Maliki’s Anbar Blunder

On Christmas day, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke to his country. He began, appropriately enough, talking about Jesus. He wished Christians a Merry Christmas, extended to "all Muslims, who believe in Jesus the Messiah, messenger of humanity and peace." Holiday greetings out of the way, the prime minister moved on to what he really ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

On Christmas day, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke to his country. He began, appropriately enough, talking about Jesus. He wished Christians a Merry Christmas, extended to "all Muslims, who believe in Jesus the Messiah, messenger of humanity and peace." Holiday greetings out of the way, the prime minister moved on to what he really wanted to address. He spoke of ongoing counter-terrorist operations, and the need for tribal support. Maliki then talked about "what is referred to as the ‘sit-in protest,' which has become a base for the leaders of al Qaeda," repeating the phrase twice. This was a reference to the protest site near Ramadi, the symbolic center of the mainstream Sunni protest movement countrywide.

On Christmas day, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke to his country. He began, appropriately enough, talking about Jesus. He wished Christians a Merry Christmas, extended to "all Muslims, who believe in Jesus the Messiah, messenger of humanity and peace." Holiday greetings out of the way, the prime minister moved on to what he really wanted to address. He spoke of ongoing counter-terrorist operations, and the need for tribal support. Maliki then talked about "what is referred to as the ‘sit-in protest,’ which has become a base for the leaders of al Qaeda," repeating the phrase twice. This was a reference to the protest site near Ramadi, the symbolic center of the mainstream Sunni protest movement countrywide.

Maliki went on, saying "this we know because they have openly appeared on the podium, declaring we are al Qaeda, and we cut off heads. They have openly raised the banner of al Qaeda at the podium, and soon we will air the confessions" of terrorists admitting they are based at the site. "Our intelligence from aerial and human sources inside the site, confirm the presence of both Iraqi and foreign al Qaeda leaders. The provincial government has also confirmed that there are 36 al Qaeda leaders based there. So now there is a popular demand that the site be shut down."

With national elections set for April, Maliki’s Christmas speech, a show trial-like airing of "confessions" by detainees on state television, and a wide-ranging media campaign in the days that followed were part of an effort to tie Ramadi protests to al Qaeda. The case was largely wrong, and to an extent made in bad faith. This and the December 30, 2013 bulldozing of the Ramadi encampment were among several actions that led to the total breakdown in security in Anbar province at year’s end and exacerbated the security crisis there. However, the roots of the current crisis go back over the past year.

The Rise, Success, and Failure of the Sunni Protest Movement

The Sunni protest movement began in late 2012 following the arrest of aides to then-Finance Minister Rafia al-Isawi and threats to arrest him. Isawi is from Fallujah, the volatile city in east Anbar. The protesters took a Ramadi encampment they called "Pride and Dignity Square" as their center, and quickly spread to other Sunni provinces. The protests were far larger than any Iraq had seen since 2003, and they quickly came to dominate the national political debate.

While the protests were framed as spontaneous citizen reactions, and for many participants they genuinely were, each protest site was run by political parties, or at more radical sites, by insurgent front groups. The Ramadi site was dominated by two forces, both part of Speaker Osama al-Nujayfi’s Mutahidun, the state’s largest Sunni Arab coalition. One was the "Popular Committees," a group headed by tribal "Awakening" leader Ahmad Abu Risha, and apparently run day-to-day by his nephew, Muhammad Khamis Abu Risha. The other was the Anbar Coordinating Committee, controlled by Ahmad al-Alwani of the Islamic Party. Nujayfi’s allies worked hand-in-glove with the Sunni clerical establishment, ensuring that their protests were the most well attended.

The second largest group of protest sites, mostly located in north-central and northwestern Iraq, was run by a front group for the Baathist Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), which is headed by Izzat al-Duri, a former Saddam Hussein deputy. The remainder of the sites were run by an eclectic mixture of insurgent fronts and activist organizations. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq, had a notable presence only in Fallujah. Although a formal list of demands was published and accepted as "the demands of the protesters," the document was drafted by the Ramadi leaders, and both Iraqi and pan-Arab media gave Ramadi disproportionate coverage.

