Iraq’s Sunni Civil War

(By Juan Cole)

The attempt launched earlier this week by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) to take and hold city quarters in Falluja, Ramadi and Khalidiya in al-Anbar province has provoked an enormous political crisis in Iraq. The insurgents and supporters chased police and soldiers away from their stations, burned police stations and freed prisoners from jail in al-Anbar cities. ISIS years ago announced itself an affiliate of al-Qaeda, though the designation is largely symbolic, since the organization clearly does not take orders from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader probably hiding out in Pakistan.

While the old Islamic State of Iraq was powerful in some areas at some times, it was a guerrilla organization that faded away when conventional troops came at it. ISIS had not actually held any part of Iraq on a day to day basis. It is likely that the idea of taking over al-Anbar cities was inspired by the ISIS operation in northern Syria, where it has taken territory away from the Baath government. ISIS fights for Sunni extremism on both sides of the border.


The organization took advantage of al-Anbar anger at the al-Maliki government. Last weekend al-Maliki sent a swat team to arrest a prominent Sunni parliamentarian, accusing him of “terrorism.” It also took advantage of the Iraqi Army busying itself last Monday with dispersing a peaceful civilian protest outside Ramadi, which had closed the highway to Jordan to truck traffic.
The organization took advantage of al-Anbar anger at the al-Maliki government. Last weekend al-Maliki sent a swat team to arrest a prominent Sunni parliamentarian, accusing him of “terrorism.” It also took advantage of the Iraqi Army busying itself last Monday with dispersing a peaceful civilian protest outside Ramadi, which had closed the highway to Jordan to truck traffic. In the aftermath, some Sunni tribesman attacked Iraqi troops, and some of them may have thrown in with ISIS. Popular anger chased many police from their stations, leaving the cities open to occupation by the insurgents. By Thursday ISIS had taken over big swathes of some al-Anbar cities and its guerrillas had taken over the empty police stations. Allegedly half of Falluja had fallen to the al-Qaeda affiliate.

On Thursday, the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki conducted negotiations with Ahmad Abu Risha and his anti-al-Qaeda tribesmen (the Dulaim). By late Thursday, a deal had been struck, and Sunni tribal forces agreed to fight the ISIS units alongside Iraqi police and army.

On Friday, Iraqi troops and police launched a joint operation in Ramadi and Khalidiya to its south with Abu Risha’s tribal levies, pushing back ISIS in those cities. Abu Risha estimated that 60 ISIS fighters were killed during the operation and that ISIS leader Abu Abdel Rahman al-Baghdadi was among the dead. He said 46 were killed in Ramadi and 16 in nearby Khalidiya. He maintained that 80 percent of al-Anbar had been cleared of ISIS by late Friday.

A spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite clerical leader followed by most Iraqis of that branch of Islam, praised Abu Risha’s tribesmen for fighting alongside government troops against the al-Qaeda affiliate. He also seems to me to have implicitly criticized al-Maliki’s recent actions, saying that no one’s constitutional rights should be infringed because of the person’s sectarian allegiance. He also said the 2014 parliamentary elections offered hope to the country and demanded that voters be provided the security they needed to vote their consciences freely and without undue pressure.

Abu Risha called his campaign tribal “revenge” on al-Baghdadi. The Dulaim tribe of al-Anbar was first organized to fight al-Qaeda in western and northern Iraq by American generals, including David Petraeus, as “Awakening Councils” or “Sons of Iraq.” Al-Maliki never liked this project, seeing the Awakening Councils as Sunni militias that might easily turn on his government. But it appears that he suddenly rethought this position on Thursday. He likely promised Abu Risha substantial resources. There had been 100,000 Sunni fighters in the old Awakening Councils, but after the US withdrew it was alleged that only about 17,000 got government jobs and many of the others complained that they were left defenseless, without arms or funds from the government, and liable to reprisals from al-Qaeda.

Al-Arabiya is reporting that fighting also took place, with casualties in Falluja.

Iraqi military officers announced that they saw signs of ISIS reinforcements being assembled in Falluja and elsewhere, and said that the al-Qaeda affiliate still controlled parts of al-Anbar cities.

Heavy fighting was reported in east Falluja between tribal levies and ISIS, which continued to have a position in some neighborhoods.

The ability of ISIS to take over government buildings and police stations suggests a serious deterioration of capacity on the part of al-Maliki’s police and army in the Sunni regions west of Baghdad. That his government needed the help of Abu Risha’s Dulaim tribesmen suggests that his largely Shiite troops had been ineffective in this area.

Blame needs to be apportioned to ISIS, which is a horrible terrorist group full of hatred and intent on oppression of people, for its overweening ambition. Iraq is not Syria, that territory can be liberated in the medium to long term from government control.

