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How al-Qaeda Terrorized Its Way Back in Iraq

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
January 5, 2014
Wall Street Journal

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The climactic battles of the American War in Iraq were fought in Anbar Province, with U.S. forces at great cost retaking the city of Fallujah at the end of 2004 and Ramadi, the provincial capital, in 2006-07. The latter success was sparked by an unlikely alliance with tribal fighters that turned around what had been a losing war effort and made possible the success of what became known as "the surge." By 2009, violence had fallen more than 90%, creating an unexpected opportunity to build a stable, democratic and prosperous country in the heart of the Middle East.

It is now obvious that this opportunity has been squandered, with tragic consequences for the entire region. In recent days the Iraqi army appears to have been pushed, at least temporarily, out of Fallujah and Ramadi by al Qaeda in Iraq militants. A battle is raging for control of Anbar Province with some tribal fighters supporting the government and others AQI. Mosul, the major city of northern Iraq and a longtime hotbed of AQI activity, could be next to fall. If it does, AQI would gain effective control of the Sunni Triangle, an area north and west of Baghdad the size of New England.

AQI's control would stretch beyond the Sunni Triangle because its offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, dominates a significant portion of Syrian territory across the border. This creates the potential for a new nightmare: an al Qaeda state incorporating northern Syria and western Iraq.

Even if this worst-case scenario does not come to pass—even if Mosul holds and even if the Iraqi army succeeds in regaining control of Ramadi and Fallujah—the odds of Iraq becoming embroiled, like Syria, in a full-blown civil war are growing by the day. Iraq is almost there already: The United Nations reports that last year 8,868 Iraqis were killed, the highest death toll since the dark days of 2008. Car bombings have become such a regular occurrence that they barely make the news.

What happened? How did Iraq go from relatively good to god-awful in the last two years?

The chief culprit is al Qaeda, which has shown a disturbing but nevertheless impressive ability to bounce back from near-defeat. But it would never have been able to do so if it did not enjoy significant support among the Sunni population of Anbar, Ninewah, Diyala and other provinces. When the group lost that support in 2007, AQI's operatives were quickly rolled up. Today it enjoys freedom to maneuver because it has the backing of many Sunnis who now see it as a defender against a predatory, sectarian Shiite government.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had embraced the Sunni Awakening movement, Iraq likely would have remained relatively peaceful. Instead, the moment that U.S. troops left Iraq, he immediately began victimizing prominent Sunnis.

In December 2011 Mr. Maliki sent his security forces to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who escaped but was sentenced to death in absentia based on the testimony of his bodyguards, allegedly extracted under torture. In December 2012, security forces arrested the bodyguards of Raffi al-Essawi, a former finance minister, and other leading Sunni politicians. Mr. Essawi narrowly missed winding up in prison. Another prominent Sunni parliamentarian, Ahmed al-Awlani, was arrested just a few days ago, on Dec. 28, after a gunfight between his bodyguards and Iraqi security forces that left his brother dead.

Mr. Awlani's arrest set off the events that culminated in al Qaeda fighters, dressed in black, parading through the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi. Mr. Maliki reacted to protests over Mr. Awlani's detention by sending his security forces to close down a protest camp in Ramadi. This sparked major fighting, with many Sunni leaders in Anbar urging their followers to resist government troops under the orders of a Shiite regime. Sheikh Abdul Malek al Saadi's message, translated by the Institute for the Study of War, was typical: "Oh heroes of Fallujah and other towns. Cut the road and prevent Maliki's troops from reaching your brothers in the heart of Anbar. Maliki wants to wipe out every one of the people he dislikes, using the antiterrorism pretext again."

Not all is necessarily lost. While some Anbar sheiks have cast their lot with AQI, others continue to side with the government and cooperate with local police, if not with the Iraqi army. Most prominent has been Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, one of the Sunni Awakening leaders. On Jan. 1 he called on his followers to fight against AQI's attempts "to commit their crimes, to cut off the heads, blow up houses, kill scholars and disrupt life."

Iraq may once again stumble back from the brink of all-out civil war. But it is unlikely to recover the promise of 2009-11—in retrospect, a mini-golden age—because Mr. Maliki is unlikely to mend his ways.

What Iraq needs now is what it saw in 2007 when Gen. David Petraeus orchestrated a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy. Such a strategy has many facets, but one of the most important is a political "line of operations," which in this case means fostering reconciliation between the prime minister and tribal leaders of Anbar.

The U.S. lost most of its leverage to do that when it foolishly pulled its troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 after the failure of halfhearted negotiations overseen by Vice President Joe Biden. Selling Iraq Hellfire missiles, as the Obama administration has just done, is a poor substitute. It is positively destructive because it only further inflames the situation and creates the impression that the Americans are siding with militant Shiites in a sectarian civil war.

Washington should make clear that military and intelligence help, which Baghdad has requested, will be forthcoming only if Mr. Maliki extends an open hand, rather than a clenched fist, to his country's Sunnis.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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