Battle Lines Drawn in Iraq’s Anbar Province

February 2, 2014

Marc Simms

Map of Middle East

Since the New Year, Iraq’s Anbar province has been wracked with violence as tribal militias, Iraqi government forces, and the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have fought for control of key cities in the region.

Though the causes behind this current round of violence are multi-faceted, its outbreak can roughly be traced to December 28, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dispatched troops to Ramadi to arrest Ahmed al-Alwani, an MP in the Iraqi Parliament.

Al-Alwani is a Sunni politician with ties to an Anbar-based protest movement against the al-Malaki government, which protesters accuse of unfairly targeting its Sunni political opponents.  The movement has decried the mass imprisonment of political prisoners, suspect executions under Iraq’s controversial Article 4 of the Terror Law, and Sunni expulsions at the hands of government-sanctioned militias. Al-Alwani acted as the group’s voice in parliament, and it follows that he was likely targeted in an effort to stem criticism towards what many Sunnis believe to be an increasingly authoritarian and sectarian prime minister.

These events corresponded with a substantial increase in activity from the Anbar-based ISIS – an al-Qaeda affiliated militant group formed during the US occupation of Iraq.  Owing to its involvement in the Syrian civil war, recruitment and funding have spiked through 2013, allowing it to carry out more sophisticated bombing campaigns in Baghdad and Shiite strongholds in Iraq.

As military presence was stepped up in Anbar in response to Sunni protests, ISIS seized an opportunity to carry out a string of ambushes and attacks on army patrols, notably on December 21 when an ISIS attack killed the commander of the 7th Iraqi Army Division, along with 23 other officers.  This incident served as a pretence for the Iraqi government’s late December military operation, which was ostensibly aimed at driving al-Qaeda from the west of the province.

However, Prime Minister al-Maliki, unable to resist the temptation to tackle other political problems, branded the Ramadi protest camp an ISIS base, dispatching the heavily-armed Iraqi security services to force it to disband.  Tribal leaders supporting the protest movement, such as Sheikh al-Saadi, had already warned Maliki that any government attempt to clear the camp would be met by force of arms.

It was in this context that the arrest of al-Alwani was announced.

During the crisis that followed, ISIS – adopting the usual al-Qaeda modus operandi of exploiting local grievances – seized control of Fallujah, claiming it would “defend Sunnis from the government.” Tribal partisans took the eastern Fallujah army base in a nearly simultaneous attack, which suggests some degree of coordination with ISIS (though tribal forces allowed the military to withdraw and declined to engage with police units in stark contrast to the ruthlessness displayed by ISIS).

ISIS’ bloody reputation helps explain why in Ramadi, despite ongoing tensions over the handling of the protest camp, tribal authorities have largely cooperated with government forces against ISIS gunmen in clashes around the city centre.  In particular, Mohammed al-Hayes, leader of the Awakening Council and a vocal ally of al-Maliki, was able to establish a dialogue with tribal leaders to coordinate a joint response against ISIS forces in the area.

Violence has spread across Iraq against the backdrop of the Anbar crisis, with Mosul and Kirkuk experiencing recent attacks, some involving multiple car bombings and army units being ambushed. There have also been execution-style killings reported in the Shiite areas of Baghdad.

Fallujah is still under ISIS control, though the near-constant fighting within the city suggests that this control is being disputed.  Any goodwill between ISIS and local tribes seems to have been exhausted by the former’s attempt to create a force to police local religious matters. The Iraqi army has cordoned off the city, launching the occasional artillery strike, but it does not appear to be preparing any operation to re-take it at present. Iraqi military planners are well aware that Fallujah will prove more of a strategic challenge than Ramadi given the stronger ISIS presence in and around the city.

ISIS is also attempting to push outwards, organizing a campaign to isolate the army by cutting off supply routes, blowing up bridges, and trying to seize Saqlawiyah. ISIS gunmen have also launched attacks on eastern Ramadi, and are reportedly holding on to some districts.

Although it seems for the time being that most local tribes are willing to work with the Iraqi central government in expelling al-Qaeda elements from the region, this should not be taken as evidence that underlying sectarian tensions have been resolved. Tribal cooperation is being extended with the expectation of future concessions such as the release of political prisoners and a more accommodating policy towards Iraq’s Sunnis. Whether or not these promises are delivered on will dictate the future tone of sectarian relations in the region.

Ongoing support from local tribes is critical to any military effort, just as it was during the Anbar Awakening.  The Iraqi military cannot hope to hold the province without local assistance.  Furthermore, it was only with tribal tolerance and assistance that ISIS managed to seize any of the cities in the region, so keeping tribal forces aligned with the Iraqi army is critical moving forward.  Unfortunately, this is not guaranteed given the sectarian nature of the Iraqi army with its largely Shiite recruits.  Divisions between different tribal leaders will also complicate matters, as some are unwilling to work with the others. These are divisions that ISIS will doubtlessly try to exploit.

