North Africa, West Asia

Fallujah revisited

Saudi Arabia’s virulently sectarian geo-policies are behind the resurgence of Al Qaida in Iraq.

Zayd Alisa
26 February 2014

Iraq, more than two years after the US withdrawal, and nearly a decade after the US forces ousted Al Qaida in Iraq AQI from Falluja, is still grappling with not merely an escalating sectarian crisis between the Shia-led government and an increasingly disaffected Sunni minority, but, even more menacingly, AQI’s takeover takeover of parts of Ramadi and Falluja in the notoriously rebellious Suni-dominated Anbar province, having relabelled itself as the Islamic state in Iraq and Levant, ISIS.  While the Iraqi army managed to regain parts of the provincial capital - Ramadi - it has so far spectacularly failed to make any headway in Falluja.

Although, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, has repeatedly warned that the army was on the verge of storming Falluja, nonetheless he has so far refrained, fearing that civilian casualties would trigger a fierce backlash by tribal leaders backing the army. Maliki, on February 5, asserted that the only way to avoid a full-scale assault was to accept an amnesty declared on February 9, by Anbar’s Governor, Ahmed Al Dulaimi - which offered militants one week to lay down their weapons. But the deadline came and went and military action has not yet materialised.

2013 witnessed a dramatic surge in deadly violence that is however nowhere near the 2006-2007 levels. This is largely due to the fact that despite a relentless campaign - which has overwhelmingly targeted the Shia majority - aimed at provoking tit for tat retaliatory attacks by the Shia militias, this, at least for now, has spectacularly failed. In retaliation to the killing of dozens of soldiers on December 21, and in preparation for the looming general elections in April 2014, the army bombed AQI camps, arrested Ahmed Al-Alwani, a Sunni MP wanted for terrorism charges - and then on December 30, dismantled the protest camp in Ramadi.

While AQI and Sunni tribal leaders opened fire on the Army, the speaker of the parliament Usama Al-Nujayfi, and his Sunni bloc Mutahidoon - part of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc - explicitly demanded the immediate withdrawal of the army from Falluja and Ramadi. But, as Maliki withdrew the army, AQI scrambled to seize the two cities. Maliki’s decision was - militarily speaking - a grave mistake. However what became evident was that AIQ had not only a highly significant presence in the protest camp, but even more alarmingly, it was heavily armed. Moreover, the local police in Anbar were at best utterly incompetent, but at worst colluding with AQI.

In addition, Maliki’s decision has driven a major wedge between Sunni tribal leaders. While, Ahmed Abu Reasha, has emphatically backed the army, Ali Hatem Suliaman, has formed the Falluja Military Council to fight the Iraqi Army. Second, the sight of AQI sweeping into Falluja and Ramadi, both the scene of America’s fiercest battles, has undeniably jolted the Obama administration into expediting shipments of desperately needed weapons.

Ever since the overthrow of Saddam’s regime in 2003, the Saudi regime has been conspicuously hostile towards Iraq. This has been largely due to its deeply entrenched fear that the success of democracy in Iraq would undoubtedly instigate a response in its own people. Another reason is the deeply rooted animosity of Saudi Arabia’s extremist Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment towards the Shia. The Saudi regime also accuses Maliki, of giving Iran a free hand to dramatically intensify its influence in Iraq. The Saudi regime has made no secret that severely undermining what it perceives as a highly perilous and yet growing Iranian influence is a priority.

Even though the Saudi regime vehemently opposed the US pulling out of Iraq, nevertheless in December 2011, Syria rather than Iraq became Saudi Arabia’s principal target for regime change. The Saudi regime has consistently considered the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad, an irreplaceable strategic ally to its primary foe Iran. The Saudis moved swiftly to shore up the armed insurgents by deploying its intelligence services, whose instrumental role in establishing Jabhat Al Nusra (JN) was highlighted in an intelligence review released in Paris in January 2013. The Saudi regime also used its huge influence and leverage on not only Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq, but also on Saudi members of AQI, convincing it that its principal battlefield must be Syria and that its ultimate goal should be deposing Bashar Al Assad’s Alawite regime, since its overthrow would break the backbone of the Iraqi Shia-led government and inevitably loosen Iran’s grip on Iraq.

