Muqtada al-Sadr lambastes Maliki as dictator, looter and resigns from politics (again)

a13-iconMustafa Habib writes: He ended his ten year-long political campaign in a televised speech lasting around 11 minutes. In that speech Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said a number of disturbing things: that current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a dictator, that Iraq’s Parliament is paralyzed and that the country’s judiciary is too politicized.

But perhaps the most disturbing things were the questions left unanswered. And there were many.

Al-Sadr was born in 1973, the child of a well known and well respected Shiite Muslim family, based in Najaf. As the Middle East Quarterly reported back in 2004, he is “the fourth son of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was, between 1992 and 1999, one of the most renowned leaders in the Hawza, the centre of Shiite religious seminaries and scholarship”. Muqtada’s father “cultivated good relations with the predominantly Shiite tribes of central and southern Iraq, even publishing a book on tribal Islamic jurisprudence,” the journal wrote.

The Sadr family were persecuted during the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and after the death of his father and two brothers at, most likely, the hands of government assassins, Muqtada assumed a leadership role in the family – and therefore with their many followers.

And after many years of guiding those followers – in both bad, violent times that saw them take military action against the US as well as in calmer times, when he disarmed the Sadrist militia – it appears that al-Sadr is now ready to stand down.

“I will not interfere in political affairs,” al-Sadr said in his statement of resignation on Saturday. “There is no political entity that represents me anymore nor any position in parliament or government.”

In order to clarify his decision, al-Sadr then made a televised speech on Tuesday in which he said his decision was irreversible. [Continue reading...]

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Iraq offers $17,200 reward for killing jihadists

n13-iconBBC News reports: Iraq’s government has offered a reward of $17,200 (£10,300) for each foreign militant killed from al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a former affiliate.

A larger reward of $25,800 (£15,500) is being offered for the capture of militants belonging to the two groups.

The announcement was made on the website of the ministry of defence.

Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been blamed by the authorities for the surge in sectarian violence over the past year.

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Moqtada al-Sadr quits politics

n13-iconAFP reports: Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of a major political movement and a key figure in post-Saddam Iraq, has announced his exit from politics two months before elections.

The decision, if confirmed as permanent, brings to a close a political career that began with his fierce opposition to the US military presence in Iraq, and has spanned more than a decade.

“I announce my non-intervention in all political affairs and that there is no bloc that represents us from now on, nor any position inside or outside the government nor parliament,” Sadr said in a written statement received by AFP on Sunday.

Ahead of legislative elections in April, Sadr’s movement currently holds six cabinet posts as well as 40 seats in the 325-member parliament.

He also said his movement’s political offices will be closed, but that others related to social welfare, media and education will remain open.

It was not immediately clear if the move was temporary or permanent, with Sadrist officials saying they had been taken by surprise and could not clarify. [Continue reading...]

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ISIS suicide bomb instructor kills most of his Iraqi students by accident

n13-iconThe New York Times reports: A group of Sunni militants attending a suicide bombing training class at a camp north of Baghdad were killed on Monday when their commander unwittingly conducted a demonstration with a belt that was packed with explosives, army and police officials said.

The militants belonged to a group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which is fighting the Shiite-dominated army of the Iraqi government, mostly in Anbar Province. But they are also linked to bomb attacks elsewhere and other fighting that has thrown Iraq deeper into sectarian violence.

Twenty-two ISIS members were killed, and 15 were wounded, in the explosion at the camp, which is in a farming area in the northeastern province of Samara, according to the police and army officials. Stores of other explosive devices and heavy weapons were also kept there, the officials said. [Continue reading...]

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The Iraqi re-awakening

f13-iconMark Perry writes: Gen. Raad al-Hamdani holds a unique place among Iraqi military commanders: He openly confronted Saddam Hussein — and lived.

The incident occurred during a high-level briefing in the summer of 2002. A war with the U.S. was looming, but Saddam told Hamdani not to worry. There won’t be a war, he said confidently, because the American people “have no taste for blood.”

