Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Will the ISIS attacks help unify Iraqi politics?

ISIS truck convoy in al-Anbar Province
When violence dramatically increased this past December after rising tensions between the residents of al-Anbar Province and the central government in Baghdad, and then were followed by attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) in al-Falluja, Ramadi and other towns, Western pundits were prophesying the  breakup of Iraq.  Now, just a few weeks later, we see suggestions that the attacks may actually help to politically unify Iraq.  Which perspective is valid?  What can we predict about the outcome of the current crisis?

Several points should taken into consideration. First, the crisis is not one of an al-Qa'ida threat to Iraq.  Second, the crisis is not based in sectarian conflict, but rather is based in a struggle for political and economic power both at the national and sub-national level.  Third, the crisis demonstrates the political impact that the United States can have in Iraq when American policy-makers decide to exert influence in a positive manner.

Finally, the crisis could have a unifying impact on Iraq, but only if the US and the international community hold Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's feet to the fire and force him to engage in serious efforts at national reconciliation.  If there is  no follow-through by the US and other international actors such as the EU and the UN, once the crisis subsides, Iraq will return to its politically dysfunctional status.

The  nature of the threat to Iraq is still not clear.  While there is no doubt that ISIS fighters are located in al-Falluja, Ramadi, the al-Khalidiya region and elsewhere in al-Anbar (al-Hayat, Jan. 14), it is unclear how exactly the political and military cleavages are constituted.  On the one hand, some tribes have taken up arms against ISIS while a smaller number have been supporting it.  Many tribesmen fighting ISIS emphasize that their political stance does not indicate support for the Maliki government.  They point out that both ISIS and Maliki's efforts to marginalize Iraq's Sunni Arab community represent equal threats.

On the radical side, there are reports that the fighters that have attacked cities in al-Anbar are not all unified.  Indeed, there seem to be serious cleavages within the attacking groups just as we have seen develop in Syria between ISIS on the one hand, and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), and the Islamic Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiya), on the other.

Further, arguments have been offered that there is  no serious ISIS or al-Qa'ida threat.  Some have argued that the conflict is rooted but rather a dispute among tribal leaders within al-Anbar.  Indeed, a division has already developed among Ahmad Abu Risha, the leader of the original "Awakening" Movement (Sahwat al-Anbar) and the new "Awakening" led by Hamid al-Hayis and Wisaam al-Hardan (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 20, ).  al-Hayis and al-Hardan want to demonstrate to Maliki that he should ally with them as they are the real power brokers in al-Anbar.  Thus we see some local political actors trying to gain favor with Baghdad.
Is the Anbar conflict only linked to ISIS/al-Qai'da?
Other commentators see the effort by Maliki to brand the demonstrations and violence directed at the central government as strictly an al-Qa'ida action as part of his strategy of enhancing his bid to gain a third term as prime minister in the parliamentary elections that will be held next April to legitimate attacks by the Iraqi army on the province.  One question that has been raised is why, if there was such a powerful al-Qa'ida threat in al-Anbar, didn't Maliki attack training camps in the desert of Western al-Anbar prior to the ISIS attacks on urban centers.

Why did Maliki attack al-Falluja and Ramadi, thereby threatening to inflict serious causalities on the local civilian population?  Could his strategy be aimed at sharpening cleavages  between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'i Arab communities?  It might also be intended to encourage Iran swing its support to Maliki.  If the al-Qa'ida threat is really serious, as the Iraqi prime minister asserts, then Shi'i voters will be prone to support Maliki in the next elections out of fear.  Iran might decide that supporting Maliki is critical to having a client who not only supports their actions in Syria, but who would also protect their interests in Iraq from a new reinvigorated Sunni insurgency.

While this argument has a definite conspiratorial ring to it, it seems that only the vigorous intervention of the US and other Western diplomatic missions in Baghdad were able to prevent Maliki from ordering an all out assault on al-Falluja and Ramadi (al-Hayat, Jan 11).  Instead, he has retreated to a position that the Iraqi army will avoid such an attack and instead try and reconstitute the Awakening Movement and eliminate the ISIS/al-Qa'ida threat through cooperating with local tribes.

Given the discontent in al-Anbar with the Maliki government which most Sunnis see as sectarian and authoritarian in nature, and the conflict among local tribes - related more to a struggle over political and economic power grounded in sectarian identities, the conflict should be viewed more as a response to central government policies than support of the local populace for ISIS or al-Qaida

As we saw in Baquba in 2006,and more recently in Syria, once ISIS takes power, it alienates the local residents as it has done during the past month in al-Falluja and Ramadi by limiting women's movement outside the home, regulating clothing that men and women wear, denying "forbidden" Western cultural activities such as watching soccer games on television, and imposing its repressive version of Islamic practices on the local populace.  Having already been largely defeated in Syria, it is highly unlikely that ISIS will continue to be able to control any urban centers in al-Anbar.

