The United States is sending more military aid to Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to fight al Qaeda in Fallujah and Ramadi. This is understandable. The resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is a clear threat to Maliki’s government and the Iraqi people, and its leadership of foreign fighters in Syria is also a threat to the United States. The problem is that Maliki’s war on al Qaeda masks another enduring war he has waged on the Sunni tribes and political leadership since American troops departed in 2011. By targeting Iraq’s Sunnis, Maliki has likely undercut Iraq’s chances to defeat AQI, and has driven his country to the brink of rekindled insurgency and sectarian civil war. U.S. military aid will be unavailing if Maliki does not earn the support of the Sunni tribes and political leaders.
Over the past two years, the prime minister has seized every opportunity to disenfranchise Iraq’s Arab Sunnis. His sense of timing is remarkable. Maliki arrested his Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, right after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011. In response, the predominantly Sunni Iraqiyya bloc boycotted parliament, but it soon dwindled and fractured. Maliki seized an even more shocking moment to target the moderate Sunni minister of finance, Rafi al-Issawi—right after Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, suffered a stroke, almost exactly one year later. This threw the Sunni population into an uproar, and a national protest movement organized large sit-in camps in the Sunni-majority provinces. Maliki delayed elections in Anbar and Nineveh for security reasons, prompting continued protests. He then had the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) storm a protest camp in Hawija, killing or wounding more than 100 civilians. Like clockwork, this recent Christmas week, Maliki arrested Iraqiyya member of parliament Ahmed al-Alwani after an al Qaeda ambush in Anbar killed an Iraqi Army division commander and 23 other officers. Maliki is calculating and patient, and he delivers his most aggressive blows to the Sunnis when all eyes are focused elsewhere.
Maliki has even managed to convince the United States that his new operation in Anbar is targeting only AQI. That group is clearly on the rise there. Last year along the Upper Euphrates, AQI engaged in prolonged firefights with the ISF, destroyed a bridge, cut power lines, decapitated 14 local police personnel, and attacked police stations in separate incidents between September and November. On October 21, AQI attacked the Fallujah police directorate and held an adjacent power directorate building against security forces for eight hours. The group’s synchronized attacks on police stations in Ramadi and Fallujah on January 1 were even more operationally impressive. But not all the action is in Fallujah. AQI has comparable capabilities in other parts of Iraq.
Maliki’s attack on the Ramadi sit-in site was a political move to squash his rivals, not a quest to eradicate an al Qaeda headquarters, as the prime minister claimed. It is convenient for Maliki to portray the protest sites as hearts of darkness rather than victims of al Qaeda’s increasing infiltration. Maliki might have calculated that he would benefit from clearing the Ramadi protest camp; achieving a counterterrorism victory in Anbar would symbolically repeat his famous Charge of the Knights campaign that cleared Shiite militias out of Basra in 2008 and enormously increased his popularity. Should the present counter-offensive fail, AQI’s endurance in Anbar would justify Maliki’s military occupation and could well be used to justify his refusing to hold elections in Anbar this spring.
With this calculus, and his sights on the more politically challenging Ramadi rather than the more radicalized Fallujah, Maliki moved confidently into Ramadi on December 30 to clear the camp. He did so despite vigorous protest from Sunni leaders, and afterwards violence erupted in both cities. Maliki withdrew the Iraqi Army from Anbar’s cities, as he has in the past when tensions have flared. AQI moved into Fallujah and Ramadi immediately thereafter, and a three-way contest for control ensued.
Maliki escalated confidently in Fallujah, ordering military reinforcements from Baghdad and Wasit Province. On January 5, he announced the evacuation of the city’s residents and an operation to clear Fallujah with the Iraqi Army and elements of the Iraqi Special Forces. Where some tribal militias are working with the Iraqi Army to repel AQI in Ramadi, the tribes and the army are still violently opposed in Fallujah. There can be no greater threat to an Anbari tribesman than a predominantly Shiite army shelling and patrolling in Fallujah, except perhaps al Qaeda’s return.
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.