The movement never had a serious chance of achieving its stated goals. It stated its demands absolutely, and was too sweeping, demanding a total abolition of de-Baathification and repeal of the death penalty for terrorism, which no Shiite prime minister would accept. Although the Ramadi site’s speakers were not al Qaeda, their message was infused with themes of Sunni power and identity, they flew old Iraqi flags with the three stars of the Baath Party, and speeches sometimes contained anti-Shiite epithets. Within a few months, attendance began to trail off.

Despite the movement not being a serious threat to his government, Maliki reacted badly at first, threatening to shut the Ramadi site down by force, saying "bring it to an end, before it is brought to an end for you." After a rebuke from the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraqi senior Shiite religious authority, Maliki quickly reversed course and said he would follow Sistani’s direction that the government fulfill protester demands as long as they are consistent with the law and constitution.

Political leaders established two committees in January 2013: a party committee and a ministerial committee. The latter achieved real albeit limited results, releasing about 3,000 Sunni prisoners. A more sweeping set of statutory reforms was proposed in March, including a significant softening of de-Baathification and other measures. But in return, Maliki demanded a formal ban on the Baath Party. With provincial elections scheduled for April and Shiite rivals attacking him over the compromise, Maliki wanted cover.

The main Sunni backer of the deal, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, was a political rival to the Mutahidun. Therefore, the wing of the protesters that was in the political process refused to back the deal, unwilling to give Mutlak a victory before the elections, and the bills stalled. Maliki’s coalition lost seats in the election, held throughout Shiite provinces on April 20, and the last effort to meet protester demands politically died at that point.

Yet that week a tragic event occurred that would both re-energize the Sunni protests and push them in a more dangerous direction. Near a protest site in Huwija, a Sunni Arab area of Kirkuk province, gunmen killed a soldier following a Friday sermon that could best be described as an incitement to war. The site was controlled by the Baathist JRTN, and the soldier killed was a Sunni, a local recruit — so if Maliki had handled it properly, it was a great opportunity. Instead, after the site had been encircled by an army unit for days without incident, special SWAT forces which report directly to Maliki came in the morning of April 23 and gunned down 44 protesters. While they were all no doubt JRTN supporters, they appeared to have been entirely unarmed. Sunnis, and quite a few Shiites, were outraged, and called for accountability.

Two videos leaked by local soldiers framed how the massacre was later perceived. One was a couple of days before the assault, and it showed an army officer pleading with protesters to allow them to search the site for weapons, saying plaintively, "You are our people, we don’t wan to hurt you!" The other was the morning of the assault, and it showed a unit of soldiers that had come at the site at an angle after the shooting started to help protesters escape. The video showed unarmed men, some of them elderly, running in fear. The videos helped cement a dichotomy in the public mind between patriotic rank-and-file soldiers and murderous Maliki henchmen that to this day explains continued Sunni support for army operations against al Qaeda, but also deep distrust of Maliki’s special forces.

The immediate impact of the Huwija incident was to push the mainstream wing of the protest movement toward militarization. Some protest leaders created a militia called the "Army of Pride and Dignity," after the name of the protest site. Although it was never a significant fighting force, videos of the rag-tag militia openly recruited from former regime elements had a huge impact on Shiite perceptions. And when on April 27 five off-duty soldiers were killed near the protest site, the government accused protest leaders of the killings, and began announcing arrest warrants.

While a major confrontation appeared imminent, both sides backed down, with the militia laying low and Maliki refraining from trying to enforce the warrants. And then in June Anbar held provincial elections, and the Mutahidun bloc, whose parties controlled the Ramadi site, won a plurality. They put together a coalition electing Ahmad Khalaf al-Dhiyabi (al-Dulaymi), an engineer who was politically active at the Ramadi protest site. This immediately restarted the crisis with Baghdad, which declared that Dhiyabi was one of the protest leaders for whom there was an arrest warrant.

Dhiyabi barely had time to get the governor’s chair warm before he changed his tone and started looking to reconcile with Maliki. The protesters authorized him to open negotiations, and they met on October 7, but his supporters could only express dismay after he began adopting Maliki’s line in interviews. In one interview he was asked about the arrest warrant, and Dhiyabi explained that it had been a misunderstanding, but had been cleared up.

