Iraq’s Anbar governorate has been beset by clashes between armed Sunni tribesmen, Sunni extremist fighters linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the government and its tribal allies (Awakening Councils) since 30 December. The cities of Fallujah and Ramadi have emerged as the primary battlefields in a conflict that has raised sectarian tensions, threatened to further erode the legitimacy and authority of the state and severely dented Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s national prestige and image, particularly among non-Shiite groups.
The conflict was sparked by the arrest of a prominent local Sunni politician and the disbanding of a Sunni anti-government encampment in Ramadi in late December. The action was precipitated by an astonishing about turn by Anbar governor, Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, who up to late December had supported the Sunni protesters. His throwing of his lot (and his tribes, the Albu Dhiab) into the Maliki camp, who had favoured the dispersal of the protesters, polarized an already split Anbar governorate. It was within this political mess that AQI sniffed an opportunity and began deploying its fighters to the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi, further complicating an already complex conflict. The indications to date are that AQI are not coordinating their action with local tribes, at least not officially.
Maliki has since deployed additional military brigades to Anbar in an attempt to reassert government control. The deployments have not succeeded and the Iraq army, sensing a possible defeat, has largely moved to surround the two affected cities and engage opposing gunmen in limited confrontations. The approach appears sensible at this stage. While the army can easily rout gunmen, they don’t have sufficient forces to hold territory. There are indications that the government has called for volunteers and that these forces are being trained and will be deployed to Anbar within the month to act as non-combatant support to the primary fighting units.
The approach of Maliki is not out of character. He is considered Iraq’s strong man and favours shows of strength above negotiation, which could reveal weakness to Iraq’s battle hardened tribal and militant forces. This position has served to harden opposition to his regime and stoke accusations that his government is propped up by Shiite Iran. Unsurprisingly his State of Law coalition and the predominantly Sunni Iraqiya are on poor terms. Elsewhere, the Kurds, nestled in their northern autonomous zone, have watched with interest developments in Anbar. In December, they offered troops to support Iraqi forces battling an AQI surge in Anbar. This position has since changed to KRG President Barzani criticizing Maliki’s approach to the conflict in the region. This may serve to strain ties further between the central government and KRG over the course of 2014.
Iraq military and police
Sunni tribal Awakening Councils led by Ahmed Abu Risha
Anbar governor, Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi
Albu Fahad tribe
Albu Bali tribe
Albu Nimr tribe
Albu Issa tribe
Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshabandia (JRTN)
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)
Tribal Military Councils (established in various governorates)
The Anbar conflict is not a good thing for Iraqi stability and is a major setback for the government, which is keen to hold national elections in April. The test for the regime will be whether it can push back AQI and coopt the anti-government tribal elements into state structures or at least work to ensure their neutrality and compliance to Iraqi government authority. To achieve these goals, Maliki will need to adopt a strong military hand and negotiate through offering state jobs, position and possible payments to senior tribal leaders. Furthermore, the Sunni polities view on the Shiite dominated government could harden further and serve to stoke sectarian tensions further. The Sunni community have been largely disunited up until now, split as they are along tribal and political lines. The sense that the regime of Maliki is targeting them unfairly may push groups that had otherwise not thought of cooperation closer together. Maliki needs to address this as a matter of urgency.