Al Qaeda-linked insurgents, with ties to Syria, fight for control of Iraqi cities

Nowhere did US troops fight harder to expel Al Qaeda-linked insurgents than in Fallujah and Ramadi. But two years after the US withdrawal, the group fights on.

Islamic State in Iraq fighters on patrol in a stolen police truck as they fought for control of the city on Wednesday.

Capitalizing on building Sunni Arab resentment of the Shiite-dominated central Iraqi government, Al Qaeda-linked militants have swept into two cities in Iraq's western Anbar province that the US fought fiercely to wrest from insurgents during the war.

The two cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, were the focus of near continuous US military efforts between 2003 and 2010, but insurgents - among them militants who share the world-view of Al Qaeda and came to call themselves the Islamic State in Iraq - proved impossible to root out.

Anbar is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab and the toppling of Saddam Hussein began a process in which their community has felt more and more politically and economically marginalized relative to the country's majority Shiite Arab community. While that process of disenfranchisement paused briefly towards the end of the US occupation of the country, when a US military strategy of outreach to Sunni Arab tribes with promises of jobs and a seat at the political table paid huge dividends, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has persistently antagonized Sunni Arab politicians and citizens alike since the US military's departure at the end of 2011.

Many of the Sunni Arabs of Anbar now view Maliki much as they did Iraq's interim American rulers and with a civil war in Syria raging next door, the local Al Qaeda franchise is finding the wind at its back once more. The Islamic State in Iraq, which incorporated many Syrian jihadi fighters during the battle against US forces, formally merged with Al Qaeda supporters in Syria last year to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also commonly referred to as ISIS) which has become one of the most powerful groups fighting against the Syrian regime.

The cross-border movement is far from supported by all in Anbar - its heavy-handed treatment of citizens of towns it controls and contempt for the local culture, tradition and tribal notables saw to that - but the number of people willing to join up, and almost as importantly willing to turn a blind eye rather than informing the authorities about militant movements, has swelled.

Porous border

Anbar shares a lengthy and porous border with Syria, and has been the focus of concern about Syrian war spillover since the early days of the Syrian uprising. Smuggling routes were well-established during the US-led sanctions regime against Saddam Hussein, and after 2003, Syria became an important transit point for foreign fighters and weapons flowing to the Sunni insurgency. When Iraqi forces worked with over 100,000 US troops in the country, they never managed to shut the border or control the province. Since the US departure, the job has hardly gotten easier.

The militants have taken advantage of local unrest. The New York Times reports that Fallujah and Ramadi were the site of year-long antigovernment sit-ins by Sunnis frustrated with their treatment by Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government. Mr. Maliki sent in government forces to dismantle the protest encampments in the two cities earlier this week, and the confrontation erupted into violence between armed tribesmen and the government forces that took days to calm. (Agence France-Presse reports that Maliki had dubbed the protest site in Ramadi a "headquarters for the leadership of Al Qaeda.")

The prime minister finally withdrew the army from the area on Tuesday, after striking a deal with the local tribal leaders - but as soon as government forces withdrew, Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters "swarmed" the cities, The New York Times reports. Maliki immediately dispatched the Army once again, and tried to bring the local tribesmen onto the government side with offers of guns and money, reaching an agreement Thursday. 

According to a later New York Times report, the local tribesmen are fighting alongside government troops only "reluctantly, making the calculation that, in this case, the government is the lesser evil than Al Qaeda." 

Sheikh Hamed Rasheed Muhana echoed what many Sunnis in Iraq feel when he complained that the government had alienated Sunnis with harsh security crackdowns and mass arrests of Sunni men, militants and ordinary civilians alike. He said the government had worsened matters by “creating more depressed people willing to join Al Qaeda because of the sectarian behavior and ongoing arrests.”

Overnight calm Thursday was shattered as Friday prayers, which local imams held in a public park away from the worst of the fighting, came to a close. The New York Times reports.

