Why Iraq’s Most Violent Province Is a War Zone Again

As elections loom in Iraq, Al-Qaeda is facing off against the government in the Sunni heartland of Anbar

  • Share
  • Read Later

Like TIME on Facebook for more breaking news and current events from around the globe!

STR / AP

Mourners and Sunni gunmen chant slogans against Iraq's Shiite-led government during the funeral of a man killed when clashes erupted between Al Qaeda gunmen and Iraqi army soldiers in Fallujah, Iraq, Jan. 4, 2014.

The pitched battles in the Iraqi province of Anbar this week – first between Sunni tribesmen and the government and then between al-Qaeda and the government, which has now brought onside some of the tribesmen – reveal how large swathes of Iraq are falling into disorder.

The breakdown in Anbar, the Sunni-dominated Westernmost part of Iraq, comes one year after the start of Sunni protests demanding the freeing of tens of thousands of detainees, who frequently were held without charge by security forces of the Shia-led government. The protestors had called for broad reforms of the security forces and judiciary, which they believed targeted Sunnis unfairly.

The scenes of violence in Anbar testify to the failure of the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to address the broad concerns of Sunnis. But they are also symptoms of the poisonous politics within Anbar itself and the dangerous rise of Islamic extremism in Syria and Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, who was Sunni, the country’s minority Sunnis held nearly all true positions of power in the government and military but since the American-led invasion in 2003 Shia parties have dominated the government and the security forces.

The protests, which began in December 2012, were reformist in nature. Prompted by the arrest of the Sunni finance minister’s bodyguards in Baghdad and outrage over the detention of Sunni women by Iraqi security forces, thousands took to the streets of Ramadi and Fallujah, Anbar’s main cities. The demonstrations spread to other Sunni areas around Iraq, and even Shiite clerics, from the peaceable Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to the more radical and bellicose Moqtada Sadr, publicly acknowledged the validity of the Sunni grievances. Shiite tribal leaders even visited the demonstrations to express their solidarity.

At first, Maliki demanded that the protests end but in January 2013 reversed himself and sought to review the cases of Sunni detainees and free those whose rights had been violated. Officials from his office announced that over 3,000 detainees were freed in the review process. But protestors interpreted the releases as cosmetic. Even a senior lawmaker close to Maliki told me last spring that there was no way to verify if those numbers were true, due to the corruption and ineptitude that plague the prison system. A push by Maliki and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni, to pass a major reform package addressing the Sunni protestors’ concerns was blocked in parliament last April by the men’s Shiite and Sunni political rivals, who were loathe to hand their competitors a victory. After that, the situation took a turn for the worse as Maliki denounced the demonstrators as rebels and threatened to take undisclosed actions against them.

The protestors responded with similarly loaded statements, which served to increase distrust among Shiite Iraqis. Officials around Maliki suspected the protest camps were a front for Sunni militants and politicians who wanted to overthrow the government or find a pretext to carve out their own independent or semi-autonomous Sunni region. The government officials believed the protestors were inspired by, or in league with, Sunni militants fighting in Syria against the government of Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite faith, which is an offshoot of Shiism.

In April, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which seemed like a direct and deliberate challenge to Maliki and to Iraq’s territorial integrity. It came at the very moment when Maliki was struggling to get his reforms addressing Sunni concerns through parliament. On April 23, Maliki’s forces stormed a protest camp in Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad, after an assailant shot dead an Iraqi soldier. The government forces killed at least 51 people, all of them civilians, according to Iraqi officials. The bloodshed sparked a week of fighting that left more than 200 dead, including civilians and fighters. Soon after, the death toll in Iraq soared to the highest levels since 2008 as ISIS set about waging war against the government. Concerned about the escalation, protestors in Anbar organized their own tribal armies to defend themselves in case the Iraqi security forces attacked them.