The New York Times reported on October 14, 2012, that most of the weapons shipped by Saudi Arabia and Qatar were going to hard-line jihadists in Syria, thereby explaining how JN swiftly rose to prominence in Syria. The New York Times also reported on September 12, 2013 that the Saudi regime dramatically stepped up its arms to the rebels, hoping to enable them to capitalise on much-anticipated US military strikes in retaliation to a chemical attack on a Damascus suburb. The Saudi regime was then taken aback by Obama’s change of heart, not only pulling back from launching military strikes against Syria, but actively pursuing diplomacy to resolve Iran’s highly contentious nuclear programme. In response, On October 23, 2013, Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief reportedly told EU diplomats that Saudi Arabia was hellbent on scaling back its co-operation with the US on the all-important issue of arming Syrian rebels.

The striking resurgence of AQI has been accompanied by a torrent of funding, arming, logistical support and salaries provided by Saudi Arabia to extremist groups in Syria, which have turned JN into the most potent killing machine in Syria, dramatically reviving it, if not vaulting over AQI’s power and influence, to levels that surmount its peak strength in 2006-07. Second, the appointment of Bandar bin Sultan as the new intelligence chief in July 2012 has ratcheted up Saudi Arabia’s faltering efforts in Syria. In Bandar’s eyes, overthrowing the Syrian regime is unachievable without initially destabilising Iraq and Lebanon. AQI has been given the green light to restart its intense campaign in Iraq, aimed at ensuring that Iraq is far too busy to prop up the Syrian regime.

The protests, which erupted in Anbar in December 2012, were swiftly highjacked by a number of the Iraqiya bloc leaders and hard-line Sunni clerics. They not only refused to negotiate directly or indirectly with the central government, but sought to escalate the protests, which were spurred on by AQI and Saudi Arabia. For AQI, the ongoing protests were a golden opportunity for more radicalisation, recruitment and ultimately reactivating the safe havens that formally existed in those areas.

Saudi Arabia in turn, enthusiastically trumpeted these protests as incontrovertible evidence from the horse’s mouth that Iraq is adopting discriminatory policies. They exploited the protests to intensify what amounts to blatant meddling under the perfect pretext of responding to appeals made by Sunni leaders. The Saudi Foreign minister in January 2013, chillingly warned that Iraq will not be stabilised unless it ceases embracing sectarian extremism.

The Saudi regime has made strenuous attempts to stave off any internal reaction due to its full-blown support for the tyrannical regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen against the Sunnis in these countries, which went some way towards unravelling the myth of Saudi guardianship of Sunni Islam. It has been working tirelessly to ratchet up sectarian strife in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, paving the way for AQI to ignite a regional sectarian war, enabling it to demonstrate to its increasingly disenfranchised people that it is heavily engaged in combating an existential threat from the Shia, namely Iran. The spiralling conflict in Syria has dramatically emboldened the Sunni minority in Iraq. All of these factors aid the resurgence of AQI.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham however espouse a different narrative. They argue that Maliki’s policy of discriminating against the Sunni minority has singlehandedly revived the AQI. This ignores the fact that the AQI were very active in the same Sunni safe havens during the premiership of both Ayad Allawi - a secular Shia - and Ibrahim Al Jaffari. The Sunni minority persistently in power since 1920, during the Baathist era under Saddam’s rule almost exclusively called the shots in Iraq, holding all the prominent positions. Sunni are now confined to the following positions - Vice President, Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister and seven more ministries – which they regard as woefully inadequate. So Sunni leaders have adamantly refused to accept the unavoidable reality that the Shia are the indisputable majority in Iraq. Al-Nujayfi even claimed on Al Jazeera TV in Qatar, that the Sunnis are in the majority. Moreover, despite Sunni claims that Article 4 of the terrorism law has been unfairly targeting them, it was, rather, the Shia cities of Basra, Amarah, and Sadr city which in 2008 experienced the most punitive implementation of the anti-terror laws.

This narrative sends out a highly perilous message to all ethnic and religious minorities. It argues that it is perfectly justifiable for marginalised minorities to join terrorist groups like AQI and turn their areas into a safe haven and launch-pad for suicide bombers, to indiscriminately slaughter thousands of innocent civilians simply for belonging to the majority, and to bring the government to its knees.

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