But some of the blame attaches to al-Maliki, who helped provoke this uprising by driving so many al-Anbar Sunnis into the arms of ISIS by his brutal crackdown and his policy of almost completely ignoring Sunni complaints. Al-Maliki needs to decide if he is prime minister of Iraq or prime minister of the Shiite South. If he is the head of state for the whole country, he needs to find a way to make the Sunnis his constituency, as well. That quest is impeded by his being head of the Shiite fundamentalist Islamic Mission Party (al-Da`wa), which is unlikely to get many Sunni votes. Iraq needs a bigger, cross-sectarian framework for its politics if it is to avoid Syria’s fate.

Related video:

Euronews reports on the al-Anbar campaign:

14 Responses

  1. Why should anyone counsel that Maliki can or should fight to be anything other than head of the Shiite South?

    Should he also strip the Kurds of their autonomy?

    The best thing for the people of that land is local popular sovereignty; the alternative is foreign-fueled violence.

    Americans can do their part by staying out of it and doing no harm; a lesson that seems to escape our elites no matter how many innocents are mangled and mutilated by outside bombs.

    One recalls the furor over three dead in Boston; do the Ivies teach empathy? Iraq, Syria, Libya have all been decimated by Ivy policies.

    American elites: bad for America, bad for everyone.

      • Maliki was imposed on Iraq by a combination of American force and money and when these things are withdrawn it is very likely that the country will fall apart without a ruthless strongman like Saddam Hussein. This was always a major reason for not overthrowing Hussein and why should it be different now? There has been little sign that Sunnis in general are satisfied – many groups have probably been biding their time. If the US is going to remain involved the best strategy may be to pay off the Sunni leaders – it seemed to have worked for Petraeus, and this kind of thing was standard for the British for a long time.

        • the US never wanted al-Maliki, he came to power with a Shiite coalition backed by Iran. He represents the 60% Shiite majority of the country and was more acceptable to the 20% that is Kurdish than the other candidates in 2010. The US likely is hoping that Ayad Allawi will come to power, who is anti-Iran, and who, although he is from a Shiite family, heads the largely Sunni al-Iraqiya Party.

    • Iraq is sovereign state, and Malaki is the head of that state. For him to only be PM of the Shiite south would mean the partition of that country – historically, not a pretty process. Should Abraham Lincoln have fought to be only President of the Northern States?

      Also, the Kurds threw in with Malaki, and the Kurdish leadership support his governing coalition.

  2. I’ve read several places that Maliki agreed to withdraw troops from the Sunni areas and that allowed al-Qaeda to seize control. If true it seems like it rather undercuts the arguments that the security unfairly targets Sunnis. Given the toll AL-Qaeda terrorism has taken on Shia I can hardly blame them for wanting to take precautions.

  3. ///Iraq needs a bigger, cross-sectarian framework for its politics if it is to avoid Syria’s fate.///

    The Baath Party?

  4. It is worth bearing in mind that in 2003, the US with the support of the UK and the ‘coalition of the willing’ launched an invasion of Iraq. The Peshmerga (Kurdish military force in Iraq) were part of this ‘coalition’. There followed almost immediately the policy of ‘de-Ba’athification’ which effectively excluded Sunni Arabs from being a part of the government/public service and indeed even the ‘democratic’ process in general. The US then instituted and ran so-called ‘Shi’a death squads’ who engaged in sectarian killings and torture.

    From the start of the war until (just) June 2006, the only epidemiological study thus far conducted (and published in Lancet) found that about 601,000 excess violent deaths had occurred in Iraq, most of them civilians (an astonishing 2.5% of the population). Many more were casualties not to mention the many victims of torture and rape. Much of Iraq was reduced to rubble.

    It is no wonder that sectarian conflict ensues and the cycle of violence will take a long time to die down. But the majority of the blame lies not in the hands of Iraqi politicians like al-Maliki nor in the hands of fundamentalist militants like ISIS. It lies firmly in the hands of the instigators and perpetrators of the mass killing in the first place – the US.

    From what I have read of the author’s work, he would no doubt agree with me here but the article as written creates a different impression. This is probably due to trying to limit the scope of the discussion to internal Iraqi politics but, nevertheless, the point I have made should not be forgotten in any discussion on Iraq. Just because US troops have now pulled out, it does not absolve the US of responsibility for the unimaginable amount of human suffering that their actions have caused and continue to cause well into the future.

  5. We would do well to follow the author’s example and become familiar with the tribal structures of Iraq, in this case in the west, and their histories from the Ottomans on; and to follow up on his mention of Saddam’s attitude toward tribes, which seems common among modern-state-makers and modernizers.

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