Maliki's war cry over fighting al-Qaeda is a clear subversion of the truth.
As violence in Fallujah escalates to near-unprecedented levels, the entire narrative of the fighting seems to evade a number of key points. Namely, this fighting was not precipitated by the capture of Sunni strongholds by al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
The precursor to the fighting between Iraqi government forces and Sunni tribesmen of Anbar was a result of a ruthless policy of repression, aimed at nationwide protest camps opposing government measures on public services, counterterrorism, illegal house raids and a perpetuation of sectarian violence, as well as a number of other policies that continue to marginalize Sunni communities.
The Ramadi protest camps in al-Anbar have been at the center of demonstrations for the past year. It was on December 30 — a week after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had threatened to "burn down" the camps — that special forces (SWAT) and the army descended upon the Ezz and Karama Square to crush protests, which had gained momentum after the arrest of Sunni MP Ahmed al-Alwani and the murder of his brother and five of his security guards.
Two witnesses reported to Human Rights Watch that SWAT and the army had arrived in a procession of military Humvees, pick-up trucks, and armored vehicles to clear the squares. All this just seven hours after Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi had negotiated the release of Alwani on the condition that the camps were to be cleared within 48 hours.
This is not the first attempt by government forces to clear protest camps. In April 2013, SWAT and the army opened fire on more than a thousand protestors in Hawija, south of Kirkut, killing 50 people and leaving 110 injured. The event passed without as much as a whimper in the press, let alone widespread condemnation.
The only difference between the events in Hawija and what happened in Ramadi was that, in the latter case, tribal militias decided to pick up their guns and fight back — the repercussions, two months later, can be witnessed in the form of heavy aerial bombardment of Fallujah.
As fighting has escalated, the role of tribal militias has become watered down and has taken a backseat to the widely accepted, yet unproven mantra that "al-Qaeda-linked" ISIS is among half of the resistance faction that have seized Fallujah.
According to an Interior Ministry official, half of Fallujah has fallen to ISIS, while the other is "in the hands of tribesmen."
Who is Fighting the Iraqi Forces?
There are two important issues that must be highlighted here. The first of which is that claims of ISIS being the dominant group in the opposition seem to be unsubstantiated. There is no solid basis to validate any statement that ISIS is even present in large contingents in Fallujah, let alone playing a significant role in the fighting.
A group of prominent Anbari tribal leaders led by Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Salman, the Emir of the Dulaim tribe, has insisted that this confrontation is between the tribes and the government and they will continue fighting until their demands are met.
Feirut Alaani, a French-Iraqi journalist, has reported that ISIS is not playing a significant role in the fighting in Fallujah. Much has been said about ISIS raising a flag over a building in Fallujah, as this has been widely accepted as a sign of their power within the city. Yet Alaani argues: "They took their flag down five minutes later when ordered to by tribal leaders. This shows that tribes control Fallujah."
The only evidence that seems to give any credibility to government claims about a sizeable ISIS presence in the city is the statement of an anonymous member of the Tribal Revolutionaries Council, who confirmed that ISIS members had arrived in Fallujah on January 3. According to the council member:
"Tribal gunmen surrounded the al-Qaeda gunmen as soon as they arrived… The Fallujah tribes didn’t clash with al-Qaeda, but they didn’t coordinate with it either. It was agreed that [al-Qaeda would] move to the outside of the city of Fallujah, and that did happen."
If there is even the slightest bit of truth about this statement, then it does nothing further than prove that ISIS is present. However, it renders government claims about the capture of the city by the group as implausible, since the statement refers to ISIS operations being relegated to the outskirts of the city, which has avoided the majority of the violence in the last two months.
The fact that the anonymous source used al-Qaeda and ISIS interchangeably in further statements leads to a second important point: ISIS is not the Iraqi face of al-Qaeda.
It becomes a rather arduous task to highlight this point when the vast majority of media agencies continue to parrot a headline that has made ISIS sound like a surrogate of al-Qaeda, as opposed to a separate radical outfit that has its own agenda.
Maliki has constantly reiterated the rhetoric during the course of the fighting that al-Qaeda-linked militants must be driven out. It is more than just rhetoric at the moment; it is now his casus belli to heavily bombard Fallujah, perhaps to further cripple a city that has been the most vocal about Maliki’s indifference to Sunnis.
The name which seems to link al-Qaeda with ISIS is that of the shadowy figure of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. According to US officials, he was the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) – which later went on to become ISIS by including al-Sham (the Levant). His group was reported to be operating in Iraq at the behest of al-Qaeda, after he pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2004.
The problem for the White House, however, is there appears to be no solid evidence that the man ever existed in the first place. Prior to being "killed" in 2006, Zarqawi was never seen or captured alive. He was never mentioned before the Iraq War and his entire past has no coherent script.
If we are to accept that he did exist, then his allegiance to al-Qaeda does not mean that ISIS was al-Qaeda’s extension in Iraq. US intelligence during the war cited al-Qaeda’s frustration with ISIS, as the group refused to follow orders. Even Donald Rumsfeld said that Zarqawi may have been more of a rival of al-Qaeda as opposed to being its lieutenant.
