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It’s an Anbar Thing (not an AQ or U.S. thing)

January 7, 2014

News of al Qaeda’s dramatic return to Iraq’s Anbar Province last week has reopened many old wounds. After years of brutal fighting there that bought an uneasy peace, many Americans are wondering what it all was for. The apparent “fall” of Fallujah to fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) strikes an especially bitter blow for many American veterans, not to mention the Iraqi troops they fought alongside and the Iraqi civilians they protected. According to Iraqi police sources, ISIS also holds significant ground in Ramadi and has taken the blood-soaked town of Karmah that lies between Fallujah and Baghdad. Perhaps the most chilling report is that insurgents attacked an Iraqi army convoy on the Baghdad-Fallujah highway, taking three tanks and demonstrating the intent to once again isolate Anbar from the rest of the country.

This has all the makings of a great made-for-TV foreign policy debacle: al Qaeda as the catch-all boogeyman, a wasted sacrifice/let down the troops narrative, and best of all, the accusation that this is all America’s and especially President Obama’s fault. “Power Vacuum Lifts Militants,” the headlines will read, neatly tying in the upheaval in Anbar with the chaos in Syria and growing violence in Lebanon. By leaving Iraq and not acting decisively in Syria, the United States has left a vacuum that is being filled by militants playing out a proxy war between an emboldened Iran and a fearful and rankled Saudi Arabia. Maps are being redrawn, Sykes-Picot is unraveling, and the great Sunni-Shi’a showdown has come.

While some—though certainly not all—of this may be true in a more nuanced telling, we Americans must disabuse ourselves of the notion that everything that happens in the world comes to pass because of something we did or failed to do. Second, we have to stop telling current events in the voice of a high school history book, where by necessity anything worth telling has to be part of, and determined by, the broad trends of the day and the region. High school history books aren’t a place for nuance and specificity…nor is our current foreign policy narrative. Instead, we must look past ourselves and the shiny events of the day to understand the local and specific conditions that shape even the most important events.

Turning back to Anbar, there is no denying that the al Qaeda resurgence in Iraq in the form of ISIS is linked to the war in Syria and thus to larger regional dynamics playing out there. Yet, the ISIS flare-up in Anbar is only a symptom of the much deeper and specifically Iraqi problem: the meltdown of the long-simmering standoff between the Anbari tribes and the Nuri al-Maliki government. The ISIS swoop into the Sunni triangle is a move by a margin player sensing a moment of opportunity. Furthermore, while many Anbari tribes have vowed to fight the ISIS interlopers to the death, this does not mean they are truly allied with the Maliki government. Therein lies the root issue.

Anbar is the Sunni heartland of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein once garnered a great deal of his support—especially after the broader base of his regime was weakened considerably by his disastrous adventures in Iran and Kuwait. While Hussein ensured that a disproportionate amount of resources went to key areas, key tribes, and key individuals in Anbar, the desert redoubt was nonetheless an economic backwater with precious few resources and almost no industry. Separated from their economic lifeline to the capital by the U.S. invasion in 2003 and cashiered by de-Ba’athification shortly thereafter, military and civilian officials in Anbar saw little good in the coming new order. Some took to guerrilla tactics immediately. It soon became clear that the political process would empower well-established Shi’a religious parties. These parties aimed to cut Anbar and its elites off from the rest of the country’s resources and to pursue them for the wrongs of the previous regime. Facing a future without reconciliation, Sunnis’ simmering unrest turned to full-blown insurgency, and then to civil war. (The below summary of events through 2009 and the details therein are drawn from my book, Iraq in Transition).

In the midst of staggering violence and a tragicomic U.S. campaign to rebuild a country it thought it would be leaving in a matter of months after the invasion, a political process took place to elect a transitional National Assembly and draft a permanent constitution. Iraq’s Sunnis, though by no means a monolith, were by that time mired in an insurgency and unprepared to accept their new position as a minority in Iraq. Hussein’s manipulations and propaganda had many Arab Sunnis believing that they made up an absolute majority of the population, instead of their true demographic proportion of some 20 percent. The Shi’a constitute roughly 60 percent and the Kurds another 20. In denial, the Sunnis largely boycotted the National Assembly elections in 2005, leaving them with even less influence than their numbers would have afforded them. Intransigence and the insurgent violence further eroded the Sunnis’ political sway to virtually nothing.