Without any substantive breakthrough between Maliki and  the protestors, Anbar province remained a disaster waiting to happen. ISIS fighters were crossing the border between Iraq and Syria with regularity. A former Sunni insurgent, now working in the Iraqi cabinet, told me last month on condition of anonymity that ISIS was sending foreign fighters in for special missions, including an operation that freed hundreds of detainees from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad last summer.

Neither were the Iraqi security forces up to the job of defeating ISIS in Anbar. One man working on a natural gas project in the Anbar desert described to me how tribesmen affiliated with al-Qaeda were in fact hired by Iraqi contractors to ensure that the project, administered by the Iraqi oil ministry and the Korea Gas Corp. was not attacked by Sunni militants.

Matters took a turn for the worse in the last days of December. On Dec. 21, Maliki ordered the Iraqi military to raid an ISIS training camp in Western Anbar. The raid was a failure; 24 Iraqi soldiers were killed, including the commander of the Seventh Army Division. ISIS came out looking stronger than ever.

Maliki then ordered his feared counter-terrorism force on Dec. 28 to raid the home of Ahmed Al-Alwani, a Sunni lawmaker from Ramadi whose rhetoric many observers consider sectarian. The military said Al-Alwani and his brother were wanted on terrorism charges. During the raid, Al-Alwani’s brother and five of his bodyguards were killed and Al-Alwani was arrested. Maliki then sent troops to clear the main Sunni protest camp in Anbar. Maliki had called the camp a center for terrorism and warned he would shut it down. The arrest of Al-Alwani and the move to crush the site of the popular protests sparked an uprising by the powerful Sunni tribes in Anbar that forced Maliki to pull his troops back from Fallujah and Ramadi. ISIS then moved in to take over both cities. Once more tribesmen rose up to fight, this time against the Islamic extremists in their midst, mindful of their past battles with al-Qaeda and worried the group would take vengeance on them for the tribesmen’s former alliance with the American military.

As of Saturday, Iraqi forces were surrounding the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah and shelling al-Qaeda-held positions inside the cities. Civilians were caught in the crossfire. Making matters worse for those civilians, there’s another struggle underway inside the Sunni tribal community. Inside both Ramadi and Fallujah are tribesmen loyal to a tribal leader named Ahmed Abu Risha, whose late brother started the original revolt against al-Qaeda in 2006, and other tribesmen faithful to Sheik Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, also one of the original fighters against al-Qaeda. The two men hate each other and are in competition.

On the eve of national elections, scheduled for April 30, Anbar province is in chaos. The instability is likely to spread beyond Anbar and affect the rest of Iraq. That risks disrupting the upcoming election in Sunni regions, where violence is likely to be smoldering between different Sunni factions and al-Qaeda, and among the different Sunni groups running for parliament. The tense relationship between Maliki and the general Sunni population is also likely to fuel unrest.

There is not a Sunni region in the country now that is not enmeshed in strife. To the north, Nineveh province is seen as a stronghold of al-Qaeda fighters, while to the east of Baghdad, Diyala province has witnessed fighting between Sunni and Shiite armed groups, causing an uptick in internal displacement. The conflict in Sunni regions is creating an atmosphere of perpetual crisis that could tip the country into civil war or be used by Maliki as a justification to stay in power after what is expected to be a closely fought election. The more chaos, the greater the chance for al-Qaeda-linked fighters to hide among the population and reap chaos.

Hopes for stability in Iraq become more elusive by the day. Even as the U.S. government rushed surveillance drones and hellfire missiles to Iraq last month to help Maliki combat al-Qaeda, the complicated battlefield and conflicting motives of both the government and Sunni tribes makes it that much harder for the Obama Administration to find a policy that will offer a solution to Iraq’s growing al-Qaeda problem and sectarian woes. The province that cost so many American lives is once more the crucible of a country riven by violence.