Hamdani, who commanded six divisions in Saddam’s elite Republican Guard Corps and was viewed as one of his country’s toughest fighters, disagreed. The Americans would not only invade, he responded — their plan was to occupy Baghdad after a lightning campaign. The only way to fight them, he argued, was to “bleed them slowly” in a series of delaying actions.

Saddam might easily have lost his temper, but he smiled and dismissed his general’s prediction. After all, there was good reason to value Hamdani’s knowledge: He not only owned a library filled with books on America’s World War II campaigns, he was known for his obsessive study of U.S. military tactics. Saddam regularly taunted him about his obsession, calling him “my American General.”

After his conference with Saddam, Hamdani returned to his command. Less than a year later, his divisions fought the U.S. Marines in Nasiriyeh, but failed to hold the southern Iraqi city’s bridges. Without air power, Hamdani’s army didn’t stand a chance; most of his units were destroyed. After Saddam was toppled, Hamdani returned to his home in Baghdad where, one night, American soldiers burst through his door, wrestled him to the ground, and questioned him. Hamdani was enraged.

The experience didn’t rob Hamdani of his courage. After his questioning — and after receiving death threats from Iraq’s new Shiite-dominated government — he moved to Amman. From there, he worked with Anbar tribal leader Talal al-Gaood to kick-start a political opening with the U.S. military that led to the Anbar Awakening. Hamdani’s idea, proposed in a quiet meeting with U.S. Marine Corps officers in an Amman hotel in July 2004, was to arm Anbar’s Sunni militias to face off against Islamic extremists flooding into the province from Syria. Anbar’s insurgents, he told his U.S. military interlocutors, had at least one thing in common with their American occupiers — they both hated al Qaeda.

Gaood established a think tank called the Iraq Futures Foundation in Amman in the summer of 2005, and signed Hamdani on as the organization’s military advisor. The think tank’s goal was to unite Anbar’s tribes against the al Qaeda threat. While it took many months for this vision to be realized, their pioneering work — alongside officers of the U.S. 1st Armored Division — resulted in the formation of the Anbar Awakening Council. The council fought off al Qaeda, empowered Anbar’s Sunnis, and returned the province to political and economic stability.

Hamdani, who is still living in Amman, is now increasingly concerned that his achievements in Anbar are unraveling. Over the last few months, he’s watched with growing alarm as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cracked down on an anti-government protest movement in the province, laying the groundwork for the resurgence of al Qaeda.

His worries are shared by current and former U.S. military officials, who believe that Iraq will need to build another Awakening to defeat al Qaeda, but are convinced the obstacles to doing so will be even more daunting this time around.

Maliki appears to be preparing the Iraqi Army for a renewed assault on Anbar province. His forces shelled the outskirts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi on Monday, Feb. 3, and the Iraqi Defense Ministry claimed that the attacks killed 57 militants.

The violence has returned Anbar to the dark days of 2004 and 2005, when hundreds of U.S. soldiers lost their lives battling a jihadist insurgency there.

“People who know Iraq and Anbar best saw this coming as early as this last summer,” a former senior advisor to both Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates told me. “Maliki kept poking at Anbar, inflaming the tribes. It was an absolutely cynical power play. He figured the angrier Anbar got, the more he could pose as Iraq’s strongman. He thought he’d be viewed as the defender of the Shias and win himself another term as prime minister.”

But by cracking down on Anbar’s Sunnis, the Iraqi premier set the stage for a full-blown uprising. [Continue reading...]

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Iraq: Execution of SWAT forces furthers crimes against humanity

a13-iconHuman Rights Watch: The execution-style killing of four members of Iraq’s SWAT forces, apparently by the ISIS armed group, is the latest atrocity in a campaign of widespread and systematic murder that amounts to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said today.

Men presenting themselves as members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the killings, which took place near Ramadi on January 20, 2014. A video posted online showed ISIS members firing on and disabling the last truck of a SWAT convoy.The ISIS members then take four SWAT members into custody, interviewing them in front of an ISIS flag, and shooting them in the back of their heads.

