INSS Insight No. 506, January 13, 2014
Erez Striem , Yoel Guzansky
2013 was the most violent year in Iraq since 2008, a reminder that the war for Iraq is far from over. The latest outbreak of violence in Anbar Province follows the dismantling of a Sunni protest tent and the arrest of a Sunni member of parliament, in the course of which the MP’s brothers and five bodyguards were killed. Forty Sunni MPs resigned in protest over the violent arrest, and armed clashes have broken out throughout the province. In addition, the organization known as “the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” (ISIS) and armed Sunni tribes have taken control of large portions of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and the city of Fallujah. They have seized military posts and police stations and released prisoners, while security forces have responded with aerial bombardments.
The recent outbreak of violence in Anbar Province is not only serious in and of itself, but is also a symptom of several illnesses of the Iraqi state. The Sunni protest against al-Maliki’s government began as a sporadic wave of non-violent protests and civil disobedience, and deteriorated into a violent rebellion that is threatening to bring the country once again to the verge of civil war. The Sunnis accuse al-Maliki of using false arrests and brutal suppression of protests, along with systematic discrimination against them in all areas of life. They claim that he is working to concentrate more and more government powers in his hands, to bring the security apparatuses under his control, and to exclude Sunnis from the political system in Iraq.
The Islamist organizations, which consider the battle for Syria and Iraq to be one and the same, have been adept at taking advantage of this frustration. ISIS is working on both sides of the border and seeks to establish a Islamic emirate in the territories under its control. Many weapons from the Syrian army have fallen into opposition hands. Such developments, along with generous donations mainly from private sources and “charitable” organizations in the Gulf states have helped revive these al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations in Iraq after the blow they suffered a few years back.
During the US army surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, US forces, in cooperation with the Iraqi government, began to harness the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province to the struggle against al-Qaeda, using these tribes’ opposition to the al-Qaeda presence and its violent ways.
Cooperation with the Awakening movement (Sahwah), a militia composed of Sunni tribal elements that received support from US forces in financing for weapons, was a decisive factor in Iraq’s success in reducing the number of casualties in terrorist attacks and armed clashes. However, since then the government has in many ways abandoned Sahwah. After the departure of US forces, Baghdad refused to pay all the salaries and even arrested many members, fearing the movement itself would become a threat to the government.