The second question raised here is whether the present conflict in al-Anbar Province is grounded in sectarianism.  The answer is that it is definitely not.  Some tribes have joined ISIS, most are fighting against ISIS (despite its exclusive Sunni Arab composition), and some tribes are aligning themselves with the Maliki government to gain political and economic benefits.  Indeed, prior to the ISIS attacks, Usama al-Nujafi, the Speaker of the Iraqi parliament, and the most powerful Sunni Arab politician in the country, had entered into a tentative agreement to support Maliki in  the coming April elections in return for becoming president of the republic.  In the present political environment, al-Nujayfi can no longer entertain that type of deal.

More telling is the experiences of Sunni refugees from al-Falluja. While many were unable to go north due to fighting, or west to Baghdad, given army roadblocks, 120 families decided to travel south to Karbala', one of Iraq's most important Shi'i shrine cities.  In the town of Ayn al-Tamar, they were welcomed by Mahfuz al-Tamimi, the mayor (Qaim-maqam), and the town residents.  al-Tamimi offered the Fallujan refugees guest houses in a local tourist village meant for Shi'i pilgrims coming to visit Iraq's shrine cities of al-Najaf and Karbala', while other residents took them to their homes as guests (al-Hayat, Jan 8; Niqash, Jan 16

This behavior recalls a conversation that I had with an Iraqi friend from the al-Najaf area who told me that, in the 1990s, after Saddam had suppressed the March 1991 uprising in the south, he began to try and undermine powerful tribes which he feared might take control of the countryside since many Ba'thist officials had been killed during the Intifada.  Reacting to Saddam's actions, the Al 'Issa tribe from the al-Najaf area sent representatives to al-Falluja to meet with shaykhs from the Sunni wing of the tribe, creating contacts that they had not existed prior to the 1990s.  In these meetings the Shi'i and Sunni tribal leaders discussed ways they could cooperate to protect themselves against Saddam's efforts to undermine Iraq's tribal structure.

The important point here is that tribal social and political identities usually cross-cut confessional identities.  Most tribes are much more loyal to tribal custom (al-'urf), than they are to Islamic norms as stipulated by al-Shari'a.  All tribes are proud that they include both Sunni and Shi'i clans. The continued effort  by Western analysts to reduce politics in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world to a simplistic sectarain calculus fails to delve deeply enough into the foundations of the crises currently facing the region.

How will the US respond once the ISIS threat to al-Anbar is contained?  It has wisely chosen not to support a full on assault by the Iraqi army on al-Anbar's population centers and it has encouraged Maliki to create an alliance with anti-ISIS tribes in the province.  It does not seem that the Apache attack helicopters that Maliki has requested will reach the Iraqi army any time soon.  This is a good decision because, if he were to use them on population centers, it would be viewed in Iraq and throughout the Arab world as a "Shi'i" attack against Iraq Sunni community, given the Shi'i preponderance in the current Iraqi army.

If, once the crisis subsides, the US pulls back from pressuring Maliki to develop a more inclusive government, it will send a terrible message to the Iraqi leader and the country's political elite.  In effect, it will say that Maliki can rely on the US to come to his aid whenever he utters "al-Qa'ida" and thus provide little incentive for the Iraqi leader to embark on a meaningful policy of national redconciliation.

If this occurs, the US and the international community will have lost an important opportunity to redirect the present trajectory of Iraqi politics.  Reports from al-Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, where Iraqi army troops and Kurdish Pesh Merga forces had been sparring with each other, indicate that local tribal shaykhs and clerics now welcome a united Iraqi army-Pesh Merga force to fight ISIS infiltrators into the province (al-Hayat, Jan 15).

Meanwhile, Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) president, Masoud Barzani, has offered to mediate the dispute between the central government and al-Anbar Province, a dispute that erupted in full after Maliki ordered the arrest in late December of a very popular Sunni member of parliament, Ahmad al-'Alwani, which resulted in his brother and five members of his security staff being killed in a fire fight with Iraqi army forces.  Barzani's offer presents an opportunity for the Kurds to demonstrate a greater involvement in Iraqi Arab and not just in local KRG politics.

That Maliki has backed down from ordering an attack on al-Anbar and local tribal leaders and clerics in al-Falluja have responded by toning down their anti-government rhetoric is another example of a foundation on which steps toward national reconciliation could be built.

The current crisis in Iraq is largely the fault of the policies adopted by the Maliki government following the March 201 parliamentary elections.  As the saying goes, "the fish rots from the head down."  If the US and the international community are serious about using the current crisis to create a possible turning point in the downward spiral that Iraqi politics has experienced over the past 3 years, then they will need to formulate a long-term common strategy that will continue beyond the point when the firing stops and ISIS is eliminated from al-Anbar.

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