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