FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Harm Before the Storm in Iraq

by PATRICK COCKBURN

The Iraqi army is planning to storm the city of Fallujah 40 miles west of Baghdad that has been taken over by fighters from al-Qa’ida in Iraq, which is part of the umbrella organisation, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). They have torn down Iraqi national flags and raised the black al-Qa’ida flag over captured police stations, set fire to military vehicles on the road to Baghdad and captured 75 government soldiers.

The Iraqi government’s control in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province, which covers much of western Iraq, is in the balance.

Al-Qa’ida in Iraq, which was seen as largely defeated three years ago, has staged a dramatic resurgence thanks to Isis, seizing significant parts of northern and eastern Syria. Some of the fighters now holding central Fallujah are reported to be Syrians who have come across the 373-mile long border. The wars in Syria and Iraq are increasingly turning into a single conflict.

The decline in the Iraqi government’s position began in December as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped up the pressure on Sunni protesters in Anbar who have been demonstrating for a year against persecution. The government is under pressure from its supporters to stem a wave of devastating bombing attacks by a rejuvenated Isis in 2013 that killed 8,000 civilians and 1,000 police and army. A further 15 people were killed in Baghdad on Sunday.

Mr Maliki was eager to show political and military strength by a more assertive policy in Anbar and other Sunni-majority provinces in the lead up to the parliamentary elections in April, when he hopes to win a third term. Little has gone well for Mr Maliki in the last two weeks, however. On 21 December, an Isis ambush in Anbar killed 24 Iraqi army officers and tension increased a week later when the government arrested a powerful Sunni MP, Ahmed al-Alwani, whose brother was killed by security forces.

On 30 December, the long-standing encampment of Sunni protesters in Ramadi was closed but the following day Mr Maliki reversed course in the face of an outcry from Sunni leaders and withdrew the army from the cities of Anbar, notably Ramadi and Fallujah. These were occupied by Isis fighters, though they have not been able to hold Ramadi in the face of counter-attack by government-allied tribal militiamen.

A problem for the government is that Mr Maliki is engaged in a three-cornered struggle in which he faces, as well as Isis, Sunni tribal leaders who were part of the Sahwa (Awakening) movement which turned on al-Qa’ida with support from the US army in 2006. These Sunni notables have supported the protest movement, but Mr Maliki has made few concessions to the Sunnis, whom many Shias see as ultimately aiming to over-turn the post-Saddam Hussein political settlement that gave power for the first time to Iraq’s Shia majority allied to the Kurds.

The government’s intransigence has led a peaceful protest movement to mutate into armed resistance led by al-Qa’ida in Iraq. The latter, badly battered in 2010, has enjoyed a swift resurgence launching devastating bombings mostly targeting Shia civilians. The response to the Sunni protests and the return of al-Qa’ida has been a self-defeating mix of harshness and conciliation.

Mr Maliki promised reforms but in April his forces stormed a protest camp in Hawija, south-west of Kirkuk, killing 53 people. Sunni people in and around Kirkuk, who had previously looked to Mr Maliki as an ally against the Kurds, demanded that Iraqi army units be withdrawn from their areas. Politically, the rise of Isis, with its hatred of the Shia as heretics deserving death, is not against Mr Maliki’s interests since it solidifies the Shia vote behind him. The threat of al-Qa’ida also brings more US support in the shape of helicopters, Hellfire missiles and  intelligence.

The Iraqi government may be deeply unpopular in Sunni areas but this does not mean that al-Qa’ida is liked. When it was last at the peak of its power in 2006, its violence and bigotry made it even more unpopular among Sunni than the Americans. Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi, an influential Sunni cleric in Iraq previously known for counselling moderation, now says that Mr Maliki has “brought Iraq nothing but war, poverty and sectarianism. Oh people of Anbar, especially the sheikhs of Anbar, defend yourselves and your people!”

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of  Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq. Cockburn has just won the Editorial Intelligence Comment Award 2013 for Foreign Commentator of the Year. 

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
Ulrich Heyden
Crimea as a Paradise for High-Class Tourism?
Ramzy Baroud
Did the Arabs Betray Palestine? – A Schism between the Ruling Classes and the Wider Society
Halyna Mokrushyna
The War on Ukrainian Scientists
Joseph Natoli
Who’s the Better Neoliberal?
Ron Jacobs
The Battle at Big Brown: Joe Allen’s The Package King
Wahid Azal
Class Struggle and Westoxication in Pahlavi Iran: a Review of the Iranian Series ‘Shahrzad’
David Crisp
After All These Years, Newspapers Still Needed
Graham Peebles
Hungry and Frightened: Famine in Ethiopia 2016
Robert Koehler
Opening the Closed Political Culture
Missy Comley Beattie
Waves of Nostalgia
Thomas Knapp
The Problem with Donald Trump’s Version of “America First”
Georgina Downs
Hillsborough and Beyond: Establishment Cover Ups, Lies & Corruption
Jeffrey St. Clair
Groove on the Tracks: the Magic Left Hand of Red Garland
Ben Debney
Kush Zombies: QELD’s Hat Tip to Old School Hip Hop
Charles R. Larson
Moby Dick on Steroids?
David Yearsley
Miles Davis: Ace of Baseness
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail