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.

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