In 2012, controversy regarding the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front first erupted. Some denied their presence while most people thought the two groups had nothing to do with the terrorist organization that is al-Qaeda and that they are part of Syrian national parties but with an Islamist touch.
Some were suspicious of these groups and believed they would work alongside the Syrian regime which previously funded such groups in Iraq and Lebanon. The controversy lasted for a year and a half before it turned out that these groups are actually al-Qaeda and that they’ve politically served the Syrian regime by intimidating Syrian minorities, antagonizing international powers and fighting the Free Syrian Army in every Syrian area it had liberated. Al-Qaeda has previously done this under Zarqawi’s rule in Iraq and confused its cause with those of national powers.
The Sunni Mufti in Iraq has made a progressive move when he frankly described ISIS as a terrorist group and when he exonerated Baathis and veteran military figures and clansmen. Truth is, there’s neither a Baath party nor Baathists since the war against Kuwait. These are now old terms that only represent a gathering of angry Sunni Iraqis.
General Petraeus was aware of this truth when he realized that categorizing the Sunnis is no longer a valid thing to do because political circumstances have changed. This is why Petraeus altered his policy and cooperated with the Anbar clans. The latter became his ally and fought al-Qaeda, and he also convinced a number of Sunni opposition figures to return to Baghdad.
The current crisis began with peaceful protests in Anbar on December 2013, ahead of the parliamentary elections. Protesters back then said they have 17 demands – most of which were just related to demands such as releasing detainees and suspending executions. Many, including Shiite leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakeem, understood these demands. But instead of negotiating with them or letting them be, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – who’s well-known for his foolishness – upset the beehive.
He sent out a big force and arrested Ahmad al-Alwani, an elected member of parliament who hails from a prominent clan, and killed his brother. This was a clear violation of the constitution and regulations. Alwani is still detained while Anbar has taken a turn for the worst.
What about ISIS and al-Qaeda? Truth is, these two organizations are present in the province as they’ve been hiding there since the Sunni tribes overpowered them.
Their story constitutes an important chapter of the history of the previous war as Abdel-Sattar Abu Risha established the alliance of Sunni Arab tribes and the Anbar Salvation Council. In just one year, he won over the al-Qaeda organization which settled in the Sunni province for years. Abu Risha succeeded at what American troops failed at. However al-Qaeda killed him in 2007. The tribes’ alliance lasted until the Americans handed governance to Maliki who for sectarian reasons ended government support to thousands of men who had engaged in the alliance and became part of the Iraqi army!
It’s amid this vacuum that ISIS was reborn and allied with rebels and armed tribes and engaged in confrontations against Maliki’s forces. Instead of negotiating with tribes, Maliki’s forces destroyed Fallujah and displaced tens of thousands. Despite that, it failed at suppressing ISIS and the tribes. Maliki thus provoked them into pursuing his forces everywhere.
Fall of Mosul
Last Wednesday, the Iraqis woke up to the fall of the Mosul and the rest of Nineveh in the hands of ISIS. Tikrit and most of the Salaheddine province fell the day after. And now there are groups gathered at the outskirts of Baghdad itself.
Rebelling groups of former military personnel and tribes are the majority. At the same time, ISIS is also present and it will later be a burden on Iraqi rebels and a certain ally of Maliki’s forces. This reminds us of what’s happening in Syria as there are three major players: Assad’s forces and his Iranian allies, the Free Syrian Army and its allies and the terrorists consisting of ISIS and al-Nusra Front. Iraq will be as such too.
The presence of ISIS will not alter the major facts of the struggle in Iraq. One third of the population is being punished by the regime for sectarian and opportunistic political reasons. It’s normal that they’d revolt against the regime and they will continue to be against it. The al-Qaeda organization has learnt to sneak in where there’s an angry society and major political vacuum, just like it did in Afghanistan and Syria. But let’s keep in mind that the aims of al-Qaeda and its groups don’t meet the aspirations of angry Iraqis and that al-Qaeda views these Iraqis the same way it views the regime – as religiously lost.
What adds to the threat of ISIS and al-Qaeda is Nouri al-Maliki, who is willing to commit massacres to stay in power – just like Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In order to achieve Iraq’s stability, it’s a must to get rid of Maliki and al-Qaeda.
I will continue this discussion tomorrow; on Iran and intervention in Iraq.
This article was first published on Asharq al-Awsat on June 14, 2014.