... As services were concluding large numbers of masked militants affiliated with Al Qaeda appeared and took the stage. Waving a black flag, one fighter shouted to the crowd: “We declare Falluja as an Islamic state and we call on you to be on our side.”

“We are here to defend you from the army of Maliki and the Iranian Safavids,” the fighter continued. “We welcome the return of all workers, even the local police, but they have to be under our state and our rule.”

Also on Friday, gunmen blew up several government buildings in Falluja, including the police headquarters, the local council and the office of the mayor, according to a security official.

As fighting spread, the militants recaptured that had been liberated by security forces and their tribal allies. Fighting was also said to have picked up again in Ramadi, and one official said four soldiers had been killed.

AFP describes ISIL as the "latest incarnation" of an Al Qaeda affiliate that the US and local tribesmen banded together to drive out in 2006. The US withdrawal from Iraq and the Syrian war sowed the seeds for a comeback of the group, and the Sunni grievances of the past year, which created tension between the local Sunni tribes and the government, created a situation ripe for this takeover.

ISIL's "strength and territorial control and influence has been expanding in Anbar for some time, but has primarily been focused on rural desertous terrain," Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told AFP. ISIL "has ridden this wave of popular Sunni anger," he said.

Anger has been simmering in Anbar for a long time. The Christian Science Monitor observed Al Qaeda efforts to rally support during protests there in February, which were the largest since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. 

 The Anbar demonstrations began in December, with protesters demanding an end to perceived targeting of Sunni Muslims after the arrest of the Sunni finance minister’s bodyguards on terrorism charges. But it is the arrests of dozens of Iraqi women that have infuriated many in this fiercely tribal area. That anger has spread to Sunni areas in Baghdad and to provinces farther north, and both Al Qaeda in Iraq and mainstream political figures have been quick to join the fray.

The Al Qaeda umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq, appealed to Sunnis this week to arm themselves against the Iraqi government and security forces. Hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Thursday, meanwhile, threatened to withdraw cabinet ministers from Mr. Maliki's coalition government if the protesters' demands weren't met. 

Unrest has surged in Iraq in the last year - 2013 had the highest death toll since 2008, as a sectarian civil war was waning. Over 7,100 civilians were killed in attacks last year, more than double the death toll in 2012.

Fallujah and Ramadi were two of the most critical cities in the US fight against the insurgency during the war in Iraq. The New York Times details their significance:

For the United States, which two years ago withdrew its forces from Iraq as officials claimed the country was on track to become a stable democracy, Anbar holds historical significance. It was the place of America’s greatest losses, and perhaps its most significant success, of the war. Nearly one-third of the US soldiers killed during the war died trying to pacify Anbar, and Americans fought two battles for control of Fallujah, in the bloodiest street-to-street combat US troops had faced since Vietnam.

As Iraq descended into civil war during the US occupation, the epicenter of the unrest was in the desert region of Anbar, a restive cradle of Sunni discontent where swaggering tribesmen defied authority even under Saddam Hussein. A US pact with those Anbar tribesmen in 2007 — to pay them to switch sides and fight alongside the United States against Al Qaeda — became known as the Awakening. That pact was credited with turning the tide of the war.

Local Sunni tribesmen told Reuters yesterday that they were talking with the militants in hopes of keeping them away from the fighting

"We are looking to prevent the government from using excessive power against us by using the excuse of Al Qaeda's presence," a senior Anbar tribal leader familiar with the negotiations told Reuters by phone.

In the midst of the tribal-army clashes, tribal fighters banded together to form the Tribal Revolutionaries, placing snipers on top of houses to keep the army from returning after they drove them out.

A prominent local sheikh defended the tribal fighters' resistance, saying the government troops did not represent or defend Anbar residents. "We cannot let this army enter our cities. They are (Shi'ite) militias, not a national army, and they are loyal to Maliki, not to the Iraqi people," he told Reuters. 

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