Ned Parker is a writer, former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times from 2009 – 2011

113 comments
wissam
wissam

as everyone knows Al-Qaeda and all extremist are criminals, they don't respect human rights neither they take prisoners, usually they kill any body that they can capture including Muslims, now knowing all of that and to prove that the uprising in Anbar is not by any terrorist groups but it is led by the people supported by officers of the original Iraqi army, this is a video on youtube shows how thy treat POW who were sent to kill them, and to those who don't know about Iraq History, the Iraqis never once were accused to mistreat POW before 2003. and this is the video, and by the way the new army is formed from Shiite militias whom are known to there hate to the west and especially the US. review battle of Najaf .

the first video shows how Sunni treat POW in Anbar  and the second video shows how Shiite government treat treat Sunni in persons the speech is full of insults, and this person is tortured because of his name "Omar" and one of the solders is requesting there leader to rape the prisoner. this is the freedom you gave us. 


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVJNa8Ddxvo



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kUXLMV-_0E


you compare, you decide how is the terrorist 



arvay
arvay

For sure the Kurds are watching this and wondering -- is this the time for us to declare independence, while the government of Iraq is weakened and distracted?

azmalhome
azmalhome

Time magazine like to reveal the news according to super power leader's choice. Time don't  has any interesting of which countries are going to civil war, because of stupid leader's worse step. example Bangladesh is going to civil war because of blood sucker sheikh hasina. 5th January have been killed 25 people at least, more thousand more critical injury. why don't have any news of it. http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/


Yonca Kunt
Yonca Kunt

They have to find a solution now.

Patrick A. Woodmency
Patrick A. Woodmency

Iraq was not peaceful before American intervention. They fought a war with Iran, followed by the invasion of Kuwait. I spent a year in Iraq. There is nothing peaceful about it, especially in Anbar Province.

Dirgam Vincere
Dirgam Vincere

Not our war any more. By the way Shiite are the majority in the country and they held power by election unlike Saddam hussein.

Marco Salgado
Marco Salgado

Well why would it not be broken after the US instigated a war between Iran and Iraq. Then when that ends G. Bush Sr invades Iraq for no reason. Then years later G. Bush Jr. Invades them for no reason again. Then Obama claims to end the war in Irak by bringing home tue troops and then sends private hired military. Mmm yeah so I think I know why it is broken.

Cm Mck
Cm Mck

If they want to kill each other fine!..we have enough problems at home.

cdherz44
cdherz44

It is the USA which spreads disorder and it the major threat to peace.

Terry McBride
Terry McBride

ChenybabyBush destroyed Iraq but didn't have a plan. The post WW1 British and French didn't have a plan. Only ones to have a plan were the Ottoman Turks and Saddam Hussein. Like it or not.

Channa Oeur
Channa Oeur

We the people don't want see this in Cambodia, now we are on the way to ASEAN one community one prosperity , we must do something to be ready for 2015.

Jeff Smulyan
Jeff Smulyan

Thanks to Bush and his lies of WMD, Al-Qaeda is now in Iraq. All of those American lives lost in Iraq and for what? Haliburton making a profit.

Lavell Monte Smith
Lavell Monte Smith

Thomas Garcia with the exception of 1776. I stand for correction.

Matt Zaba
Matt Zaba

You can't argue with a fool - don't bother

Tim Roberts
Tim Roberts

Im not saying you accept terrorist and atrocious acts, the opposite in fact, but the fear and intimidation is what drives it to extremes in the first place, and you have to have a pathway to peace at some point. Disempowerment of terrorist and atrocious activity is useless without empowerment of the nation that is harboring them. Bully tactics, military intimidation, economic and global sociopolitical domination are the favoured weapon of the USA. It has proven to have no worth time and time again, and they're still doing it?

Tim Roberts
Tim Roberts

Because America is seen to react to events, no one asks questions about them going in, essentially invading and intimidating that country into submission. We should be having talks between countries, and be properly represented to talk through pathways to real solutions. If we spent as much money on investment and infrastructure (apart from what is destroyed in the first place) in those countries, there would be far less problems. Would be a smarter way to manage international relations too, even if trust is not completely gained.

