With violence escalating, is there any way to head off a sectarian civil war?
Sunni extremists fought for control of Ramadi and Fallujah through the weekend in Iraq’s eastern desert after the militants stormed the cities in retaliation for the central government’s move to break up a lengthy sit-in staged by Sunni protesters who have felt left out of the Shi’ite dominated political process.
The fighting started earlier last week as government officials in Baghdad rushed to send troops to the areas to stop militants linked with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (greater Syria) group. The militants have been bolstered by the cross-border ties established in Syria during the country’s civil war, Middle East analysts say. ISIL is affiliated with al-Qaida.
On Thursday, they set fire to police stations, freed prisoners from jail and occupied mosques in Ramadi and Fallujah. By Friday, the overall death toll in Anbar province had reached 108, according to hospitals. And by Sunday, dozens more fighters and civilians had been killed, with ISIL fighters claiming to have gained control over all of Fallujah. In all, more than 160 people have been killed in fighting between ISIL, security forces and tribesmen in just two days.
It is the worst violence to hit Anbar in years, and the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities in Iraq since the peak of the deadly insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday the U.S. would stick by Iraq in its battle with the militants but stressed it was “their fight.”
But Iraq observers have been warning about the potential for an Iraqi civil war since the U.S. made its official withdrawal in 2011. The porous border between Iraq and Syria has added to the problem, as radicals have taken advantage of the loosely guarded region to go back and forth. ISIL has emerged in Syria’s civil war as an affiliate of the international al-Qaida network and a powerful force among Sunni Muslim rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Iraqi officials were distressed to learn in March that armed Syrian opposition groups, like ISIL, carry out cross-border operations. In addition, Sunni tribes in Iraq that sit near the border frontier joined the effort to topple Assad and have given safe haven to many of the radicals fighting both the Syrian government and the Free Syrian Army.
Although there have been many deadly attacks by extremists since the U.S. pulled out, it looked as though militant activity was waning in Iraq. However, the newest development in Fallujah and Ramadi illustrates its resurgence.
On Monday Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for the residents of Fallujah to rise up and “expel” the insurgents from the city. In the meantime, the Iraqi Air Force has carried out strikes on Ramadi to drive out the al-Qaida fighters. The government claimed on Monday to have driven most of the extremists from Ramadi, but varying reports say the fighting continues.
Analysts had predicted a potential power vacuum would be filled by America’s enemies in Iraq and would emerge as a possible threat to U.S. national security interests. Now, thousands of Americans servicemen who fought and died to bring peace to Fallujah in 2004 in some of the harshest fighting of the Iraq war may have done so in vain.
The cost of the withdrawal is now being realized in the form of an unstable Iraq that is having a difficult time managing its own internal security. The Iranians have offered help, saying on Monday it could offer military aid but not troops.
WIth Iraq teetering on the brink again, the government in Baghdad could use all the help it can get.