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Black Flags over Fallujah

The comeback of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By JESSICA LEWIS
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Maliki has presented Iraq’s Sunni tribes with a terrible choice: Fight the Iraqi Army, or fight al Qaeda. The tribes faced a similar choice in 2006 and 2007—fight the Iraqis and Americans or fight al Qaeda. But then the Americans promised to help the tribes negotiate with Maliki and to press Maliki to behave more moderately toward them. Maliki agreed, but then reneged once the United States was gone. Recent reports hold that he is now engaging the tribes to seek their immediate cooperation in Fallujah. This is vital, but he must overcome their memory of the last two years in order to make any headway. 

The tribes are still deciding. New reports that al Qaeda has left Fallujah may appear to suggest that Maliki has won. However, these claims from local tribal leaders are unconvincing, and may signify only a desire to remove the Iraqi Army from the city at all costs. Elsewhere in Anbar, clashes continue between tribal militias and the Iraqi Army. In addition, a new Anbar military council has formed, suggesting that the Sunnis may attempt to counter al Qaeda and the Iraqi Army on their own with an insurgency partly modeled on that in Syria. These developments more credibly suggest that Maliki is losing. 

In the end, no one defeats al Qaeda in the Middle East without the backing of the Sunni population. The United States learned this in 2006, when the Sunni tribes in Anbar turned their guns on al Qaeda and worked with the U.S. Army to clear the province. This has recently been proven again in northern and eastern Syria, where Sunni popular groups within the Islamic Front are pushing al Qaeda out of cities. Sunni militias are the ones to defeat al Qaeda, not Assad, not Hezbollah—and not Maliki. The Sunni tribes are the key to any military counterterrorism solution in Anbar. 

Certainly, the Iraqi Army cannot repel al Qaeda alone. It failed to defend prisons against complex attacks in Tikrit and Abu Ghraib through which AQI freed its hardcore veterans and returned them to the fight. The Iraqi Security Forces could not stop car bombs in Baghdad, which were responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties this year. A recent report suggests that the Iraqi Security Forces no longer control security in Mosul. They have been trying, with offensives in northern Diyala, the western desert in Nineveh, and northern Baghdad, but the net result is that they are not strong enough without the support of the Sunni population. 

The Syrian civil war has provided al Qaeda with additional resources, particularly foreign fighters. It has also provided a mutually supportive rear area, which makes it very difficult tactically to corner Al Qaeda in Iraq. AQI is fighting in Iraq and Syria under its new banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Solutions to Iraq’s current crisis cannot be found uniquely in Iraq. The United States needs to take action to degrade al Qaeda affiliates in Syria while also acting to degrade Assad’s capabilities. 

U.S. military aid to Maliki unfortunately coincides with a promise of further military support from Iran. Instead of enhancing the fight against al Qaeda, the United States has potentially sent an errant message to Iraq’s Sunnis that we are siding with Maliki at their expense. Given that the Syrian civil war has ignited a regional sectarian conflict, this is a perilous policy choice. Empowering the Sunni tribes against AQI is critical, or Iraq will sink into a sectarian civil war, and there will be no state army positioned to fight al Qaeda in Iraq or Syria. 

This is not just Iraq’s war. AQI is now operating on three fronts, in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The moderate Sunnis are the answer in each of these places, and the United States should be shaping policies to back them. Otherwise we leave them to observe our negotiations with Iran, our failure to hold Assad accountable for chemical attacks, and our provision of aid to Maliki. And we leave them to wonder if we simply don’t care about their fate or are actually hostile to them.

Jessica Lewis is the research director at the Institute for the Study of War and the author of “Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent.” She served for 34 months in Iraq and Afghanistan as an intelligence officer for the U.S. Army. 

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