“These abhorrent killings are the latest in a long list of ISIS atrocities, at a time when civilians in Anbar province are stuck in the fighting and getting abused by all sides,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Together with the ISIS car bombs and suicide attacks targeting civilians, they are further evidence of crimes against humanity.” [Continue reading...]

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With Assad regime in stronger position, chemical weapons disarmament stalls

AnalysisThe Institute for the Study of War has released a new report: The Assad regime’s military position is stronger in January 2014 than it was a year ago and remains committed to fighting for Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. Nonetheless, the conflict remains at a military and political deadlock.

In the spring of 2013 the regime lacked the necessary manpower to conduct simultaneous operations on multiple fronts against rebel groups that were quickly making gains throughout the north, south, and Damascus countryside. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had sustained more losses than it could replenish. It relied on air assets to resupply besieged troops in its Aleppo and Idlib outposts because it lacked overland logistical lines connecting those outposts. The regime had contracted its military footprint to Damascus and Homs in order to its secure supply lines while rebels contested Homs, the lynchpin of the regime’s logistics system that connected Damascus to Aleppo and to the coast.

The Syrian regime has since been resuscitated by infusions of men and materiel from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia and from the formalization of pro-regime militias under the National Defense Forces. This report will lay out the changes in the regime’s strategy and conduct of the campaign that allowed it to regain some of its strength. It will also lay out how opposition movements have attempted to conduct multiple, sometimes competing campaigns of their own against the regime. [See the complete report.]

Reuters reports: Syria has given up less than 5 percent of its chemical weapons arsenal and will miss next week’s deadline to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction, sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

The deliveries, in two shipments this month to the northern Syrian port of Latakia, totaled 4.1 percent of the roughly 1,300 tonnes of toxic agents reported by Damascus to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It’s not enough and there is no sign of more,” one source briefed on the situation said.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports: In his battle against an al-Qaeda-led insurgency in western Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s is providing arms and funds to unnatural bedfellows – Sunni tribesmen who complain of being neglected by his Shiite-dominated government.

The government has trucked weapons and approved millions of dollars in payments to tribesmen in Anbar province in a bid to win their help ousting al-Qaeda-linked fighters who took over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi earlier this month. The United States is also speeding up its supply of small arms to Iraq, urging them to pass them on to tribesmen.

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The fall of Falluja reveals the tragic futility of America’s strategy in the Middle East

Graham E. Fuller writes: When is a war “worth it?” It’s a timeless question that still begs a decisive response.

The debacle of Iraq has now drifted off the scope Americans’ attention — US troops are no longer dying there and new challenges beckon Washington elsewhere. Been there, done that. The American part of the war may be over, and we have grown weary hearing about it, but the Iraqi part of the war still continues. And with the recent and symbolic fall, again, of Falluja to al-Qa’ida and other jihadis we are forcefully reminded of the price that we paid in the American cleansing of Falluja ten years ago — for naught. Falluja, massively damaged, seems back to square one.

What about the Iraqis — was the war worth it for them? The figures are pretty well known by now — upwards of half a million Iraqis died, either in the violence of war or subsequent civil strife. That’s roughly equivalent to 5 million US citizens dying in a war. Add at least one million Iraqis displaced from their homes and villages, many now in exile — equivalent to ten million Americans displaced. Saddam was one of the most brutal dictators the world has seen in modern times, but one wonders–Iraqis must wonder — whether anything Saddam could have done could ever have remotely approached such human and structural devastation as the war. And the psychological damage — constant fear, death, mayhem, ongoing massive insecurity, anarchy and civil conflict –is not yet over.

Still, if you talk to some Iraqi Shi’a, the shift of power from the hands of a Sunni minority under a brutal dictator into the hands of the Shi’ite majority was a long term political godsend for them; they are today “better off” — at least politically, than before the war. But that’s a political abstraction.

Was it “worth it” to individual Shi’ite families who suffered loss of husbands, brothers, wives and children, homes and livelihoods? Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children deprived of medicine under the US sanctions on Saddam, said it was “a hard choice… but it was worth it.” That is the comforting Olympian strategic view, uncomplicated by ground realities for real human beings.

