A New Anbar Awakening

Do tribal warriors in Fallujah and Ramadi have what it takes to rout al Qaeda?

On the brink of a catastrophic new battle for the besieged city of Fallujah, the Iraqi government has paused its threatened assault on al Qaeda's positions in the city amid confusion over which fighters it can count on among its allies.

Over the past several weeks, simmering Sunni discontent with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's rule has escalated, causing the Iraqi government to lose control of Fallujah and the capital of Anbar province, Ramadi. Gunmen affiliated with al Qaeda emerged last week to seize large parts of Fallujah after Maliki's government dismantled a protest camp in Ramadi and arrested a prominent member of parliament.

The Iraqi government has launched airstrikes and shelled what it says are al Qaeda positions in preparation for sending the Iraqi Army, which is so unpopular in predominantly Sunni Anbar province that it was forced to withdraw its forces from Ramadi and Fallujah last year.

In Iraq, Anbar is known as a fiercely tribal, conservative region that even Saddam Hussein had trouble subduing. In the United States, it's a metaphor for the bitterness of a bewildering war, where almost 4,500 Americans died fighting an enemy they didn't understand. The province's troubled history holds out little hope for the Iraqi government's ability to quell the violence through military means.

To make matters worse, the battle lines for the coming conflict are far from clear. A former U.S. military official in touch with tribal leaders in Anbar said tribesmen battling fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al Qaeda affiliate, found themselves under attack on Monday, Jan. 6, by Iraqi special forces. Tribal security forces were instrumental in helping the United States beat back al Qaeda during the military surge in 2007, and they could potentially be a bulwark against the return of jihadi groups today -- unless the Iraqi government continues to alienate them.

Richard Welch, a retired U.S. Army colonel who headed the American effort to reconcile Iraqi tribes with the central government for more than five years and who still maintains contact with tribal leaders, said that he was told by his sources that an Iraqi SWAT team and special forces unit opened fire on the Iraqi tribesmen -- but not the al Qaeda gunmen -- in a fierce battle near the town of Abul Obai wa Bayali between Fallujah and Ramadi.

Presumably, the Iraqi forces were unable to differentiate the ISIS gunmen from the tribal fighters. On Monday, their mistake turned a possible ally into an enemy.

"During the fight, ISIS sent a message to the tribes that they were learning their lesson about how bad the ISF [Iraqi security forces] were and that they should join ISIS in fighting the government," said Welch.

For the tribal forces, it was a compelling argument. Welch said he was told the tribal fighters and the al Qaeda gunmen joined forces to turn on the SWAT team attacking them, burning more than a dozen armored vehicles in the process. After the Iraqi security forces retreated, tribal reinforcements arrived and drove out the ISIS fighters, he said, warning them to leave Ramadi.

If the Iraqi government does attack Fallujah, the number of casualties could be enormous -- a calculation not lost on Iraqi officials. In November 2004, U.S. and Iraqi forces drove al Qaeda out of the city in the fiercest battle of the Iraq war. But al Qaeda and its affiliates didn't die; they just went elsewhere. Now, the increasingly sectarian conflict in neighboring Syria and the Maliki government's marginalization of Iraq's Sunni population has allowed al Qaeda and its latest incarnation, ISIS, to regroup.

For Americans with even the faintest memory of the war, Fallujah is almost instantly recognizable. For the tens of thousands of Americans who served in Anbar, it's much more.

"Symbolically, Fallujah was always going to be at the top of the list as to [answering the question]: 'How did the war end?'" said J. Kael Weston, a former State Department official based in Fallujah who is now writing a book about the conflict. "Fallujah is a report card. We wanted it to be better."

Unlike the first two battles for Fallujah, when U.S. soldiers engaged in the fiercest urban fighting since the Vietnam War, the coming battle will be fought with the United States looking to stay as far away from the conflict as possible. "This is their fight," Secretary of State John Kerry said on Jan. 5, declaring that the United States will intervene only to speed up delivery of surface-to-air missiles and surveillance drones.

Iran's deputy chief of staff told Iranian state media on Jan. 5 that his country is also prepared to offer arms to the Iraqi government -- reinforcing a view of many in Anbar and other Sunni areas that Iraq's Shiite-led government is an arm of Tehran. These deep suspicions of sectarian motives would mean that airstrikes on Fallujah (without any of the political concessions demanded by Sunni protesters) will only fuel the conflict, many former officials with experience in Iraq believe.

"When people talk about what's going on in Fallujah and al Qaeda -- well, the al Qaeda guys are probably largely the homeboys revolting against a government that they view as totally dominated by Iran," said Weston, who spent three years in Fallujah. "So while our instinct is to give [the Iraqi government] technology and drones, my view is: Do you really think that more weaponry is going to solve what is fundamentally a political problem?"

Maliki, who thinks his government is genuinely under threat from al Qaeda and other groups funded by hostile Sunni Arab states, has so far been unwilling to offer the sweeping political reform demanded by the protesters.

Welch said that many of the tribal leaders with whom he speaks believe the weapons the United States is now supplying to Baghdad will be turned against the Iraqi people.

"If it's an Iraqi fight, why are we giving them weapons?" he said. "By not taking sides we are taking sides.… There is no neutrality for us anymore in the region."

Photo: Sadam el-Mehmedy/AFP/Getty Images


Inflection Point

To win back Fallujah, Nouri al-Maliki doesn't need to negotiate -- he needs to fight.

