Controversy over the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front first erupted in 2012. Some denied that they were present in Syria, while many others thought the two groups had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda, and that they were really part of Syrian nationalist movements, but with an Islamist tinge.
Some were suspicious of these groups and believed they would work alongside the Syrian regime, which previously funded such groups in Iraq and Lebanon. The controversy lasted for a year-and-a-half, before it finally emerged that these groups were in fact affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and that they had assisted the Syrian regime by intimidating Syrian minorities, antagonizing international powers, and fighting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in every territory in Syria it had liberated. Al-Qaeda had previously done this under Abu Masab Al-Zarqawi’s rule in Iraq, confusing observers and leading them to believe its cause was one and the same as those of nationalist movements.
The Sunni Mufti in Iraq made a progressive move when he openly described ISIS as a terrorist group and exonerated Ba’athists and veteran military figures and clansmen. The truth is, though, there has been neither a Ba’ath party nor any Ba’athists in Iraq since the invasion of Kuwait. These are now old-hat terms that only represent only a handful of angry Sunni Iraqis.
General Petraeus was aware of this, and he realized that categorizing Sunnis in this way was no longer valid because the political reality had changed drastically. This is why Petraeus altered his policies and cooperated with the Anbar clans, the latter becoming his ally and joining fight against Al-Qaeda. Petraeus also managed to convince a number of Sunni opposition figures to return to Baghdad.
The current crisis began with peaceful protests in Anbar on December 2013, ahead of the parliamentary elections. Protesters back then said they had 17 demands—most of which were just related to issues such as the release of detainees and the suspension of executions. Many, including Shi’ite leaders like Moqtada Al-Sadr and Ammar Al-Hakim, understood these demands. But instead of negotiating with them or letting them be, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki—who is well-known for his foolishness—stirred up the hornet’s nest.
What adds to the threat of ISIS and Al-Qaeda is Maliki himself, who is willing to commit massacres in order to stay in power. He arrested Ahmed Al-Alwani, an elected member of parliament who hails from a prominent clan in Anbar, killing his brother as well. This was a clear violation of the constitution and the law. Alwani is still detained, while Anbar has taken a turn for the worse.
But what about ISIS and Al-Qaeda? The truth is that these two organizations are present in the province, as they’ve been hiding there since the Sunni tribes overpowered them.
Their story represents an important chapter in the history of the previous war, which saw Abdul Sattar Abu Risha establish the alliance of Sunni Arab tribes and the Anbar Salvation Council. In just one year, he defeated the Al-Qaeda organization which had for years been hiding out in the Sunni province. Abu Risha succeeded where American troops failed; however, Al-Qaeda killed him in 2007. The tribes’ alliance lasted until the Americans handed governance to Maliki, who, for sectarian reasons, ended government support for thousands of men from Anbar who had engaged in the alliance and had become part of the Iraqi army.
It is amid this vacuum that ISIS was reborn and allied with rebels and armed tribes, engaging in battles against Maliki’s forces. Instead of negotiating with the tribes, Maliki’s forces destroyed Fallujah and displaced tens of thousands of people. Despite that, he failed to suppress ISIS and the tribes. Maliki thus provoked them into attacking his forces everywhere.
Last Wednesday, Iraqis woke up to learn that Mosul and the rest of Nineveh had fallen to ISIS. Tikrit and most of the Salah Al-Din province fell the day after. And now there are groups gathered at the outskirts of Baghdad itself.
Rebellious groups consisting of former military personnel and tribes form the majority of the insurgents. At the same time, ISIS is also present and it will later become a burden on the Iraqi rebels and an ally of Maliki’s forces. This is similar to what is happening in Syria, where there are three major players: Assad’s forces and his Iranian allies, the FSA and its allies, and the terrorists consisting of ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front. Iraq will eventually go the same way.
The presence of ISIS will not alter the facts about the struggle in Iraq. One-third of the population is being punished by the federal government for sectarian and opportunistic political reasons. It is normal, then, that they revolt against the government, and they will no doubt continue to oppose it. The Al-Qaeda organization has learned how to sneak into places where there is an angry population and a major political vacuum—just like it did in Afghanistan and Syria. But let’s keep in mind that the aims of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates aren’t the same as the aspirations of angry Iraqis, and that Al-Qaeda views these Iraqis the same way it views the regime: as religious heretics.
Nuri Al-Maliki is even worse, and much more dangerous than ISIS and Al-Qaeda. He is ready to commit massacres in order to stay in power—just like Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
In order for Iraq to have any stability, it must get rid of both Al-Qaeda and Maliki.