Kaneez E Zainab
Kaneez E Zainab

Its not Islam which has mad the Mid East such a messive region but actually those dictators and so called democrats who used the Islam for their persoal purposes. And who says that Islam is against democracy? Do not comment on Islam without knowing its real spirit.

Tim Roberts
Tim Roberts

America has not helped an ounce in the violent struggles of nations around the world, that much is clear.

Tim Roberts
Tim Roberts

Just ask them one simple question.. whats their vision for peace? They dont belong in any position of influence if they dont have one that also includes the people they intend to rule. I wonder how an Al Qaeda member would react to asking that question?

Syed Salim Javed
Syed Salim Javed

Iraq was quite peaceful area before Usa intervention even Afghanistan & Pakistan too ,it's Americans doing all bad things for money , oil to hold example Saudi Arab , UAE,Qttar obedient servant enjoying

Tim Roberts
Tim Roberts

Do these people listen to their leaders, elders and clerics? Whats their story?

Tim Roberts
Tim Roberts

Theres nothing that says 'trust' more than carrying firearms to send a political message.

Paul Ledesma
Paul Ledesma

If the old Soviet Union tried to show us how great communism is and then once they thought we "got the hang of it" they pulled their troops out would we keep that system or would we just go back to the way things were? And it sucks with all the lives lost, individuals and families broken for so long it makes the effort seem futile while the only tangible benefit I am sure is to the government and to the corporations.

Jim Smith
Jim Smith

No America! No! Stay!!! Bad America!!

PJ Johnson
PJ Johnson

It's so disappointing that some of the crazy #Muslims are hell bent of creating death and destruction whenever they go.

Thomas Garcia
Thomas Garcia

@ Lavell ...come again? Did you just say America never fought a war against people of its own color?

Lavell Monte Smith
Lavell Monte Smith

America never had a war of their own people of color, it's always against Asian, Arab, or us.

Kurt L Semler
Kurt L Semler

"Kill them all, God will know His own" --Pope Innocent

Matt Zaba
Matt Zaba

The Middle East will ALWAYS be a mess. No matter how long, how much we try and force "democracy". It's run by the political ideology of Islam.

wissam
wissam

@mahmoodadvocate  i agree with you but one of the groups is the US Military industrial complex, that is creating and supporting terrorists and violent governments to maintain wars. 

wissam
wissam

man it was never your war it was always a matter of controlling Oil resources, and about the majority this is just a propaganda from US and this is way the Iraqi government is refusing to make a population census, and about what is happening now it is a revolution. i have a comment please read it to know the truth.


wissam
wissam

you forget the support of Iranian Extremest groups to Rule Iraq. 

wissam
wissam

I am one of them and our vision of peace is the same as any country, a strong country that respects human rights and that is not under the influence of any country especially Iran, we wish that we can build a trustful god diplomatic relation with all nations including the US we hope to see a world with out conflicts, the only disagreement with the US is that we do not recognized Israel as a country since the state is built on Arabic Lands, but there must be a peaceful solution if there was a real pressure from US to force Israel to accept peace. this is what we want and this is what the supporters of the current criminal Iraqi government are denying us. stop supporting any side and we will solve our problems, and believe it or not but we despite the terrorist groups because it is against our religious believes to kill a civilian, and not even a solder that is not fighting us. we strongly oppose any terrorist acts. and organizations, and Jihad is not to assault but it is to defend your self in your land, so any act of war or terrorism outside our lands is not Jihad. to more understand the truth you can find a copy of our Quran in English with explanation. and i hope in the near future we can have a normal and healthy Diplomatic relation with your country that is build on cooperation and trust.  and wish you all happy new year.

Jodun
Jodun

It's good to know that the US never fought "White" people like the English (Revolutionary War, War of 1812), the Spanish (Spanish-American War) or the Germans (World War I, World War II).

Bongo99
Bongo99

People get the impression that Iraq seems to do best with Dictators like Saddam and, now, Maliki.