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Al-Qaeda-linked fighters attacked the key Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar province on Thursday, sweeping through the streets and torching police stations. Iraqi security forces are battling to take back the cities, which have become Sunni strongholds amid increasing sectarianism in the country.
In the latest fighting, a group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was apparently reacting to a decision made earlier this week by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to break up a Sunni sit-in.
The violence comes amid fears that Iraq’s rapidly escalating sectarianism will turn into civil war. The death toll for 2013 rivals the figures from 2006 and 2007 — when sectarian fighting was at its most feverish, tit-for-tat attacks drove millions of people from their homes and at least a million refugees left the country.
The civil war in neighboring Syria and the thousands of refugees who have poured over the border into Iraq have stoked sectarian tensions and allowed militant groups to gain footholds in the region.
Earlier this week Maliki ordered security forces to break up a yearlong sit-in near Anbar’s provincial capital, Ramadi. There, Sunnis had gathered to protest their exclusion from the political process by the Shia-led central government and make claims of being unfairly targeted by the Shia-dominated security forces.
However, to Maliki, the camp had become a “headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda,” and he had it removed at the risk of deteriorating security in Anbar.
Once the sit-in was broken up, fighting erupted between the security forces and local fighters — among them, elements of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist groups, which have long battled for dominance in Ramadi and other Anbar cities, including Fallujah. Their presence has become only more pronounced with the conflict in Syria raging next door and the influx of foreign fighters eager to launch suicide attacks.
Why is Anbar so violent?
Anbar, a wide stretch of desert to the west of Baghdad, has long been a Sunni stronghold, ruled in large part by tribal leaders who were among those most opposed to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. It later hosted Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist groups that sought to impose strict Sharia, forcing men to grow the beards and women to stay at home. Its porous border also made it easy for fighters to arrive from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria to take up arms against U.S. and coalition forces. It soon became the deadliest territory for coalition troops, with fevered local opposition to the U.S. culminating in the lynching of four American contractors in Fallujah in 2004. This set off two U.S. military offensives that year to take back the city.
Years later, the Sunni Awakening took root in Anbar, with tribal leaders agreeing with U.S. military officials to renounce their links to Al-Qaeda and seek to establish security in tandem with U.S. forces. Yet the main grievances of the Sunni sheiks in Anbar — of exclusion from the political process and indifference to the centralized Shia-led government in Baghdad — persist, building resentment among and irritating the province’s Sunnis.
What is the Iraqi government doing in response?
The Iraqi government claims Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have taken control of half the city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. The Interior Ministry says that security forces are fighting alongside tribal groups to reclaim territory. Yet the response has been muddled: On Tuesday, Maliki said Iraqi troops were withdrawing from the cities, only to reverse his decision a day later and promise to follow up with reinforcements. Maliki’s decision to upend the sit-in brought protests in parliament as well, with more than 40 legislators announcing their resignations and calling for the Iraqi army to withdraw from Ramadi and Fallujah and for Maliki to release a Sunni member of parliament he had arrested.
What are the prospects for peaceful resolution?
It is unlikely a resolution will come soon, particularly without the intervention of a third party. With national elections set for April, Maliki has shown little interest in reaching out to Sunni lawmakers, despite appeals from Washington and other allies to be more politically inclusive. As recently as October, when he met with U.S. President Barack Obama, Maliki was urged to initiate political reconciliation among the parties.
Yet Maliki has continued to target Sunni lawmakers and other political opponents. Last year his forces raided the offices of a Sunni politician. The de-Baathification law, set up in 2003 to rout Saddam Hussein–era officials from positions of power, is still employed by the government to arrest or isolate perceived political threats.
With the crisis in Syria continuing to escalate, Al-Qaeda fighters have been hopping the border between the two countries to launch attacks against targets representing the governments of both Baghdad and Damascus. Despite Obama’s claim that “Al-Qaeda is on its heels,” the group has become steadily emboldened with the conflicts in Syria, across the Arabian peninsula and in northern, western and eastern parts of Africa.
How bad is the violence in Iraq compared with previous years?
The violence in Iraq is worse now than it has been in over five years, since the last throes of the sectarian conflict of 2006 through ’08, which killed tens of thousands of Iraqis, sent over a million refugees out of the country and internally displaced more than 3 million people.
The United Nations says over 7,800 civilians were killed in 2013 — almost double the death toll in other recent years. More than 700 were killed just last month. The violence has never fully abated since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011, and Maliki’s failure to reconcile the sectarian strife in the country has only deepened divisions between the now dominant Shia, who are the majority in Iraq but were persecuted under Saddam Hussein, and the Sunnis — who enjoyed better living conditions under Hussein, a fellow Sunni, and are now largely disenfranchised politically as well as economically under the new regime.