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

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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