An argument can be made that if one place is emblematic of the sectarian troubles facing Iraq in the years since the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, it’s the city of Fallujah. Located in the Al Anbar province about an hour west of Baghdad, the place sometimes called the City of Mosques became a symbol of Sunni resistance to the American occupation and later, the Shiite-dominated central government in the capital.
American, British and Iraqi forces fought two major battles to pacify the area in 2004 at great long-term cost to the city’s civilian population. In the years since, infant mortality rates have soared along with birth defects that experts have blamed on the widespread use of depleted uranium munitions. Further, a 2010 study concluded that the kinds of cancer that became rampant in the city are “similar to that in the Hiroshima survivors who were exposed to ionizing radiation from the bomb and uranium in the fallout”.
In mid-June of this year, there was yet another battle for the city, which quickly fell to Iraqi forces bolstered by Shia militias. Their victory left the much larger northern city of Mosul as the only major urban area in Iraq still in the hands of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Fallujah had been the group’s first major conquest in the country and they’d controlled it for more than two years but, by all accounts, their attempts to create a Salafist utopia failed. In fact, ISIS seems to have shown a penchant for cruelty that quickly turned a somewhat receptive population against them and a lack of competence that only got worse over time.
More Than a Decade in Crisis
Unlike the situation in Al Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, itself reduced to rubble late last year by a combination of Iraqi artillery, American, Canadian, French and other coalition member air strikes and the wiring of many of its buildings with explosives by fleeing Islamic State fighters, the infrastructure of Fallujah is said to be mostly intact.
This good news aside, the situation facing the civilian population that remained in the city is dire. As Sigyn Meder of the Iraq Solidarity Association in Sweden wrote in a letter to that country’s foreign minister on June 19th, a humanitarian crisis has already begun, “A sack of flour costs 850 US dollars, small children are starving and people are eating grass in the encircled city.”
We must add to the suffering of those still in and around the area that of the 85,000 citizens who fled their homes when the opportunity presented itself in the lead up to the battle. While the Iraqi government’s planning for the assault on Fallujah was markedly better than what we’ve seen in other Iraqi cities and towns, the four camps created for those fleeing the violence haven’t been able to meet their most basic needs.
Of the response led by the United Nations, Jeremy Courtney of the Preemptive Love Coalition, which is distributing the available aid to these desperate internal refugees, told the Washington Post, “It’s a complete disaster, The government and the international organizations failed to do what they need to do.”
There is also the issue of the powerful Shia militias whose methods are in many ways indistinguishable from those of their Sunni enemies, except for the fact that they’re nominally on the side of the central government. Human Rights Watch has already asked for an investigation into widespread abuses allegedly perpetrated by these groups both during the fight to take the city and after it ended. As reported by the Iraqi Kurdish news site Rudaw, at least 650 men and boys went missing from Fallujah and the surrounding area after the battle.
The Unraveling of the Islamic State
One small positive in all of this tragedy is that ISIS’ weaknesses have become more apparent over the last few months. Although the group has terrified many people with attacks outside their territory (many of them claimed dubiously after the fact), the switch from taking and holding territory to asymmetric warfare proves that their short time as a somewhat conventional military force is nearing its end, at least for now.
The Islamic State is made up of many distinct groups; foreign and local, and, if not faced with outside threats to fight, it’s my belief that ISIS would likely fall apart quickly due to its own internal contradictions. Among the foreigners are battle-hardened militants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, less hardened youth from throughout the Middle East and North Africa and naive western wannabes with very little military training.
Although there are some Iraqi citizens who support the Islamic State’s Salafist ideology, including their Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi, many are remnants of Saddam Hussein’s secular Baath party looking to regain some of their lost influence and some are disgruntled members of the Iraqi tribes who participated in the earlier Anbar Awakening (Sahwa) that practically purged the organization it grew out of, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), from Sunni areas of the country between 2006-2009.
As in most of the Greater Middle East, tribal politics play an often outsized role in Iraq and its neighbor Syria that can be puzzling for western and other outside observers, but which groups like ISIS can use to their advantage. The “Sunni Triangle” in central Iraq, which includes Anbar province, “is a diverse mosaic of hundreds of small and medium-sized tribes, as well as a dozen large tribal federations, notably the Dulyam and the Shammar Jarba, each comprising more than a million members.”
It was many of these tribes, disgusted by Al Qaeda in Iraq’s treatment of their own people and seeking advantage over local rivals, who used their local knowledge to go after AQI and were a key, though often unacknowledged, factor in the success of the American troop ‘surge’ that began during the same period.
These ‘Sons of Iraq’ as they came to be called, prospered under American patronage but many felt that promises made by then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, especially for positions in the military and police, were not met when the backing of the American coalition ended. Once again, a significant number of armed Sunni Iraqis were left without job prospects, a recipe for disaster in an area where Saudi-funded Wahhabist clerics were stoking their anger at Shiites in general and the leadership in Baghdad in particular.
While we can easily understand the desire of many Shiites for revenge against a minority group favored by the old regime, we’d be denying the overwhelming evidence to the contrary if we said that Iraq’s Sunnis don’t also have a right to feel aggrieved by what they have suffered in the more than a decade since the US invasion. It’s important to remember that the majority of them are ordinary people caught between the rock of Sunni radicalism and the hard place of Shia resentment and repression.
The liberation of Fallujah gives the Iraqi government yet another chance at reconciliation with the country’s Sunni minority and, although the sectarian tensions stoked in both Iraq and Syria by Saudi Arabia and its gulf country allies on one side and Iran on the other will likely continue, there are finally a couple of small signs of hope.
The first is that Prime Minister Abadi, who is seen as more pragmatic and less sectarian than his predecessor Maliki, seems more inclined to offer an olive branch to the Sunnis in the form of more local autonomy and greater participation in the central government and security services. Only time will tell if he is willing and able to follow through on these promises.
The second is the massive protests against government corruption led by the powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who, although a Shi’a, is presenting himself as an Iraqi nationalist opposed to the main Shiite parties and has called in no uncertain terms for a unified Iraq comprised of all of its diverse communities.
If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that the wounds of Fallujah, and those of Iraq’s Sunni in general, must be treated in short order or the conflict will simmer to explosion once again. If this is allowed to happen we must ask ourselves: after AQI and ISIS, what kind of monster might come next?