Anbar struggle could become rebellion


The situation in Iraq's western Sunni-majority Anbar province is both confused and confusing but could lead to an all-out Sunni rebellion against the Shia-dominated government headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The latest trouble between Baghdad and Anbar began with the arrest of Ahmed al-Alwani, an opposition parliamentarian on December 28.  Security men stormed his home in Anbar's capital, Ramadi, wounding Alwani and killing his brother and five body guards. On December 30, army and special operations units moved into Ramadi to dismantle a year-old protest camp located on the outskirts of the restive city. Tribesmen countered the action and 17 people were killed.

Forty-four Sunni deputies resigned from parliament, demanding the withdrawal of troops from Ramadi, an end to operations in Anbar, and the release of Alwani. The camp-in had been mounted to protest the marginalisation of the Sunni community and targeting of leading Sunni figures since the US put in power the country's Shia majority in a game of divide-and-rule after the 2003 occupation of Iraq. Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi was accused of commanding death squads and driven into exile and 10 body guards of Finance Minister Rafe al-Essawi were arrested on "terrorism" charges.

During 2013 security forces slew peaceful protesters in at least four other sites, including at a camp at the city of Hawija where 51 were killed. Maliki has blamed the rising Sunni insurgency on al-Qaeda's local franchise, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which had been contained in Iraq following joint operations between US forces and Sunni tribesmen in 2007-08 and has been revived by involvement in the conflict in Syria. ISIS has been blamed or taken credit for hundreds of bombings across Iraq, largely aimed at Shias, over the past few years.

US impact

During 2013, 7,818 civilians were killed and 17,981 injured, while 952 troops were slain, the highest overall toll since 2008. The US has responded to the rise of the ISIS in Iraq by delivering to the government surveillance drones and 75 Hellfire missiles.  The US also plans to send apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets to Iraq during 2014.  These are hardly the sort of weapons needed to tackle a guerrilla movement that has largely based itself in the desert wastes of Anbar. Instead of dispatching missiles, Maliki should be seriously tackled over his increasingly autocratic behaviour as well as rampant corruption and sectarianism which are closely linked in post-US Iraq.

According to Erin Evers, writing in Human Rights Watch Dispatches, Shia militiamen have been inducted into the security forces where appointments are bought from officers who command the loyalty of those who paid bribes. Evers pointed out that Shias demonstrate they are in charge by ensuring that army and special forces vehicles are decked out in Shia flags and slogans.  This has inflamed Sunni anger against Maliki's regime, and turned many young Sunnis who would have sought jobs in the army and police to go to ISIS for employment and revenge.

Before Maliki detained Alwani and dispersed the Ramadi protest camp, Sunnis had planned to participate in April's national election even though the secular Iraqiya list on which their candidates had stood and they had voted was denied the fruits of its victory in the 2010 parliamentary election by Maliki who secured the premiership under an Iran-brokered deal. Whether Sunnis give Washington's divide-and-rule democracy a second chance will depend on what happens in Ramadi and the nearby city of Falluja. Late last week, in response to Maliki's provocations, tribesmen took control of both cities and ISIS exploited the situation by burning and looting police station and government offices, proclaiming an "Islamic State" in Falluja and raising the black flag of radical rebellion.

Falluja is a national prize for ISIS as Iraq’s 1920 revolt against the British was launched from the city which also was the site of the nationalist battle against Britain in 1941 and rebellion against the US in 2003 and 2004. The city was devastated by US occupation forces. Wary of the ISIS, tribesmen have turned against the extremists but if government forces attack these cities, the tribes may be forced to defend them alongside the ISIS. 

If this happens Sunnis across  may mount a full-scale rebellion and join forces with the ISIS with the aim of bringing down Maliki.  This would suit Sunni Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar which have funded and armed Sunni insurgents in Syria in a proxy war aimed at toppling that country's government because of its alliances with Shia Iran and Lebanon's Shia Hizbollah movement. Iraq could become fully embroiled in the Sunni-Shia struggle which has already spilled over from Syria into Lebanon and could engulf the whole region.

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