In the end, the Sunnis found the resulting constitution, which decentralized Iraq’s powers and revenues to the regions (relatively wealthy and independent Kurdish and Shi’a enclaves and a dependent and poor Sunni one), unacceptable. In the referendum, 96.96 percent of Anbaris voted against the constitution, as did 81.75 percent of the largely Sunni Salahaddeen Province and 55.08 percent of Erbil. This fell just short of scuttling the constitution, which would have been affected by two-thirds rejection in three provinces.

The only thing that saved the constitution may have been a last minute sop to the Sunnis who won the endorsement of one Sunni party and may have saved the vote in Erbil. This was Article 142, which stipulated that a committee would be established within four months of the ratification of the constitution to explore potential amendments that would be voted on in one package. Seven issues were to be addressed. Key among them were the status of de-Ba’athification laws, the ability to veto changes by a three-province vote, and perhaps most importantly, the split of oil revenues between the national and regional governments. This dangled carrot, however, never came to pass. While the committee was created, no significant action was taken to address the Sunnis’ grievances.

The ratification of the constitution led to elections that, after difficult negotiations, seated Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Maliki was seen as a relatively weak, compromise candidate agreeable to all the parties, but ended up asserting himself to the point that he was accused by some Sunnis and Shi’a alike of being a strongman dictator in the making going into Iraq’s 2010 elections. For this vote, Maliki headed his own new “State of Law” coalition, finishing second by one seat to former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya coalition. The Iraqiyya coalition was an avowedly non-sectarian collection of Shi’a and Sunni parties and was seen as the Sunnis’ best hope for a change, especially in the face of the disqualification of over 400 mostly Sunni candidates from the election. Nonetheless, after months of wrangling and a U.S.-brokered power-sharing agreement, Maliki was reseated as prime minister and the Iraqiyya coalition sidelined.

In the years since, Maliki has continued to strengthen his grip on power in Baghdad, further alienating the Sunnis with moves to marginalize and even arrest their members of parliament. For instance, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi’s house in the Green Zone was surrounded by Iraqi troops just before the final U.S. combat troops left Iraq in December 2011. A warrant was issued for his arrest for murder of Iraqi government officials just one day after the final convoy crossed into Kuwait. Hashimi escaped to Kurdistan, where the Kurdish Regional Government refused to extradite him back to Baghdad.  He ultimately fled to Turkey, which has likewise refused extradition. Hashimi was found guilty by an Iraqi federal court and sentenced to death in absentia in 2012.

Relations between Maliki and the Sunnis drifted from bad to worse in 2013 as violence escalated to claim the highest toll since 2008. Over 8,000 Iraqis were killed in 2013, compared to lows under 3,000 per year in 2010 and 2011. This violence included a renewed campaign of mass casualty bombings, as well as raids by multiple insurgent groups, including ISIS—all labeled al Qaeda terrorists by the Maliki government. In April, insurgents ambushed an Iraqi military convoy, killing ten and leading to a security force raid on a protest camp near Kirkuk that killed dozens of protestors and inflamed Sunni rage. Meanwhile, rising levels of violence enabled brazen jailbreaks, like the one at the famed Abu Ghraib prison between Baghdad and Fallujah that reportedly freed 500 al Qaeda members in July.

Another protest camp in Ramadi—to the Sunnis a symbol of their discontent with continued marginalization and to the Maliki regime an al Qaeda hotbed—simmered throughout the year. On December 28, Iraqi troops surrounded the house of Iraqiyya member of Parliament Ahmed al-Alwani, a staunch supporter of the Ramadi protestors. He was arrested on unspecified charges, but not before his brother and five bodyguards were killed and some ten others wounded in the clash.