By early fall, the protests were struggling with an even bigger problem, which was waning support. Attendance had rebounded after Huwija but was declining again, and mainstream media had begun to mostly ignore them. After Dhiyabi’s betrayal the clerics began taking direct control, but the protests were essentially a Sunni echo chamber.

The Road to Confrontation

On November 25, 2013, Dhiyabi led a delegation to Baghdad to meet with Maliki. The meeting turned out to be more important than it appeared at the time. Anbar leaders portrayed the meeting as focused on protester demands, but the announced results instead focused on economic benefits, including an oil refinery, airport, and irrigation project. If those promises were far away, the benefits to Dhiyabi were immediate — Maliki agreed to allow him to replace the chief of police and head of counterterrorism, hire more police under his authority, and strengthen his authority relevant to army commands in the province.

The deal was unusual in the sense that Maliki generally resists devolving security control. Additionally, Dhiyabi did not explain what Maliki got out of it, but it soon became clear there was a quid pro quo. Council Chairman Sabah al-Halbusi suggested this the next day, saying the concessions would allow the protests to be closed. The following day, Deputy Chairman Saleh al-Isawi said, "It was Maliki who raised the issue of the sit-in, and demanded it be closed," adding that Maliki told them terrorists were using the site as a base, but that it could be closed peacefully.

Dhiyabi began fulfilling his end of the bargain immediately, and spoke to tribal leaders about ending the now 11-month protest camp. On December 4, they met and held a joint press conference at which a tribal leader rejected closing the sit-in. After a journalist asked Dhiyabi if he was pushing to close the site, Dhiyabi dodged the question and said the matter was being referred to the tribes.

In press conferences on December 8 and 14, Dhiyabi strengthened his tone. In the first he strongly criticized a renewed call by a protest leader to form a militia to protect the protest site. But he merely warned of "politicization" of the protests and proposed the sit-in be suspended through elections. In the next, this time flanked by police officers, Dhiyabi took an even firmer tone, defending the province’s police and the need to maintain state monopoly on force against calls to an independent Sunni force.

In both conferences, Dhiyabi’s took a swipe at unnamed "satellite channels" promoting a return to insurgency. This mainly meant Al-Rafidayn, the primary pro-insurgency television channel, which is run by Harith al-Dhari’s Muslim Scholars Association (MSA), an organization that had backed the failed insurgency through 2007 and never stopped promoting the overthrow of the new political system. This is important to bear in mind given later events; the Sunni protest movement had always contained a pro-insurgency wing and a wing in the political process, and with Dhiyabi having been elected by the moderate wing only to betray it, pressure was building.

On December 21, the army’s seventh division was undertaking a raid against ISIS near Rutba in western Anbar when it fell into a trap that killed the division’s commander and several senior officers. This was a shock to the army, and so over the next two days security forces launched a much broader offensive against the al Qaeda-originated group. This offensive was focused in Wadi Huran and Wadi al-Abyadh, which are located in northern and northwestern Anbar, respectively, in the desert, away from the province’s population centers and close to the Syrian border where ISIS has bases.

Not only did Sunni political figures endorse the operations, but the Anbar Tribal Council did so as well. Sheikh Hamid al-Shuka, the council’s chairman who is also the head of the Albu Dhiyab tribe, said "the tribes support the security services in their operations against terrorist forces … and condemn the terrorist attacks across the province, especially the killing of Seventh Division Commander General Muhammad al-Kurwi." Sheikh Abd al-Amir al-Kaylani, the council’s secretary general, said, "the council supports and blesses the operations of the Iraqi army against al Qaeda." While Maliki faced threats of resistance related to the Ramadi site, since it was clear he wanted to move against it, no mainstream figure opposed the army operations.

At this point Maliki had a historical opportunity to unite the country in a fight against ISIS, which had not only been launching mass casualty attacks against Shiites but had also conducted a relentless campaign of assassination and extortion against Sunnis in Anbar and elsewhere. But instead he decided to use the national groundswell to shut down the Ramadi protest site, which he attacked during a speech on December 22 as operations were beginning. On December 25 he gave the "al Qaeda headquarters" speech, focused on painting the sit-in as a hive of ISIS activity. In so doing he obliterated the national consensus that had been building over previous days.

