TSG IntelBrief: Iraq: Anbar Violence, Grievances, and Anti-ISIS Alliance

INTELBRIEF

TSG IntelBrief: Iraq: Anbar Violence, Grievances, and Anti-ISIS Alliance

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• Current fighting continues in mostly Sunni province of Anbar, Iraq, between fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Iraqi security forces and Sunni tribesmen aligned against ISIS

• The current uprising will likely be put down but future insurrections are probable in the restive provinces as the underlying sectarian divisions in Iraq remain unresolved

• Though the US will not reintroduce combat troops into Iraq, it will likely agree to Iraqi requests to buy some sophisticated US arms and for increased security cooperation with the Iraq Security Forces.

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Uprising Accelerates at the End of 2013

As of early January 2014, the latest wave in Sunni unrest against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s rule began on December 26, when al-Maliki sought the arrest of Sunni parliamentarian Ahmad al-Alwani on charges of inciting anti-government activity. The arrest prompted a gun battle with security forces that killed al-Alwani’s brother and several of his bodyguards. Al-Maliki subsequently ordered security forces to close down a protest tent camp in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. That action prompted attacks in Ramadi and another Anbar hotbed, the city of Fallujah, by the Sunni extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Both Ramadi and Fallujah were major objectives of US counterinsurgency efforts during the Iraq war. After a few days, ISIS—joined, or protected by some Sunni protesters, defectors from the Iraq Security Forces (ISF), and tribal fighters—had taken over government installations and major parts of both Ramadi and Fallujah. The rebel fighters burned police stations in these cities, freed prisoners, and captured or destroyed many ISF armored vehicles. ISIS and its allies also conducted major attacks on the ISF in other Sunni provinces, including Nineveh (Mosul), Diyala, and Salahuddin.

The heightened unrest appeared to threaten the viability of the security services and other security-related structures left in place after the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. Some Sunnis in the ISF abandoned their posts, although the ISF as a whole did not break. Tribal fighters of the Sons of Iraq campaign, also known among its various forms as Sahwah (Awakening)—an informal structure set up by the US to counter the former AQI—saw some fissures when tribal fighters joined the ISIS rebellion. However, key Sunni tribal leaders such as Ahmad Abu Risha, though not supporters of the Maliki government, exhorted fellow clansmen to help ISF combat ISIS extremists. These tribal components, who banded against Sunni extremists previously, remain motivated by  similar factors to fight ISIS: they scare away business, bring repression and violence to the Sunni areas, challenge tribal leadership and are counter to local culture and traditions.

Reports indicate that some Shi’a militias, which have been generally quiescent since the US withdrawal, were mobilizing to help ISF put down the rebellion. Iran has offered support short of sending combat personnel.

Al-Maliki has considered pulling the Iraqi Army out of the restive areas and leaving them under the control of mostly Sunni Iraqi police, although he has not implemented that adjustment to date. Al-Maliki also signaled compromise by ordering the arrest of a Shi’a hardliner, Wahtiq al-Batat, leader of the Mukhtar Army.

After about five days of fighting, the government had regained most of Ramadi, but was still struggling to beat back ISIS in Fallujah.

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Sources and Background to the Unrest

The crisis is the latest manifestation of Sunni resentment of the post-Saddam power structure. One of the consistent Sunni complaints has been al-Maliki’s abrogation of the US-brokered power-sharing arrangement in 2010, and the arrest order for first Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi in late 2011. Sunnis complained of “second class citizen” treatment and that they overwhelmingly populate Iraqi jails. 

The security situation has been deteriorating since early 2013, when al-Maliki moved to marginalize a different powerful Sunni figure, Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi. That action spurred protests and the setting up of tent camps in several mostly Sunni cities, particularly in Anbar Province. An uprising—similar to the current unrest but smaller in scale—erupted in April 2013, when al-Maliki ordered forces to shut down a protest camp in the town of Hawija. To the Sunnis, the arrest of parliamentarian al-Alwani was al-Maliki’s latest attempt to avoid compromise on their demands and, instead, marginalize Sunni leaders.

Some experts maintain that the unrest in Iraq should be viewed in the context of broader Sunni-Shi’a conflict that has flared since the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and turned into a wide-scale armed rebellion. Al-Assad is supported by Iran, and al-Maliki has close ties to Iran as well. ISIS in Iraq is affiliated—though to still an unclear degree—with an element of the same name in Syria. The Iraq uprising represents the high degree to which the conflict, in terms of sides, issues, and violence in both countries have merged.

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US Interests and Response

The US response to the early 2014 Iraq crisis has been relatively muted. Some in the Administration blame al-Maliki’s refusal to welcome—and agree to conditions for—a continuing US military presence in Iraq after 2011, for the growth of ISIS. Despite that disagreement, the Obama Administration has sought to maintain al-Maliki as a US ally, in part as a counter to Iranian influence.

The Administration has said that ISIS is an adversary of both the US and the Maliki government. When the current crisis broke out in late December 2013, the Administration reportedly rushed a transfer of about 75 Hellfire missiles to the ISF for use against ISIS camps. However, the missiles are for use by Iraq’s non-fixed wing aircraft, and the Administration did not agree to an Iraqi request to transfer armed drones. On January 5, Secretary of State Kerry directly ruled out the possibility of US re-introduction of ground troops to help al-Maliki battle ISIS.   

At the same time, Iraq presents a dilemma for the Administration. It has criticized Syria’s al-Assad for pursuing a “military solution” to the uprising there and has called for him to step down. The Administration does not want al-Maliki to pursue that same security-focused policy. In the current crisis, the Administration has contacted all factions to start a political dialogue to resolve the disputes that underpin the Sunni unrest and has implored Sunni tribal leaders to stand with the Iraqi government against ISIS.

Yet, the legacy of US intervention in Iraq is at stake, and there is reportedly strong Pentagon sentiment to augment Maliki’s arsenal to better combat ISIS. The Administration has already sold Iraq F-16s, and they will begin to be delivered later in 2014. The Administration supports Iraq’s request to buy Apache attack helicopters, but some in Congress are said to be blocking the sale because of the potential for their use in combatting not only ISIS extremists but against mainstream and opposition Sunni and Kurdish political factions. As unrest in Iraq has increased since early 2012, the US has increased some training for and intelligence sharing with the ISF.

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• Al-Maliki will likely be able to bring the current crisis under control by rallying anti-ISIS Sunni figures and by entering broader political dialogue with Sunni leaders

• He will likely pull the Iraqi Army out of the restive Sunni cities and leave them in the hands of mostly Sunni local police and Awakening movement tribal security forces

• Iraq will beef up security on the border with Syria to prevent ISIS from drawing additional support from ISIS and like elements in Syria 

• The April 30, 2014 national elections for a new government will likely be held within its scheduled timeframe, but the legitimacy of the elections could be called into question if continued unrest causes many Sunni voters not to vote

• Objections within the US to a pending Iraqi request to buy attack helicopters likely will be overcome in light of the current crisis; however, the deal probably will not include transfer of armed drones to Iraqi control.

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