Whenever Iraq slips from international headlines, something terrible seems to happen to drag them back in. This week it was the news that militants linked to al-Qaeda had taken over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar Province in western Iraq, 7 years after the last time al-Qaeda held Fallujah. Civilians and soldiers are now being killed as the Iraqi army tries to take back the cities. But how has al-Qaeda managed to take over whole cities? Why now? And what’s behind all this?
Firstly, this isn’t only al-Qaeda who’s taken over. While the fight has been led by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), an organisation which is linked to al-Qaeda, local tribal militants are also involved. These militants are fellow Sunni Muslims, and while they are not necessarily strong supporters of al-Qaeda, they are fed up with the government of Iraq.
This is a government that is controlled by Shia’s, the other of the two main Islamic sects. The Sunni minority in Iraq feels shut out from any participation in government, and marginalised by the Shia majority. When the government broke up a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi, that sparked off this conflict. In Ramadi it was mainly tribal militants who took control; in Fallujah the city is under the control of ISIS.
While the breaking up of the camp set the conflict off, the civil war in Syria provided the conditions to make this possible. ISIS has become the strongest rebel group there, and has access to weaponry and recruits from Syria as well as the wider Middle-East and even Europe. Syria borders on to the Anbar province of Iraq, which is mainly Sunni and has always been a base for al-Qaeda. This border is so weak that ISIS could easily spread into Iraq, and take advantage of the anger among the Sunnis.
All of this is part of the wider Middle-Eastern conflict between Sunni and Shia; a conflict which has many levels. This is a complex issue, and I won’t go deeply into it now. However one interesting aspect of this particular conflict in Fallujah is that it puts the US and Iran on the same side. The US is interested in stopping al-Qaeda, and making sure that Iraq remains relatively stable. As a Shia theocracy, Iran wants to support the Shia government of Iraq, as well as damage ISIS, who are hurting Iran’s interests in Syria. This is just a taste of how deep this conflict runs.
So what now? In his excellent analysis Frank Gardner of the BBC suggests that the Iraqi government will be hoping that the tribal militants force out ISIS themselves. The government and tribes would then be able to negotiate a return to government control. If this doesn’t happen, the government will have to retake Fallujah by force. Back in 2004 the US had to retake Fallujah after insurgents took control. After failing once, a second assault succeeded at the cost of 122 US soldiers, approximately 1400 civilians, and the destruction of most of Fallujah. If the Iraqi army tries the same the result could be even bloodier.
I doubt that the Iraqi government will be able to regain control of Fallujah and the situation in Western Iraq. The Sunni tribes have little reason to listen to an ineffective government that discriminates against them. If the city falls to the government by force, the resulting blood and destruction without any attempt to reach out to Sunnis will only drive the Sunni minority further away. Unfortunately I see this as the beginning of increased sectarian problems in Iraq, and the expansion of the Syrian civil war.
For those of you who want to know more, I am planning to post a more in-depth explanation of the Sunni-Shia divide and the wider Middle-East conflict in the coming weeks.