Argument

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.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Ace of Base

Can Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally close down a problematic U.S. air station in Okinawa?

The wit and wisdom of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is not much in vogue these days. But along the fences surrounding the Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, a base of roughly 4,000 U.S. Marines, he retains an unlikely following. The small number of protesters who regularly gather here invoke Rumsfeld and quote his alleged assertion that Futenma is "the world's most dangerous base," due to its location in the middle of Ginowan City, a town of 95,000 residents in southern Japan.

Whether Futenma is really that dangerous -- and the Marines insist it isn't -- the base's opponents appear to have finally gotten their way. In late December, the governor of Okinawa prefecture, Hirokazu Nakaima, approved a U.S.-Japanese plan to build a new offshore air base on a remote spot in the island's north. It's an important step in the 17-year saga of closing Futenma: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Nakaima's decision a "milestone." (Capt. Caleb Eames, a public affairs liaison officer in Okinawa, said, "We will go wherever the U.S. and Japanese governments agree to send us.")

But even if the move comes off as planned, the end goal is still probably years away. In 1996, Tokyo and Washington first agreed to move the base, in the wake of an uproar caused when three U.S. Marines raped a local girl. The governments soon jointly identified a site, now called the Futenma Relocation Facility (FRF), near the small village of Henoko (which itself already hosts the U.S. Marine base Camp Schwab). But the project soon stalled -- discussed and then ignored by subsequent Japanese administrations. Yukio Hatoyama, elected prime minister in 2009, tried to resurrect the issue and boldly pledged in his election campaign to relocate Futenma outside of Okinawa. After admitting that he couldn't, he resigned, just eight months after taking office.

Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe breathed new life into the relocation plan upon returning to office in December 2012; he dreams of a deeper and better U.S.-Japan alliance and regards Futenma's relocation as a removable irritant. He thus pressured Nakaima -- who is a member of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party -- to sign off on the relocation.

The 1.4 million islanders potentially stand to gain: Nakaima only relented after handing Abe a lengthy wish list -- conditions, effectively, for his approval. According to an emailed release sent out by the prefectural government, these include the accelerated closure of Futenma by 2019, regardless of whether the FRF has been built by then, and a range of measures designed to boost the local economy, which lags behind the rest of Japan's.

The people of Ginowan, who have long grumbled about aircraft noise, as well as safety concerns, will be happy enough to see the end of Futenma. But many Okinawans don't want to see Futenma relocated to another part of their island -- they want to see it closed for good. Okinawans point out their island already hosts roughly 75 percent of the U.S. military bases in Japan: Futenma is just one of nine major Marine Corps facilities on Okinawa; the sprawling U.S. Kadena Air Base sits just a few miles to Futenma's north.

At Henoko, home to the proposed air base, protesters have been steeling themselves for this moment for a very long time. Hiroshi Ashitomi, a retired government worker, has been demonstrating against FRF since it was first conceived.

"Abe is not as strong as he looks," said Ashitomi with a smile. A tent sit-in, which Ashitomi helps to organize near the FRF site, is nearing its 10th anniversary, and the protesters' mood is determined, he says. "About 2,000 people pass through here each month," he estimates, with supporters coming from across the island and even mainland Japan. Their long-held opposition is unlikely to wane simply because Nakaima has managed to extract some concessions from the central government. Indeed, Nakaima had always styled himself an opponent of Futenma's relocation. His approval provoked around 2,000 protesters to descend on the prefectural government office shortly after his Dec. 27 announcement; they accused him of selling out the Okinawan people and called for his resignation.

The timing of Nakaima's decision was no accident. After the initial flurry of protest, the island -- including its characteristically anti-base media -- mostly shut down for the New Year vacation. Yet this may only be a temporary lull. Further protests and legal challenges are already being planned. The local assembly called a special session for Jan. 9 to debate Nakaima's move, though its members lack the power to reverse his decision. Yuichi Higa, the head of the town of Nago's local assembly, has even suggested that local residents will resort to blocking roads to prevent the construction from happening.

It is too early to say whether the protests will be substantial enough to stop what Nakaima and Abe have set in motion. A combination of local protest and international action -- such as filing an official complaint to UNESCO about the damage the new base would cause to the local ecosystem -- could potentially delay plans. But beyond the hard-core protesters -- most of whom are avowedly nonviolent -- ordinary Okinawans seldom take to the streets.

If Abe can demonstrate that Okinawa will promptly and tangibly benefit from Futenma's relocation, then he should be able to succeed in moving Futenma where so many previous prime ministers have failed. Despite Nakaima's green light, the United States and Japan may still face a battle to see their new base built. The question -- for Okinawans, the U.S. Marines, and American and Japanese taxpayers, and one that Rumsfeld knew all along -- is whether the FRF is really worth fighting for.

Nika Nashiro contributed research to this report.

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