic of this kind may stem from the fact that it is widely believed that Al-Bagdadi himself, his predecessor Omar Al-Baghdadi and ISIS leader Shaker Wahib have all previously escaped from prison in Iraq. This was followed by the July 2013 campaign entitled, “Soldier’s harvest” which indicated the confidence of ISIS. The growth of ISIS in Iraq shows the weakness of Iraq’s security forces geographically. While it suits government to blame ISIS, the situation has gone from bad to worse for Baghdad. Local efforts to secure Ramadi and Fallujah have failed.

There have been several initiatives to try to end the conflict in Anbar aimed at gaining the support of tribes against the insurgency. The Anbar council proposed a programme that included the creation of a new Anbar security service along with the distribution of development funds, and an amnesty for fighters. Anbar Governor, Ahmed Diab, had also called for the withdrawal of fighters from Fallujah and Rimadi, an amnesty for those involved in the protests with a billion dinars compensation package for Anbar. On February 12, Prime Minister Maliki himself offered tribal fighters police jobs after the conflict was over and went to Anbar and promised $83 million in reconstruction money.

There is a view held that Anbar as a province has been specifically marginalized financially by central government. However, there is a revenue split in Iraq. Anbar gets its share. But the revenue is either spent of stolen. The problem is not lack of funds, but use of funds. Anbar’s 2013 share of the regional development budget was around 400 billion Iraqi Dinars. The Anbar provincial council has a plan to allocate these funds to build infrastructure, schools and hospitals throughout the province.

The impact that the situation in Anbar will have on the April elections is still unknown. There has been some talk that the elections may be delayed since they can’t happen in Fallujah, Ramadi and a number of smaller towns in Anbar if insurgents are in control. However, Kalshan Kamal, a member of the Commissioners within the Independent High Electoral Commission, ruled out postponing the elections in Anbar. In the event that elections are not conducted, the Iraqi government would lose its legitimacy. This means Maliki has to act as his opponents will challenge him on the growing violence, especially since his party is called State of Law. With the Shia vote now set to be split between State of Law, Muwatin, Ahrar, Islah and Fadila, Maliki risks the possibility of losing votes to his political rivals. However, as of yet, there is no date set for a for mass troop movements into Fallujah.

Any largescale operation by the Iraqi Army could play into the hands of the militants who will have been preparing for such action. His choices are, act and face violent reaction that could test the strength of the Iraqi army, or do nothing which could make Maliki look weak. The Iraqi premier seems to be stuck in a Catch-22.

The conflict in Anbar can be contained but more Anbari style conflicts will continue. The violence cannot be easily eliminated, because of Syria. The prominence of the uprising in Syria both regionally and internationally has encouraged elements of the Sunni minority in Iraq to fight against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. 

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