Thursday, May 15, 2014

Iraq Cracks Down on Terror-Stricken Anbar Province: Terrorists on the Run?

     The Iraqi government has launched an initiative to take back the western Iraqi province of Anbar from the hands of radical terrorists.  Iraq is taking aim at the eastern Anbar city of Fallujah, which earlier this year was claimed by the al-Qaeda off-shoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq.  ISIS has also been expelled from al-Qaeda for being too radical as their leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, has defied orders from core al-Qaeda leadership.  Baghdadi has wanted to expand his enterprise into neighboring Syria ("al-Sham" translates to "Syria") despite orders from core al-Qaeda leadership who wanted Baghdadi's affiliate to remain exclusively in Iraq while Jabhat al-Nusra, or the al-Nusra Front (the official al-Qaeda branch in Syria) was supposed to be the official Syrian branch of the terrorist network.

     The Iraqi-Syrian border has been considered by some to be non-existent as fighting in Syria worsens.  ISIS has gained control of portions of Syria in addition to Anbar province.  The Syrian conflict has contributed to unrest in Iraq.  Reports suggest that other gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia have provided funding to terrorist groups such as ISIS.  These reports can be misnomers (although Saudi Arabia has been known to indirectly fund terrorist organizations in the past) because the Saudi government has been a strong voice for Syrian rebels.  Saudi Arabia has been providing aid to Syrian rebels for years and the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has fractured, in part, because the United States has been reluctant in Syrian intervention.  The vacuum created in Syria has been a haven for terrorists and it has been difficult to discern rebel groups from terrorists at times.  Groups like ISIS have capitalized on this vacuum by gaining control of some northern territories with the hopes of gaining more regional control.  

     Fallujah was the location of major counterinsurgency efforts by United States forces during the height of the Iraq War contributing to some of the bloodiest battles of the conflict.  The fall of Fallujah signified the Iraqi government’s ineptitude at quelling Islamist factions after a status of forces agreement was not reached between Washington and Baghdad to keep US forces there as well as broader policy implications for the drawdown in Afghanistan.  It also demonstrated harsh push-back from Sunni outliers who have been marginalized and alienated by the Shia government.

     Iraq's nationwide elections are poised to polarize the nation further.  If Nouri al-Maliki wins a third term as president, some Sunni groups and citizens have vowed to overthrow the government.  Maliki, who was vetted and eventually propped up by the Americans, has not panned-out as the democratic leader for which the United States had hoped.  Rather, as many such as Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker reported, Maliki has sought retribution against Sunnis for the years of Shia oppression under Saddam Hussein and aligned the Arab nation more closely with its Persian neighbor Iran.  The corruption in Iraq has mirrored Saddam's rule with Maliki virtually owning the judges and courts and fearing no political reprisal.  Maliki has sat comfortably in the Green Zone or the safe international center of Baghdad while sectarian violence has ravaged his nation in part due to his actions.  

     Maliki has since regretted not negotiating a status of forces agreement with the United States and has warned Afghan leaders to not make the same mistake.  The US still supplied arms to Iraq including helicopters and aircraft in an effort to help defeat terrorist factions despite no status of forces agreement having been negotiated.  

     Despite spats and small victories in Syria, ISIS has been excommunicated from the al-Qaeda network, which makes carrying out operations more difficult.  If Iraq can dispel the group from Fallujah and regain Anbar province, it would be a major blow to ISIS.  If ISIS is thrust out of Iraq, they would be forced to fight rebel groups and other al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria for regional control - not an ideal situation.

     The Iraqi government is also receiving support from tribal leaders in Anbar province to help dislodge terrorist control.  The Iraqi government should capitalize on this short-term partnership with Anbar's tribal leaders as both agree on a common goal to rid the region of terrorist control (despite the Maliki government's actions contributing to Sunni unrest.)  

     It is essential for the election process in Iraq for government forces to regain control of Fallujah.  Iraq has enjoyed victories in small doses in Fallujah recently but must continue to move westward to secure their border with Syria.  Terrorist groups have disrupted oil production, of which Iraq is poised by some estimates to be the world's largest producer, and contributed to anti-government fervor.  Maliki must be mindful of Sunni minorities that remain in his country and not marginalize them if he wins reelection and/or is successful in ridding terrorist groups from regions in his country.     


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