What strategic gains can we tote up for the US alongside Iraqi losses? For the US, virtually nothing gained; indeed, it’s been a serious net loss in geopolitical terms. Few Iraqis are grateful. An Iraq that has always displayed strong Arab nationalist tendencies will not likely now change its colors or learn to love Israel.

Iran is now recognized as the real winner of the Iraq war. The Iraqi internal struggle has spread across into Syria, presenting the US with choices nearly all of which are highly unpalatable. Saudi Arabia has now felt the need to unleash a vicious sectarian conflict that destabilizes the Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, Lebanon, Syria, even Pakistan. [Continue reading...]

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Iraq’s battle with Al Qaeda in Anbar leaves 140,000 displaced

The Associated Press reports: More than 140,000 Iraqis have fled parts of Anbar province over clashes between security forces and al-Qaida militants, the worst displacement of civilians in years, a United Nations official said Friday.

The spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Peter Kessler, described it as “the largest” displacement witnessed in the country since the sectarian violence of 2006-2008. He added that more than 65,000 people fled the conflict just in the past week alone.

Since late December, members of Iraq’s al-Qaida branch — known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — have taken over parts of Ramadi, the capital of the largely Sunni province of Anbar. They also control the center of the nearby city of Fallujah.

Kessler said that many civilians are trapped and suffer from a lack of supplies. [Continue reading...]

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Al Qaeda’s real impotence and the threat from Iraq’s prime minister Maliki

A lot of ink has been spilled in recent weeks about the rising power of al Qaeda.

“Fallujah fall just the beginning — Al Qaeda virus is virulent and spreading,” an op-ed by the Heritage Foundation’s Peter Brookes, captures the spirit of this perception of a resurgence of what some people portray as the greatest source of evil ever to appear on Planet Earth.

The thing is, viral growth of any kind cannot be reliably measured by the ability to grab headlines. However widely dispersed groups branded as al Qaeda affiliates become, the feature that distinguishes each of them is that their predilection for violence makes them unpopular. They are like psychopathic gatecrashers. Everyone knows when they show up at a party and everyone wishes they’d go some place else.

Scaring everyone around you is a good way of getting noticed but it’s not a good way of making friends and at the end of the day, whatever else one might say about these men of violence, they have profound problems making and sustaining meaningful relationships. Their dysfunctionality makes it impossible for them to become the driving force behind any popular social movement; their direct impact on the wider world will never be more than marginal.

The real global impact of al Qaeda is not one that it has the capacity to generate itself; it is the impact created by governments which either cynically or paranoiacally react to a threat whose scope they been blown out of all proportion.

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: No one can deny that al Qaeda is a violent extremist threat wherever it operates. It poses a threat in terms of transnational terrorism in the United States and Europe, and a far more direct threat to the people who live in every area it operates. It has consistently been horribly repressive, violent, and often murderous in enforcing its political control and demands for a form of social behavior that reflect the worst in tribalism and offers almost nothing in terms of real Islamic values.

Like all extreme neo-Salafi movements, al Qaeda is also an economic and social dead end. It does not offer any practical way of operating and competing in a global economy, it is too dysfunctional to allow meaningful education and social interaction, and it finances itself largely through extortion in ways that cripple the existing local economy. Moreover, it does not tolerate competition even from other Islamist fighters. In Syria, it has provoked its own civil war with other hardline Islamist movements – a civil war it now seems to be decisively losing to other Sunni rebel factions.

It is precisely that type of behavior, however, which should lead U.S. officials, analysts, and media to do a far, far better job of reporting on exactly what has really happened in Anbar, and in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi. Bad as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is, far too much of the evidence points to Prime Minister Maliki as an equal threat to Iraq and to U.S. interests. Ever since the 2010 election, he has become steadily more repressive, manipulated Iraq’s security forces to serve his own interests, and created a growing Sunni resistance to his practice of using Shi’ite political support to gain his own advantage.

