AMMAN — On Jan. 10, al Qaeda fighters raised their "black flag" over a government building in Fallujah, proclaiming their return to the western Iraqi city that U.S. forces had driven them from years earlier, at the cost of thousands of Iraqi lives. The moment highlighted the jihadist group’s resurgence in Anbar Province, one of the most restive areas during the U.S. occupation of the country and a region that has increasingly seemed beyond the control of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
The Iraqi government’s loss of Fallujah at first appeared to set the stage for an even bloodier military confrontation, as the army shelled what it claimed were al Qaeda strongholds in the city. Yesterday, however, Maliki ruled out a direct assault on the city, saying that he was determined to drive out the jihadists "without any bloodshed."
Maliki has blamed the war in neighboring Syria for the upsurge in violence, and vowed to launch a countrywide "cleanup" campaign against al Qaeda after the army drives the jihadists from Anbar. For Anbar’s top politicians, however, Maliki himself is the cause of the country’s most dangerous political crisis since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq — a former member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party before being expelled in 1977 — told Foreign Policy that the government in Baghdad was using al Qaeda as a pretext to crack down on its political opponents. Marginalization of Sunni Arabs, Mutlaq added, was leading to their radicalization. And even as he deplored the U.S. invasion for being the root cause of Iraq’s problems, he called on Washington to intervene in Iraqi politics to save the country from disaster.
"Yes, I do blame [the Americans]," he said. "And I expect them to do some changes in Iraq now. Not necessarily through military operations, but through political pressure and economic pressure on Iraqi politicians, to make sure that Iraqis feel that they are equal in their own country."
It’s hard to think of a less likely country for Mutlaq to place his faith in than the United States. He blames Washington for destroying the foundation of the Iraqi state with the 2003 invasion, for paving the way for what he views as Iran-linked Shiite extremist groups to take power in Baghdad, and for placing the Iraqi Army and intelligence organizations in the hands of officers bent on the elimination of any Sunni influence in the country.
"We were listening to Mr. Obama when he was saying, ‘we will withdraw [from Iraq], but withdraw in a responsible way,’" Mutlaq said. "But in fact, the way he did it was irresponsible. Because he left a vacuum behind him that was filled by the Iranians."
But with the United States one of the few countries that could influence Maliki’s rule, he is heading to Washington this week to make the case that U.S. officials should pressure Baghdad to govern inclusively.
While Iraqi security officials have claimed that Fallujah is fully under the control the al Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Mutlaq contended that the situation in the city was considerably more complex. He said that ISIS was present, but that its influence was "very minimal" compared to that of tribal groups and local residents.
A botched Iraqi military operation over the past month has been partially responsible for driving Anbar residents into open rebellion. On Dec. 21, a roadside bomb killed the commander of the Army’s 7th Division in Anbar, prompting Maliki to send reinforcements to the province. But instead of using the army to move against al Qaeda, he tore down a major Sunni anti-government protest site in the provincial capital of Ramadi and arrested a prominent Sunni legislator from the region. Mutlaq had previously been attacked by the demonstrators at the Ramadi protest for working with Maliki’s government.
The crackdown on popular dissent has led to accusations that Maliki is conflating the jihadists and his political opponents, and leaving Sunnis with no other recourse but to resort to violence.
"Until now, Sunnis are not willing to participate [in the political process] because they feel that there is no future through participation," Mutlaq said. "This will make another disaster in the country, because the Sunnis are being squeezed — and if they are squeezed to an extent, they will make an explosion."
In the wake of the uprising, Baghdad has implored the United States to immediately send advanced weaponry that it claims would be used to fight al Qaeda. Washington has responded by sending the Iraqi government Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones, but the Senate is still mulling the sale of dozens of Apache attack helicopters to Iraq. In an interview with the Washington Times last week, the Iraqi ambassador to Washington blasted the White House for neglecting its relationship with Baghdad.
"The administration has to have a better understanding of any adverse impact of any delay in provision of support to Iraq," Ambassador Lukman Faily said. "It cannot afford a whole town or province of Iraq falling to al Qaeda and becoming a safe haven."
The proposed sale has placed Maliki’s opponents in a bind: While they don’t want to be in the position of denying the army needed equipment, they also fear that new weaponry will be used by the prime minister to crack down on his rivals rather than the jihadist threat.
Mutlaq made the case that the United States should pair its military support to Baghdad with political pressure on Maliki to govern in a more inclusive manner.
"It is good to strengthen the Iraqi Army – but the professional army, not the sectarian army. If you strengthen the sectarian army, you are making more hazards for the country," he said. "So what the Americans should do is first correct the political process in Iraq, to ensure equity in the country, justice in the country, and let people feel that they are first-class citizens."