The misery index for Iraq’s long-suffering citizens took a quantum leap upwards when Al-Qaeda-linked fighters overran Ramadi and Fallujah last week, essentially guaranteeing new levels of sectarian conflict as forces of the Shi’ite-dominated government move in to retake the Sunni-majority cities in Anbar province.
This latest challenge to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) follows months of escalating violence, during which bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere—including several on Sunday that killed 30—claimed hundreds of lives. The United Nations recently reported that 7,818 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013, a huge spike over the previous years’ totals.
Iraq is not yet on a par with Syria, where a raging civil war has fractured that country into pieces. But experts on Iraq say that the tortured nation is headed for greater danger as the three-year-old Syrian conflict begins engulfing its neighbors.
“I worry primarily about whether we’re going to see a failed state in Iraq,” said Iraq expert Phebe Marr. “Without a government that can establish a modicum of law and order for the population, we’re going to have a collapsed state. Iraq is not there yet; it is not Syria. But clearly the pressure on Maliki and his armed forces in this acute crisis is testing his ability to keep control of his territory in a very key region.”
The latest turn of events also presents the Obama administration with another occasion to reaffirm its hands-off policy towards conflicts in the Arab world. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear on Sunday that while Washington will assist Maliki’s government in defeating ISIS, it does not intend to get directly involved.
“We will stand with the government of Iraq and with others who will push back against [ISIS’s] efforts to destabilize [Iraq] . . . We are going to do everything that is possible. I will not go into the details,” Kerry said at a press conference in Jerusalem on Sunday.
He added: “This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis. That is exactly what the president and the world decided some time ago when we left Iraq, so we are not obviously contemplating returning. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight . . . We will help them in their fight, but this fight, in the end, they will have to win, and I am confident they can.”
An Iraqi source close to the Baghdad government said Washington will likely hasten the delivery of military equipment that Maliki was promised to Maliki during his November visit to Washington. “Things have changed for the worse and I think they are going to speed up the . . . agreements that were made,” the source said.
The equipment includes Hellfire missiles, reconnaissance drones and Apache helicopter gunships, according to the Iraqi source and media reports.
“The Iraqi military is not in a very strong position, but they can probably do better than people think,” said Judith Yaphe, who teaches Middle East history and politics at George Washington University. But, she added, “they need equipment and intelligence support and I bet we are helping them with that.”
There are many reasons for the perilous situation in Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold that was one of the toughest pieces of Iraqi territory for US forces to control during their eight-year occupation of Iraq. About one-third of all US military deaths occurred in Anbar, where one battle for Fallujah in 2004 left nearly 100 US troops dead.
The Syrian civil war is one reason. ISIS, which grew out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and which is led by an Iraqi in his forties named Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has thrived in the chaos of the Syrian conflict. In recent months, it has infiltrated back into Iraq from Syria through the porous border. And in Anbar, it has found support among Sunnis who feel marginalized—with good cause—by Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government.
In the past few years, Maliki has done little to address the political and economic grievances of Iraq’s Sunni minority. His government also has arbitrarily detained hundreds of Sunnis for long periods. Some months ago he added insult to injury by stopping payments to Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar, which had been part of a US-brokered agreement in 2006–2007. The payments had helped pacify Anbar by ensuring that tribal leaders would side with the government instead of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Halting the payments was a “stupid” move by Maliki, the Iraqi source said, because it increased the Sunnis’ alienation from Baghdad.
Today, the situation on the ground in Anbar is tense and murky, with some tribes fighting alongside ISIS and others allying themselves with government forces because they are spooked by ISIS’s Al-Qaeda connection.
“A very complex and multifaceted group of people are engaged in fighting—and I suspect you are going to see a lot of switching sides,” observed Marr. “A number of these tribal groups that were fighting with ISIS may now be switching back to Maliki as the lesser of two evils.”
That gives Marr some guarded optimism. “How these shifts go in Iraq really needs to be watched carefully over the next days and weeks because I think, at the very least, the bulk of the population in that Sunni area, while having grievances with the central government, does not want Al-Qaeda” controlling them, she said.
But in the end, she added, “the issue will be: Are they going to be willing to support Maliki’s government troops?”
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.