He has refused to honor the Erbil power-sharing agreement that was supposed to create a national government that could tie together Arab Sunni and Arab Shi’ite, and he has increased tensions with Iraq’s Kurds. As the U.S. State Department human rights reports for Iraq, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) make all too clear; Maliki’s search for power has steadily repressed and alienated Iraq’s Sunnis on a national level. It has led to show trials and death sentences against one of Iraq’s leading Sunni politicians including former Vice President Taqris al-Hashimi, who has been living in asylum in Turkey since being convicted and sentenced to death in absentia by an Iraqi court. It has shifted the promotion structure in the Iraqi Security Forces to both give the Prime Minister personal control and has turned them into an instrument he can use against Sunnis.

Al Qaeda in Iraq – nor its recent incarnation the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – has not risen up as a rebirth of the opposition the U.S. faced in 2005-2008. In spite of attempts by the Maliki government to label virtually any major Sunni opposition as terrorists, the steady increase in that opposition orginated primarily in the form of peaceful and legitimate political protests against Maliki’s purges of elected Iraqi Sunni leaders, and a regular exclusion of Sunnis from the government – including the Sons of Iraq in areas like Anbar. It came because Maliki used the Iraqi Security Forces against segments of his own population in the name of fighting terrorists and extremists. It came because of the failure to use Iraq’s oil wealth effectively and fairly – resulting with an economy that the CIA ranks Iraq 140th in the world in per capita income. The opposition to Maliki’s government also resulted from corruption so extreme that in December 2013 Transparency International ranked Iraq the seventh most corrupt country in the world, with only Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia ranking worse than Iraq in terms of corruption.

Any analysis or news report that focuses only on al Qaeda’s very real abuses is little more than worthless – it encourages the tendency to demonize terrorism without dealing with the fact that terrorism almost always only succeeds when governments fail their people. Just as serious counterinsurgency can never be successful if it only addresses the military dimension, counterterrorism cannot succeed if it is not coupled with an effort to address the quality of the nation’s political leadership and governance, and the legitimate concerns of its people.

Any failure to analyze Maliki’s actions since the 2010 election – his disregard for the Erbil agreement that called for a true national government, his manipulation of the courts to create multiple trails and death sentences for political oppponents, including one of Iraq’s vice presidents – Tariq al-Hashemi; his use of temporary appointments to take control of key command positions in the Iraqi Security Forces; his efforts to bribe senior Iraqi Sunni politicians to support him with ministerial posts; and his steadily increasing suppression of Sunni popular opposition and protests – is dishonest, lazy, intellectual rubbish. [Continue reading...]

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Al-Qaeda has no future in the Arab world

Rami G Khouri writes: Many people in the Middle East and abroad are rightly concerned about the rise and impact of hard-line Salafist-takfiri Islamist groups that have recently proliferated and controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. Groups like the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front, and many other smaller ones represent perhaps the fastest growing ideological sector in the region – in some cases attracting tens of thousands of adherents. There are real reasons to be concerned by their behavior, from their beheading and torture of opponents to their imposition of draconian social norms. Yet we should not exaggerate their long-term prospects. I suspect these are essentially short-term phenomena that have no place in a future Middle East, because they are essentially gangs of losers: deeply alienated young men who can only try to establish their fantasy lands of pure Islamic values in areas that have experienced a total breakdown of order, governance, services and security.

These transitional movements have no possibility to control significant territory and set up their own self-contained statelets, principalities or emirates for extended periods, because they have no natural support in society and only operate where they can take advantage of lawlessness and fear. They can do plenty of damage in the short run, because of their ability to stoke sectarian conflict across the Middle East, shatter people’s lives and development, kill and main thousands, and provide scores of recruits with training and battle experience that can later be used to carry out terror operations around the world. But as political movements they are total failures, which is why they can only operate by the gun.