If there were any doubts about this, they should surely be dispelled by a statement released on February 2 from the al-Qaeda general command. "ISIS is not a branch of the Qaidat al-Jihad [al-Qaeda's official name] group, we have no organizational relationship with it, and the group is not responsible for its actions."
It is not hard to see why this has gone ignored. To offer a pretext in which the Iraqi government is fighting al-Qaeda affiliates in Fallujah not only evokes sympathy across the media, but also unlocks doors to the US Congress who needs no second invitation for getting involved in any fight that involves al-Qaeda.
How Involved is the US?
The Obama administration has wasted no time in expressing its concern over the "al-Qaeda-linked ISIS" and its growing influence, not just in the fighting in Fallujah but in Iraq as a whole.
The Pentagon has pledged its support to the "struggle" by promising to deliver 24 Apache helicopters, 175 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, Scan Eagle and Raven reconnaissance drones — some of these have either been delivered or are pending delivery. These are just among a few items on the shopping list that is worth up to $4.7 billion.
The Wall Street Journal also cited State Department and Pentagon figures who stated: "As of January 2013, the US had more than 12,500 contractors in Iraq." Some of these contractors are military specialists helping the Iraqi military maintain its growing number of surveillance drones, attack helicopters and powerful missiles. The statistics run contrary to Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements that the US will not be putting their boots on the ground and that fighting in Fallujah is "their fight."
Fallujah is quickly plunging toward its most violent period of violence since 2004. Government forces and government-contracted tribesmen belonging to the Sahwa group — Sunni tribesmen who were the key components in the US policy to drive ISIS out during the Iraq War — have surrounded Fallujah in an attempt to regain control of the city.
Over 100 people have been killed, with over 530 wounded in a relentless campaign of shelling. According to the United Nations (UN), almost 370,000 people have been left homeless, without any access to water and electricity due to daily bomb attacks. Several bridges, which are the only channels for the besieged citizens to receive any food, have also been utterly destroyed.
Just last week, the Fallujah General Hospital was bombed, killing nearly all the doctors, nurses and patients, forcing the hospital into closure. Almost 44 Sunni MPs have resigned from their post due to the Iraqi government’s methods in the fighting.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq have continued to plead with Maliki to provide humanitarian aid and negotiate an end to the fighting. But the response he received was that "we don’t negotiate with terrorists."
The crisis further adds to the trauma that inflicted Fallujah in 2004. During that year, two US sieges of the city aimed at tackling Sunni insurgents saw between 3,000 to 6,000 civilians killed, while 300,000 people fled to seek refuge elsewhere. The brutality of Operation Vigilante Resolve and Operation Phantom Fury can be seen in the increase of children being born with severe birth defects — since the US-led sieges.
The Future of Iraq?
The scenes in Fallujah are not surprising if we base it upon what happened across the country in 2013. Iraqi people have grown accustomed to sectarian violence since Saddam Hussein was toppled, but 2013 alone was one of the worst years for Sunni-Shi'ite violence since 2006-2007.
More than 7,818 civilians and 1,050 members of security forces were killed in sectarian violence over the past year. More than 5,000 of the casualties were from attacks after April 2013, the same month in which government forces raided the Hawija camps. It would not be off the mark to suggest that Maliki’s policies of disenfranchisement and isolation of the Sunni community has had a significant part to play in the escalation of sectarianism.
Policies of de-Ba'athification that began under Paul Bremer during the US invasion have continued under Maliki’s helm, leaving thousands of Sunnis jobless. Thousands have also been imprisoned without charges being investigated, while many are being kept in prison for indefinite periods based on evidence provided by secret informers under counterterrorism charges.
Corruption has been endemic as there have been hardly any improvements to state services, despite the Iraqi government generating $100 billion a year from the sale of oil.
The non-violent protests taking place across Iraq have highlighted these very same issues and have also received support from the Shi'ite community, including Muqtadr al-Sadr and his followers.
Despite all this, the protests continue to be denounced by Maliki as a ploy by pro-Ba’athists and other enemies acting as proxies for hostile states; an argument on the basis of which the Iraqi prime minister has continued to either ignore or crush protest camps.
The fighting in Fallujah is a culmination of antigovernment sentiments that Iraqi Sunnis have harbored for a long time. It was only a matter of time until arms would be taken up against government forces. Yet the third battle of Fallujah will go down as another episode of Maliki’s War on Terror. The hundreds of casualties in the fighting will be deemed as collateral damage in a noble attempt to drive out al-Qaeda.
As for the US, the White House continues to watch on with benign neglect. The scenes in Fallujah continue to be parroted across US media as a lamentable tragedy, now that al-Qaeda" has seized the city that American troops put their lives on the line to "liberate."
As Maliki’s rhetoric over fighting al-Qaeda affiliates is gobbled up by the White House, there seems to be no reason to slap his wrist, let alone reign in his entrenched system of anti-Sunni discrimination. Instead, he receives military aid in abundance. Yet this is still supposed to be the "Iraqi people’s fight" and, as always, the world will continue to believe it so.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.