The greatest risk at the moment is that the focus on Anbar and Fallujah is tying up Iraqi military resources, giving ISIS a freer hand in other parts of Iraq.  As recent history has shown, ISIS is very capable of operating within the capital and in predominantly Shiite areas.  The other major concern is that if the government and tribal militias split again, then Anbar could become a sanctuary for ISIS forces fighting in Syria, giving them the upper hand in their conflict against the Islamic Front.

There is an additional concern that, even if the loyalists triumph in Anbar, the pattern is set for sectarian militias playing a predominant role in Iraqi politics at the expense of a representative and unified state.  Such a system of governing is unstable and prone to violence, especially given the wider regional dynamics at work.  Maliki could always seize the initiative and create a more representative military force, but unfortunately history does not give us much cause for hope.

Marc Simms is a contributor to

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  • It is a great and fabulous article. I enjoyed reading this detailed and comprehensive article very much.
    Kind regards
    Salman Mofak.

  • R.N. Folsom

    It is too bad that during the G.W. Bush administration, when the U.S. military was in a position to influence Iraq’s future, the U.S. did not insist on the development of three states, as roughly in the U.S.: One for the Kurks (that was done), one for Sunnis, and one for Shiites. Anyone could live anywhere they wanted, but it would be understood that each of the states was largely under the control of a particular group. The U.S. Constitution followed a roughly similar model: Northern states Protestant groups, Pennsylvania Quaker, Maryland Roman Catholic, other Southern states largely Episcopalian. (That’s a very rough list, but I thought that as an example it would clarify my hopes for Iraq.)

  • How do you interpret the disassociation of Al Qaeda with ISIS that is in recent news? According to a Washington Post article this leaves Al Qaeda with no representation in Iraq.

  • Peter Underwood

    I agree with Salman Mofak, a most interesting and comprhensive article. I am now much better informed. Thank you.

  • On the subject of creating three independent states within Iraq (the United States of Iraq?), dividing the nation into 2 states based on religion (Sunni and Shiite) and one based on ethnicity (Kurdish), would, in my opinion, create more chaos than it would solve. The false premise in such a division is that the three states would suddenly discover that they could live in harmony. And if that premise is not false, why have the religious sects continued to battle one another even through the repressive years of Saddam Hussein and up until today, regardless of their geographic location?

    And the Kurds to the north will only be satisfied so long as the oil & gas wealth of the entire country is somehow divided equally in accordance with an impartial and balanced formula. Forget the impracticality and near impossibility of devising such a formula, one that is acceptable to one ethnic and two religious sects; consider the long-term effects of such a division of underlying wealth that doesn’t match up with political lines drawn on a map.

    25 years down the road, the Western Desert, currently undeveloped, will have the bulk of the hydrocarbon wealth of the Iraqi nation. The Kurdish North will be close to being 100% depleted, and the South will become a relatively minor second place producer, by a wide margin. Will the Western Region be satisfied with a formula that siphons its revenues off for redistribution to the North and South? This is not only impractical, but a cultural and religious impossibility. The Sunnis will have the west, the Kurds the North, and the Shiites the South.

    Reserves in the north (the Kurds) are being depleted, the south is stable but has production and infrastructure nightmares, and the Western Desert, while undeveloped, still holds the biggest reserves. Figure that one out and you have peace. Otherwise, brace yourself for, as they say in divorce court, a long period of "irreconcilable differences."

  • Marco Antonio

    I think the Middle East has just suffered enough with the political opinions of the West. They have a long history behind and deserve to be able to resolve their political arguments by theirselves. The West’s point of view couldn’t forget its own geopolitical and economic interests.

  • Bill Does

    Thank you for an excellent article. I am much better informed now and also learned from the comments.

    I wish that people could live together in more peaceful ways than they do. It seems silly to waste so much blood and tears over mere power.

    Imagine how prosperous a peaceful Iraq could be and how the ordinary folk would benefit. Only the Iraqi people can demand this result and I hope they do, soon!

  • adifarid

    al malaki’s govt is actually dominated by shiite factions….therefore the result frm ‘disposing’ dictator saddam hussein….the ‘dissatisfaction’ among the sunnis comes frm political ‘suppression’ frm al-malaki’s cabinet members….n even among his military units….has certain ‘displeasures’ toward the sunnis in Iraq…..furthermore the Kurds had been showing increasing political ‘support’ for the sunnis….n often than not ‘linked’ to territorial disputes in the country….

  • Memphis Slim

    Response to Tom Haney: The Sunni/Shiite/Kurd "United States of Iraq will look as good on paper as the division of Lebanon between Muslim and Christian. It reluctantly worked until Muslim divisions (Sunni/Shiite – with a dose if Iranian mischief) came into conflict and dragged the whole country into the toilet.


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