Al-Qaeda itself and its offshoots have tried for decades to mobilize popular support across the Arab world, playing on the same grievances (Palestine, corruption, foreign aggressions, domestic injustices and disparities) that have brought millions of adherents to other, nonviolent and locally anchored Islamist movements such the Muslim Brotherhood or the Nour movement in Egypt. ISIS and other Al-Qaeda-like groups have totally and repeatedly failed the test of popular legitimacy. They have never achieved any anchorage because their violent, oppressive operating methods are deeply repulsive and alien to the overwhelming majority of Arab men and women. So we see their presence only in ravaged lands, zones of chaos and ungoverned areas, in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan’s border areas, rural Yemen, Somalia, Mali and parts of Libya, Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon where governance and order are weak or nonexistent. In the short term, groups such as ISIS can control small patches of land by stabilizing security situations and providing basic services such as food and medical care, allowing them to impose their brand of harsh justice. The populations under their control appreciate the provision of basic human needs, because they do not want to live under the law of the jungle. But neither do they want to live permanently under Salafist-takfiri rule. Yet they are helpless to speak out against or resist the militants who impose their rule by the gun.

When normal Arab men and women have the opportunity to push back against these abnormal movements, they do so with enthusiasm, as we are witnessing today in the backlash against them that is taking places in parts of northern Syria and western Iraq. A combination of organized but less fanatical Islamists and indigenous armed tribesmen has fought to evict ISIS from some of the areas it recently took over. In parts of Iraq this battle against the extremists has been coordinated with the state’s security agencies. This is a clear sign of things to come elsewhere, and is no surprise. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. veterans despondent over al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq

The Washington Post reports: The towering former three-star general keeps a wooden box on his desk with the photos of 257 service members who died in Iraq under his command, sorted by date. During quiet moments, usually a couple of times a week, Mark Hertling opens the lid, inscribed with the words “Make it Matter,” flips through the laminated portraits of uniformed troops and reflects on their loss.

“I try to keep track of anniversaries of the deaths and say a prayer for them and their families,” said Hertling, who now works at a hospital in Orlando. “During the holiday season, you think about the young men and women killed in 2003, 2004 and figure they would have been in their 30s now, with a couple of kids.”

The ritual was never easy. It has become increasingly painful over the past two years, as Hertling and a generation of troops and civilians indelibly shaped by harrowing tours in Iraq have watched the country unravel from afar.

The Iraq war may have never been declared lost. But the stunning surge in violence over the past year — and the return of al-Qaeda in the western province of Anbar this month — is forcing Americans who invested personally in the war’s success to grapple with haunting questions.

“Could someone smart convince me that the black flag of al-Qaeda flying over Fallujah isn’t analogous to the fall of Saigon?” former Army captain Matt Gallagher asked on Twitter. “Because. Well.” [Continue reading...]

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Iraqi PM urges Falluja to expel al Qaeda militants

Reuters reports: Iraq’s prime minister has urged people in the besieged city of Falluja to drive out al-Qaida-linked insurgents to pre-empt a military offensive that officials said could be launched within days.

In a statement on state television, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim whose government has little support in Sunni-dominated Falluja, called on tribal leaders to get rid of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) who last week seized key towns in the desert leading to the Syrian border.

“The prime minister appeals to the tribes and people of Falluja to expel the terrorists from the city in order to spare themselves the risk of armed clashes,” read the statement.

Tribes from Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority now control armed militias in the region. Maliki promised the army would not attack residential areas in Falluja as his forces prepare an offensive that has echoes of US assaults in 2004 on the city, 25 miles west of Baghdad’s main airport.

Security officials said that Maliki, who is also commander in chief of the armed forces, agreed to hold off an offensive to give tribal leaders in Falluja more time to drive out the Sunni Islamist militants on their own.

“No specific deadline was determined, but it will not be open-ended,” a special forces officer said of plans to attack. “We are not prepared to wait too long. We’re talking about a matter of days only. More time means more strength for the terrorists.”

Marina Ottaway writes: The attacks on the main police station in Fallujah on Wednesday, followed by the takeover of other police stations there and Ramadi on the following day, are part of the escalation in the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict that has long plagued Iraq and reached its worst point in 2006-2007.

