Late last month, the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah fell to tribal militants linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a homegrown franchise of al Qaeda.
After taking the cities, the militants — who are understood to be locals of Anbar, the Sunni province where both Ramadi and Fallujah are located — hoisted black al Qaeda flags over government buildings and police stations. Their assault followed the Shiite-led government ignoring Sunni protests for reforms that would put them on par with their Shiite countrymen, and came just days after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered security forces to clear a Sunni protest camp amid claims that it had become an ISIS headquarters.
In response to the takeover of Fallujah and the militants' partial control of Ramadi, Maliki forged a deal with some of Anbar’s prominent tribal leaders and sheikhs, convincing them to work with the Iraqi army to secure the two cities. Ahmed Abu Reesha, a Sunni tribal chief aligned with Maliki, claimed last Saturday that these pro-government tribes had reclaimed most of Ramadi and said that the "next battle will be in Fallujah."
"Ramadi, in many respects, has been far less significant in terms of actual presence of ISIS," said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. "But, in Fallujah, the situation is far more complicated, because tribes appear to be split down the middle. Some are linked with ISIS and the other half have decided to side with the security forces."
Islamist militants in Fallujah have occupied houses in the city's Hay al-Askari neighborhood, forcing homeowners to flee to avoid being caught in the crossfire. According to statements by the Iraqi Red Crescent, more than 13,000 families have left Fallujah since the crisis began two weeks ago, with most seeking shelter in schools and other public buildings, or in the houses of relatives in neighboring villages.
On Sunday, the Iraqi army was attacked near Hay al-Askari, resulting in a clash that left three militants dead; the area is still under militant control, with locals aware that a second assault on Fallujah by Abu Reesha's pro-government coalition is imminent. So the city isn't exactly an ideal place to be, but some residents have had to start returning anyway because they have no other choice.
"I have run out of money," said Muzher Abd Al Hameed, a 38-year-old father of three and a longtime resident of Fallujah. "I can’t afford to not work for an extended period. At the same time, I heard good news — that there was calm and no clashes — and that encouraged me. This is despite the fact that I decided to return regardless of whether the situation is good or bad, because I really don’t have another choice.”
There are also those who can't return because they have nowhere to return to. "The families who tried to go back to [Hay al-Askari] had their houses occupied by militants," said Umm Nour, who is hosting six families from the neighborhood at her home in Amreeyat al Fallujah, a village 20 miles away from Fallujah. "The families told them to take care of their houses. They couldn’t kick them out. The militants promised to only use the living room, bedroom. and bathroom, and that they won’t touch anything else in the house."
The militancy in Ramadi and Fallujah is, in part, a response to Iraq's process of de-Ba'athification, the post-2003 purge of high-ranking Sunnis from government, and from most of Saddam Hussein’s army. Under Maliki’s government, the de-Ba'athification law has also been used as a tool to exclude Sunni candidates it disapproves of from the political process, as well as to imprison individuals for little or no reason.
Just prior to Fallujah's fall, Maliki had ordered the arrest of Ahmed Al Alwani, a Sunni member of Parliament from Anbar who's been very public about his anti-government stance. Clashes during his arrest led to the death of his brother and several bodyguards, enraging Sunni tribes.
Alwani's arrest was just the latest in a string of recent anti-Sunni actions by Iraq’s government. Shortly after the withdrawal of US troops from the country, an arrest warrant was issued for Sunni vice president Tareq al Hashemi, accusing him of running death squads. Now living in Turkey, he has been sentenced to death in absentia. In March last year, as demonstrations for reforms began to take shape, Sunni finance minister Rafi al Issawi resigned from his post after security forces arrested one of his body guards on suspicion of terrorism-related operations. And shortly after, Sunni agricultural minister Izz al Din Dawla resigned after Swat forces shot at Sunni protesters in Hawija, a village near Kirkuk.
"I think the sectarian card gets overplayed somewhat, although it's still important," Lister said. "Sunni tribes have long been angry with Maliki for having left Anbar behind and preventing Sunni tribes and ministers from holding as much power. But, at the same time, a larger issue is at stake here, which is the control of their territory and an extremist group [the militants linked with ISIS] that, in the past, has treated their civilians in a particularly negative way. Some tribes see Maliki as the lessor of two evils, while other tribes see it the other way around."
Fallujah’s crisis comes ahead of upcoming elections in Iraq, in which the premier has expressed plans for a third term in office. “By attacking now, Maliki has galvanized the support of rank-and-file Iraqi Shiites," said Feisal Istrabadi, founding director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University-Bloomington, and deputy permanent representative of Iraq to the UN from 2004 to 2010. "Prior to his launching this operation, he was the object of much criticism from within the Shia coalition for his mishandling of a number of issues, including his increasingly authoritarian tendencies. The operation in Anbar wholly silenced all these critics. In the absence of something going catastrophically wrong in the next three months, Maliki will be decisively re-elected."
So while the operation will help Maliki’s election prospects, it seems unlikely that it will be more than a short-term fix. Anbar, with its vast desert terrain, is a difficult territory to manage, so it will remain a safe haven for insurgents in the absence of meaningful reforms, national reconciliation, or the kind of government spending that would give locals financial incentive to avoid extremism.
Ammar al Hakim, a prominent Shiite politician who leads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, proposed on Saturday that Iraq's central government allocate $4 billion in infrastructure investment that will lead to job creation. He also suggested the central government allocate a separate for tribal sheikhs and leaders to use to fight insurgents and maintain stability and security.
But ideally, the Shiite leadership would have tried to avert the whole showdown in the first place.