With the fog of war not yet lifted, the news out of Iraq's Anbar province remains ambiguous. What little we can see, however, does not look good. Al Qaeda in Iraq -- along with significant elements of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) -- has been able to take over government buildings in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Karmah. In response, government forces have amassed outside these cities and are preparing for an operation that could reverberate in Iraq's nascent democracy long into the future.

The current crisis did not arise overnight. The tensions in Anbar -- and other Sunni-dominated areas -- have been building for some time. Some blame the situation on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-dominated national unity government, but this confuses cause and effect.

The fundamental problem is that significant numbers of Anbaris have not yet reconciled themselves to the loss of power -- and the privileges that came with it -- after the fall of Saddam Hussein. This has spawned two results: demonstrations to express demands that are politically impossible outside an authoritarian system and a return to the violence that al Qaeda has been trying for years to precipitate.

These next weeks will give the people of Anbar an opportunity. They can demonstrate that -- whatever they may think of the central government -- they reject violence, terrorism, and the nihilistic Islamism of al Qaeda and its affiliates. (Anbar's governor, Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, has taken this route, calling for the return of the Iraqi Army to push out ISIS.) Or they can reinforce the narrative that some of their fellow nationalists are pushing: That whenever the Sunnis don't get their way politically, they will resort to the kind of violence and terrorism that killed over 8,000 Iraqis in 2013, most of them Arab Shiites. Anbar's much-discussed tribes are currently on both sides of this equation, with some clearly aligned with Baghdad, others fighting alongside al Qaeda and ISIS, and still others trying to maintain distance from both or to al Qaeda on their own.

The Sunni protests in Anbar and elsewhere -- the disbanding of which seems to have triggered this latest episode -- are often romanticized in the West, with otherwise responsible analysts calling on the prime minister to meet Sunni demands. If only it were that simple. As Iraq analyst Kirk Sowell has noted, the moderate camp of Iraqi Sunnis is calling for a complete end to de-Baathification (a demand that no democratic leader could ever agree to), discussing Arab Sunnis as the demographic majority in Iraq (there is no reliable census, but estimates of the Sunni proportion range from 15 to 25 percent), and demanding proportional representation in the security services based on their "majority" status, all while waving Baathist flags and referring to Arab Shiites as "Persians." To quote Sowell, "And that's the moderate camp." The hard-liners demand the complete overthrow of the government and the release of all prisoners, including convinced al Qaeda terrorists.

So when analysts (or U.S. senators) suggest that Maliki meet the protesters' demands, what are they really saying? Do they mean he should take extraconstitutional measures to bring about preferred policies such as limiting de-Baathification or regularizing how oil is produced and its revenues distributed -- two legislative initiatives that Iraq's lawfully elected parliament failed to approve? Although he is often described as a dictator, the prime minister could not get through the Iraqi parliament a package he negotiated with Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq (a Sunni Anbari) that limited the de-Baathification order and otherwise moderated laws hostile to former regime interests. These reforms were opposed by other Shiite parties (lost in the criticism of Maliki is that he leads the Shiite party that is least hostile to the former regime), and Mutlaq's political opponents sought to prevent him from taking credit for a political settlement. As a result, the reforms went nowhere.

This is not to say that Maliki and his government are blameless. There are no doubt actions the prime minister has taken that he wishes he could take back. Politicians make mistakes and miscalculate. But the fact remains that a terrorist force is blowing up thousands of Iraqi citizens. What kind of responsible elected official would just sit around and do nothing?

Much of the violence is externally driven, with fighters and funds pouring into Iraq from the Syrian crisis. Still, it is undeniable that some Iraqis are giving these fighters safe haven and facilitating their passage -- something that is traditionally called "passive support." In Anbar, this is and has been a serious problem.

The good news is that Iraq's Sunnis are a numerical minority -- though in Anbar they represent an overwhelming majority -- and the ISIS fighters are a small percentage within that. Moreover, al Qaeda has now given up its primary weapon against the Iraqi government: the invisibility afforded by its steady campaign of car bombings. Because al Qaeda's safe havens and staging bases were easily concealed, the terrorists were virtually invisible until they blew themselves up. Now that they have taken up positions in major population centers including Fallujah and Ramadi, however, you need only read the New York Times to know where to find them.

These cities are now reportedly surrounded, and the Iraqi Army has positioned itself between them and the open desert to prevent the escape or reinforcement of militants. The most likely scenario -- though there are no certainties in warfare -- is that forces from the central government, Anbar province, or local tribes will soon destroy the al Qaeda fighters and their allies. That is, unless other passive supporters permit them to escape.

The current crisis presents an interesting test for Iraq's security forces. After several years without American advisors and trainers, what level of combat proficiency do these forces have? One thing is certain: They will be operating without the air power that American forces enjoyed during the second battle of Fallujah, when a combined force of U.S. Army mechanized battalions and U.S. Marine infantry dislodged both nationalist and al Qaeda insurgents in a bloody battle. Notably, F-16 fighter jets -- already approved by Congress and paid for by the Iraqis-- are still en route to the country, while Apache helicopters have been requested for purchase, but not approved by a suspicious U.S. Senate.

In short, the situation in Anbar presents a political and military inflection point for Iraq. It is very possible that things could go badly -- that the Iraqi Army will underperform and that the Anbaris will not reject al Qaeda's presence. But should this crisis generally align the Anbari population against ISIS, and should the Iraqi Army (or some other military force) prevail against the terrorists in Fallujah and Ramadi, then this could turn into a positive development as Iraq goes into national elections in April. The coming days and weeks will be important ones for Iraq.