But the violence is also part of the broader malaise affecting all Iraqi provinces, including some of the major Shia ones, as Prime Minister Nouri Maliki seeks to tighten his own political control and power, and in the process to impose a highly centralised system of control, which most provinces are beginning to resent.

At present, at least one-third of Iraqi provinces are seeking to transform themselves into regions enjoying the same degree of autonomy Kurdistan has already achieved.

The confrontation in Anbar was precipitated by Mr Maliki’s decision on 30 December to dismantle with force a protest camp that had existed in Ramadi for over a year.

The camp had been set up to challenge what many Sunnis see as their systematic marginalisation by Baghdad, and the repression of prominent Sunni politicians.

The protest camp was not an al-Qaeda operation, but Mr Maliki’s move triggered a strong response by the militants of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis). [Continue reading...]

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Iraq fighters, Qaeda allies, claim Falluja as new state

The New York Times reports: Black-clad Sunni militants of Al Qaeda destroyed the Falluja Police Headquarters and mayor’s office, planted their flag atop other government buildings and decreed the western Iraqi city to be their new independent state on Friday in an escalating threat to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose forces were struggling to retake control late into the night.

The advances by the militants — members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — came after days of fighting in Falluja, Ramadi and other areas of Anbar Province. The region is a center of Sunni extremism that has grown more intense in reaction to Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and the neighboring civil war in Syria.

Assertions by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters that they were in complete control of Falluja were disputed by government security forces and an alliance of tribal leaders who have joined them. By nightfall, the security forces and tribal militia members had recaptured a part of the main street and a municipal building.

Mohamed al-Isawi, the head of the Falluja police, said in a telephone interview that he was gathering men in an area north of Falluja, as a staging ground for what he hoped would be a decisive battle to retake full control of the city.

“We succeeded today with the tribesmen in getting back the main street of Falluja after a big fight,” Mr. Isawi said, “and now we are keen to fight the terrorists and liberate our city from any traces of the criminals.”

But Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters still appeared to have the upper hand, witnesses and others reached by telephone said, and there was no question that the group had scored a propaganda victory against Mr. Maliki, whose authority over Anbar Province has been severely undermined in the two years since American forces left the country.[Continue reading...]

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Qaeda-aligned militants threaten key Iraqi cities

The New York Times reports: Radical Sunni militants aligned with Al Qaeda threatened Thursday to seize control of Falluja and Ramadi, two of the most important cities in Iraq, setting fire to police stations, freeing prisoners from jail and occupying mosques, as the government rushed troop reinforcements to the areas.

Dressed in black and waving the flag of Al Qaeda, the militants commandeered mosque loudspeakers to call for supporters to join their struggle in both cities in the western province of Anbar, which have increasingly become centers of Sunni extremism since American forces withdrew from the country at the end of 2011.

For the United States, which asserted at the time that Iraq was on track to become a stable democracy, Anbar holds grave historical significance — as a place for America’s greatest losses, and perhaps its most significant success, of the eight-year war.

Nearly one-third of the American soldiers killed in the war died trying to pacify Anbar, and Americans fought two battles for control of Falluja, in some of the bloodiest combat that American troops had faced since Vietnam. [Continue reading...]

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Obama sends drones to Iraq

The New York Times reports: The United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.

The move follows an appeal for help in battling the extremist group by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who met with President Obama in Washington last month.

But some military experts question whether the patchwork response will be sufficient to reverse the sharp downturn in security that already led to the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis this year, 952 of them Iraqi security force members, according to the United Nations, the highest level of violence since 2008.

Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq. Riding in armed convoys, the group has intimidated towns, assassinated local officials, and in an episode last week, used suicide bombers and hidden explosives to kill the commander of the Iraqi Army’s Seventh Division and more than a dozen of his officers and soldiers as they raided a Qaeda training camp near Rutbah.

Bombings on Christmas in Christian areas of Baghdad, which killed more than two dozen people, bore the hallmarks of a Qaeda operation.

The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of American and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of United States forces to remain in Iraq. [Continue reading...]

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