There was a burst of activity to prevent a confrontation. Nujayfi’s Mutahidun intervened in a high-profile way, claiming they had guarantees the Ramadi site would not be shut down forcibly. Defense Minister Saadun al-Dulaymi, who is from Anbar but has no real political support there, visited the province from December 24 to 25. Unable to convince tribal leaders, he left the day of Maliki’s speech promising that "the government has no intention to raid or confront the site," and that operations would remain focused on the desert.

On Friday, December 27, the eve of the crackdown, Maliki said, "Today is the last Friday sermon at the Ramadi sit-in." But by this point it should have been clear the consensus in favor of shutting it down was a Potemkin construction. True, Maliki had the support of both Dhiyabi and Halbusi. But Halbusi recanted on December 17. Officials meeting with tribal leaders encountered resistance, and the only vocal tribal leaders supporting a shutdown were sheikhs on the payroll like Hamid Hayes. Support for the sit-in had ebbed, and with the encampment perched aside the highway linking Baghdad to Jordan and Syria, it had become a nuisance. Concessions on substantive protester demands would probably have bought broad acquiescence to a closure, but not a forced shutdown in exchange for a personal deal with the governor.

From December 28 to 31 the government undertook a series of ill-considered actions that led to the total breakdown of security, which has captured global attention the past two weeks. It is unlikely that this breakdown would have happened absent the temporal coincidence of these actions.

On Saturday morning, December 28, Maliki’s special SWAT forces conducted a raid in Ramadi in which they arrested Member of Parliament (MP) Ahmad al-Alwani, the protest leader, killing a number of people, including his brother and sister, in the process. Officials explained they were actually there to arrest his brother, Ali al-Alwani, who was wanted related to the soldiers’ killings back in April, and Alwani’s security opened fire, forcing government forces to shoot back. If that was what happened, then it would allow them to get around the fact that Alwani has parliamentary immunity, since he was caught in the act.

Alwani’s family told a different story. They said the two houses, which are side by side, were assaulted by security, and that Maliki’s SWAT executed Alwani’s brother and sister in cold blood in front of him. Whether that is true or not, it is the account many Anbaris believe, and the Sunni media is routinely recounting as fact.

It is easy to understand why Maliki would target Alwani, one of the most unsavory figures in Iraqi politics. Alwani’s speeches are often laced with sectarian rhetoric — a December 2012 statement calling Shiites "children of fornication" led to protests. Maliki’s reference to protest leaders talking about cutting off heads does not come from an al Qaeda leader, but from one of Alwani’s most infamous speeches in September 2013. While the speech was about Shiite militias, it was inflammatory in light of events. And since such speeches regularly make it into Shiite media, the phrase was the perfect dog-whistle for his voter base.

Later on December 28, the official television channel, Al-Iraqiya, broadcast a show trial-like program with "confessions" of a series of young men who claimed to have joined ISIS and discussed various attacks they executed under the direction of protest leaders, including Khamis Abu Risha and Ali Hatem Suleiman. The confessions were interspersed with flashes to scenes from protests, some featuring Ramadi protest leaders and others al Qaeda flags, with ominous music in the background, like a horror movie.

The government’s case does not bear scrutiny. The narrative the confessions weave, that the purpose of the attacks was to spoil the elections, is especially illogical since Alwani and Abu Risha were running in the elections and ended up winning a plurality. The protest scenes with al Qaeda flags are from a notorious site in Fallujah, not Ramadi. Additionally, Maliki’s claim that Ramadi protest leaders openly announced affiliation with al Qaeda, is false — and it is well-known the organizations running the protest site are mainstream Anbari movements.

This is not to say that these men are not confessing to real crimes. The primary crime, the killing of five soldiers in April, was near the Ramadi site where the protesters had armed guards. Coming right after Huwija, some of the guards might have seen the off-duty soldiers and decided to kill them. Also, the other attacks to which they confessed were against government targets, not al Qaeda-style mass-casualty attacks on civilians, and Khamis Abu Risha and Suleiman had formed militias with the avowed aim of defending the protest site. The mistake was the decision to identify the site, and thus the protest movement, with al Qaeda, instead of the alleged crimes of some individuals.