Two days later, on December 30, the Iraqi military broke up the Ramadi protest camp. Over ten people were killed in the clashes, with fighting breaking out in Fallujah as well. In short order, 40 Sunni members of parliament tendered their resignations and a leading Iraqiyya representative and habitual firebrand, Saleh Mutlaq, called for all Iraqiyya members to withdraw from the political process, saying it had hit a “dead end.” With over 8,000 people killed in the violence across Iraq last year, it certainly does seem so.

Turn the page to 2014, and we see that the ISIS/al Qaeda move on Fallujah, Ramadi, and Karma last week is only a symptom, not the problem. For now, the Iraqi army is attacking the flare-up with airstrikes and artillery. Some, but not all, of the tribes of the Anbar Awakening, or Sahwa movement, have pledged to fight the ISIS scourge as well. No matter the outcome, the underlying political conflict between the Sunni minority and the Maliki regime and its supporters will not be erased by military action.

Even this account—hopefully more nuanced than the “al Qaeda takes over Anbar” clips—glosses over a great deal of complexity. To just scratch the surface, the simplification of ISIS to “al Qaeda” creates an unrealistic picture of the transnational Islamic cabal clawing its way towards caliphate. This is a sub-regionally focused organization with some transnational muscle, but even that may ignore the specificity of who they are and what they are doing in Anbar. While ISIS has grown much stronger recently due to its increasingly state-like safe haven in Raqqa, Syria, the organization becomes murkier the farther it gets into Anbar and, like the Toyota Hiluxes they drive, becomes caked with all sorts of Anbari mud. In part, this is because the monolith term “Iraqi Sunni,” or “Iraqi Arab Sunni,” obscures a number of cleavages. There are distinctions of tribe, of rural versus urban, of class, of business or criminal occupation, and of status and position under the former regime to name a few. These lines further cleave the conflict, just as they did in the bad old days, creating a mosaic of fights. So, today we may have tribes fighting ISIS and the Iraqi army fighting ISIS. But some of those tribes may also be fighting the Iraqi army. And each other.

Whether this thing with ISIS is settled soon or not, the main event is between the Anbaris and the Maliki regime. The stakes are growing only higher as parliamentary elections loom in April. So, in the end, the story in Iraq is not about a vacuum, or about U.S. foreign policy choices, or what the U.S. could, should, or should not do. It is about a fraught political transition in a complex country. While there are numerous international influences and themes that add layers of complexity on top of the mess hinted at here, the story really is an Iraqi one. The solution will be too. As it should.


Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.


Photo credit: Al Jazeera English (adapted by War on the Rocks)

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5 thoughts on “It’s an Anbar Thing (not an AQ or U.S. thing)

  1. While I found the article a fairly lucid analysis, this quote caught my eye: “we Americans must disabuse ourselves of the notion that everything that happens in the world comes to pass because of something we did or failed to do.”

    I’ll agree when talking about the Far East, but in the case of Iraq, there is absolutely no other argument at all that would stipulate that ISIS would be fighting in Anbar if we had not engendered regime change in Iraq. And by extension, the mess in Syria. Saying we aren’t to blame is ludicrous. Whether “blame” is the right word is another story, but what’s going on in Anbar is a DIRECT reflection of our intervention, regardless of the current political realities. Actually, the current political realities are also a DIRECT reflection of our intervention.

    1. Doesn’t Al Qaeda’s grand strategy involve a fight at home and a fight on foreign territory? You do make a logical point but I would not assume Al Qaeda would not have started a fight against Saddam at some point regardless of US action. Fighting them does make them more experienced but running away from them guarantees failure. Iraq does now have a regime which is going to fight Al Qaeda for their own interest. Perhaps this regime will be successful in the long run. The fight has not really begun.

  2. Thanks for debunking the simple bumper sticker phrases of political sloganeering. It’s a complicated mess that Iraqi military action alone won’t fix–that solution lies with the Malaki government’s willingness to politically negotiate with the Sunnis.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. So I’ve heard from some foreign policy commentators that pulling American troops out from Iraq might put some pressure on Maliki to actually govern better rather than use our troops as a crutch to maintain stability. Has this not happened, and why? Is he just a Maliki just an inept and power-hungry leader?