Further insight into the government’s case comes from a 51-second clip of the cabinet meeting in which Dhiyabi talked about the site. The video appears to cut in after Maliki asked Dhiyabi about the site, and Dhiyabi said, "the number of al Qaeda present at the site, and I think our information is better than the security services, frankly, does not exceed, at the most, 30 to 40 individuals. Some have brought in weapons, and of those who escaped from Abu Ghraib are five or six, maybe up to 10."

This is not a huge number for the largest protest encampment in the country, probably only two or three percent of the total. But at most "30 to 40 individuals" became "36 al Qaeda leaders" in Maliki’s speech, and the site as a whole "an al Qaeda headquarters." Furthermore, it is not clear that the government has even tried to identify these individuals. Protest leaders repeatedly stated that the site was open to police inspection at any time, and there are no reports of the government attempting to search the site and being refused. Nor have the alleged 36 individuals been identified, though they might include the 10 men in the confessions video.

Also on December 28 a state of martial law took effect, beginning with a curfew. By December 30, the day security forces bulldozed buildings at the protest site, cell phone communications were cut in Ramadi and Fallujah, and residents complained that utilities had gone out. Not only was imposing martial law inflammatory, but it was also illegal, since the constitution requires parliamentary approval. Even before this the army was restricting travel between Anbar and Baghdad, also without legal basis.

By this point a new insurgency was in full swing. The call went out to challenge the curfew by force, and armed groups confronted security forces, leaving police cars and even Humvees burning in the road and an undetermined number of people dead or wounded. That evening the Mutahidun bloc and other Sunni leaders in Baghdad held a press conference and threatened to first resign from parliament and then leave the political process entirely, an act which would be an implicit endorsement of the insurgency. They demanded that the illegal state of martial law be lifted, and that Alwani either be freed based on his parliamentary immunity or his case be transferred to an Anbar court.

Faced with the possibility of total state collapse in Sunni areas, Maliki withdrew the army from the cities on December 31. This was the last step that let all hell break loose. Under normal circumstances police control security within the cities while the army controls entry and exit. But the tribal-based local police officers in Anbar can only function as part of state security when they are defending their communities against outsiders like al Qaeda. With the federal government itself besieging their towns, local police officers would not stand against the insurgents, and so the army’s withdrawal left both Ramadi and Fallujah undefended.

A final point of government dysfunction was the political struggle over the police itself, which is notable since the road to this disaster began with a November deal to remove the police chief. Dhiyabi had wanted to get rid of Chief Hadi Rzayj because he was a hold-over from the previous governor, Qasim al-Fahdawi, with whom Dhiyabi has had a very hostile relationship. Defense Minister Saadun al-Dulaymi publicly confirmed Rzayj’s removal during a December 10 visit to Anbar.

This made Rzayj a lame duck. But Maliki didn’t get around to formally approving the change to the new police chief, Ismael al-Mahlawi, until January 5, a week into the insurgency. So Anbar went into its greatest security crisis in years with a police leadership, which had spent the past six months just trying to hold on, waiting to be replaced when the dam broke.

Insurgents Empowered

Baghdad’s actions in December were the greatest Christmas gift that Sunnis wanting to restart the insurgency could possibly have received. Although official statements after December 31 emphasized that security forces and tribal allies were fighting al Qaeda, which to an extent they were, the majority of anti-government attacks were by nationalist-Islamist groups that had remained latent since the defeat of the insurgency in 2007, or had grown up more recently as elements of the protest movement radicalized. What is worse, the raid on the Ramadi site caused the mainstream tribal and religious leadership of Sunni Iraq to throw its weight behind the insurgency.

The Anbar Tribal Council, which supported Maliki’s anti-ISIS operations the previous week, declared a tribal mobilization. This included appealing for "resistance forces who fought the Americans and former [regime] officers" to defend the province against what it called Maliki’s aggression. Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi, a Jordan-based Anbari cleric who is arguably Iraq’s most respected Sunni religious authority, reacted similarly. On December 28, after Alwani’s arrest, Saadi called for Sunnis to prepare to defend the protest site, and then after the government razed it, Saadi called for soldiers to defect from the army and Sunni tribes to mobilize to defend the province. Saadi was a pillar of the nationalist insurgency from 2005 to 2007, but in 2013 had come to accept the legitimacy of dealing with the government; alienating him was a mistake.

Indeed even after the breakdown, the government seemed oblivious to the need to build a bridge to mainstream but opposing Sunni clerics. The government has been detaining and releasing clerics supporting the mainstream wing of the protests over the past year, and Sunnis rightly or wrongly blame a series of assassinations on Shiite militias the government tolerates. Continuing this, on January 1, the government announced an arrest warrant for Sheikh Muhammad Taha Hamdun, the Samarra imam who has been the protest’s de facto leader since August 2013. On January 12, Muhammad Radwan al-Hadidi, a Mosul imam, was assassinated, a killing which Sunnis blame on Shiite militias.

The biggest beneficiary of the chaos was ISIS. Its high-profile convoys with Toyota trucks carrying men with automatic weapons and black flags coming into the two cities were a propaganda coup, albeit one exaggerated by international media’s focus on "the return of al Qaeda." In both Ramadi and Fallujah ISIS ran convoys into the city, taking over government buildings and police stations. On January 3, ISIS gunmen surrounded the main mosque in Fallujhah’s city center and after Friday prayers took the podium, raised their trademark black flag, and declared an Islamic emirate.

A range of international media outlets reported ISIS’s dramatic return as "al Qaeda Seizes Fallujah," but inflated the situation since the gunmen only controlled limited sections of the city. The mischaracterization appears to have been based on the government habit of calling all hostile gunmen "al Qaeda," since the entire city had indeed fallen to insurgents. More realistic was a security statement on January 2 that the total number of ISIS gunmen was about 600, and that "ISIS controls about half of Fallujah, and the other half is controlled by tribal gunmen fighting the government since the shutdown of the Ramadi site."

ISIS had an advantage in organization and training and may well have controlled half the government buildings at one point, but it quickly began to lose control and within a week the "emirate" had disappeared. Six hundred militants, however well organized, were not going to hold a city of 350,000 people, full of armed tribesmen.

These non-ISIS insurgents who currently remain in control of Fallujah and significant portions of the rest of the province appear to break down into three main groups. The largest is the Military Council of the Tribal Revolutionaries (MCTR). Based on its rhetoric, support from specific insurgent media, and commentary from other Iraqi sources, the MCRA appears to be a new umbrella group for the old nationalist insurgents, including Harith al-Dhari’s Muslim Scholars Association (through a group called the "1920 Revolution Brigades"), JRTN, the Islamic Army, the Rashidin Army, the Iraqi Hamas, and Abdullah al-Janabi’s Fallujah-centered Mujahidin Shura Council. It is especially strong in the Fallujah area, but also has a presence outside Anbar, including in Ninawa and Salah al-Din.

The second is the similarly-named Anbar Tribes Revolutionary Council (ATRC). This group was formed prior to December 2013 from disaffected leaders of the protest movement in order to provide a military defense for the Ramadi protest site. It is nominally headed by Suleiman, and unlike the MCTR, does not aim to overthrow the current system of governance, but rather defend Anbar from what it views as the current government’s aggression. While insurgents in general are distinguishing between local police and federal forces, Suleiman made a further distinction in his January 3 statement between the federal army and Maliki’s special forces. This draws on the view, widespread among Sunnis especially since Huwija, that the army contains patriotic Iraqis but, as an institution, has been abused by the prime minister.

Aside from having different leaders and aims, these two groups are not on good terms. Not only does the MCTR view the ATRC as insufficiently revolutionary, but much of its propaganda attacks Suleiman personally for his past work within the political system.

A third group is the more nebulous Army of Pride and Dignity (APD). The APD took the name of the protest site, and the original militia Suleiman helped form after Huwija in April 2013, but it is not the same organization. Based on APD propaganda, including its Twitter account — which like the MCTR vilifies Suleiman — it may actually just be an arm of the larger group. Or it could have no central command, serving as a label like the "Free Syrian Army" which any group of guys with guns can adopt.

Having empowered the insurgency, the government then proceeded to make the crisis worse by shelling Fallujah, and has continued to do so more or less continuously. While the army claimed it was shelling terrorists, Sunni media was flooded with residents saying they were firing randomly into the city. The Mazra arms depot east of Fallujah is an example of this; while there were early reports that ISIS had seized the base and pillaged the armaments there, this was based solely on a government claim, since it was calling every group it was fighting "al Qaeda." But while ISIS never claimed control of Mazra, numerous sources supporting the MCTR claim "tribal revolutionaries" have. There haven’t been any reports of ISIS or the insurgents committing atrocities, so the likelihood is that most of the civilian casualties will have been caused by the army.

Furthermore, Maliki and Dhiyabi, now closely linked in the popular mind, were not on the same page. One indication was that Dhiyabi was telling Sunni media that ISIS was mortaring Fallujah, as the army was saying that it was doing so targeting "al Qaeda." Furthermore, both the governor and the provincial council publicly announced they had adopted a plan to allow Janabi to take control and head a tribal military council to bring order to the city as an alternative to ISIS.

Dhiyabi must not have consulted Baghdad on this, since Janabi is only somewhat more moderate than al Qaeda, and indeed the army immediately began attacking Janabi’s organization. On January 7, the government claimed it killed Abu Tafil al-Qawqazi, a Janabi lieutenant, insisting at the same time that Janabi was al Qaeda. Janabi distanced himself from al Qaeda a few years ago, and did so again this month.

Despite repeated threats to storm the city, Maliki appears to have thought better of it and on January 8 announced the army would not attempt to take the city by force "so long as the tribes" fight al Qaeda. The difficulty is that ISIS has now gone underground, and MCTR insurgents control most of the city. Even most government statements have become more realistic, in many cases acknowledging that it is not just fighting al Qaeda, but "outlaws" or "gunmen."

Two weeks after the crackdown that sparked the crisis, life in Fallujah has partially returned to normal, albeit under partial insurgent control. On January 11, the provincial government in Ramadi moved to appoint a new mayor in Fallujah, Zubar Abd al-Hadi al-Arsan, and a new police chief, Muhammad Aliwi al-Isawi, although since he was the acting chief when the security collapse occurred, this may not inspire confidence. Residents continue to complain of shortages of food, water, and other essentials, and the army continues to shell the city, as if this were a way to defeat the insurgency. But the specter of another full-scale Battle for Fallujah appears to have receded.


The short-term task is to get back to the status quo before Maliki’s "al Qaeda headquarters" speech. Security forces need to focus operations on known ISIS bases in the desert and the Baghdad belt, operations which, when conducted in a precision manner, have strong Sunni support. As for the non-ISIS insurgents who make up the majority of Sunni militants, they were a problem before, but were contained. Most Sunnis haven’t forgotten the horrible results of the last insurgency, and Anbar is almost entirely dependent on the federal budget, which is itself based largely on oil revenue from the Shiite south.

Furthermore, Sunni voters participated in last year’s provincial elections at about the same rate as Shiites, and protest attendance gradually declined over the course of the year. It took a colossal degree of ineptitude, magnified by blatant political opportunism, to create this crisis.

In the longer term, all must recognize that alleviating the security threats coming from the Sunni provinces will require years, not weeks or months. Iraqi officials are right to claim that they need better weapons to fighter terrorism, especially in terms of reconnaissance technology. But much more important, though, are internal reforms — transparency in the arrest of suspects, ensuring that those arrested actually get a trial and aren’t held for years without charge, strengthening the local police, changing army tactics toward population-centered operations, and above all enforcing parliamentary oversight over security and division of powers between Baghdad and the provinces. However much blame can be rightly apportioned to Sunni protest leaders for the obstinacy, Baghdad can do more to resolve these problems than any other actor through a comprehensive change in its own methods of governance.

Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst based in Amman, Jordan, and editor-in-chief of Inside Iraqi Politics ( Follow him on Twitter: @uticensisrisk.

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