[The following report was published by the International Crisis Group on 28 April 2014]
As the campaign for Iraq’s 30 April parliamentary elections heated up, so too did Falluja. The situation there has taken a dramatic turn for the worse since late 2013 when the army, after a long absence, returned in response to protests around Anbar province. With the troops on the outskirts, the jihadi ISIL within and the city’s self-appointed military council trying to walk a fine line between the two, Falluja seems poised to repeat the battles of 2004, when it experienced some of the most intense fighting of the U.S. occupation. The potential for miscalculation, or calculated escalation, is enormous. It is too late for steps that might have been taken to reduce tensions before the elections. Any lasting solution requires addressing the deeper roots of Sunni alienation in a country increasingly gripped by sectarian tension. ISIL’s rise is a symptom, not the main cause, of the poor governance that is the principal reason for Iraq’s instability. The government, UN and U.S. should treat ISIL differently from the military council and Falluja as a whole, rather than bundling them together in an indiscriminate “war on terror”.
When in December 2013 Iraq’s central authorities cleared a year-long sit-in in the city that was demanding better treatment from Baghdad, Falluja’s residents took to the streets. ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) took advantage of the ensuing chaos, moved forces into the city and asserted it had seized control. The claim was greatly exaggerated: while it raised its black flag above some administration buildings in the city centre, locals blocked most of their forays and forced them to retreat to the outskirts.
But Baghdad had a casus belli: it besieged the city, ignored local attempts to mediate an ISIL withdrawal and threatened to attack. Falluja residents held no brief for ISIL, but their hatred of the Iraqi army – seen as the instrument of a Shiite, sectarian regime, directed from Tehran, that discriminates against Sunnis in general and Anbar in particular – ran even deeper. The city’s rebels struck a Faustian bargain, forming an alliance of convenience with ISIL. The jihadis’ military might kept the army at bay, but their presence justified the government’s claim that the entire city was under jihadi control. A self-reinforcing cycle has taken root: jihadi activity encourages government truculence that in turn requires greater jihadi protection.
Falluja’s fighters and Baghdad’s central authorities both are posing as the country’s true patriots, deriding their adversary as a foreign enemy. ISIL has benefited by renewing its base of support in Iraq, which had been shrinking ever since the sahwa (awakening) turned against al-Qaeda in 2006. With a high profile from the fighting in Syria and superior weaponry, they once again have become a magnet for the country’s disaffected.
The crisis has rescued Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s chances in the parliamentary elections, which, until ISIL entered the picture, appeared grim. His second term is widely considered a disaster: over the past year, the rising tempo of violence across the country, abuses by the security services, massive floods in the capital and the government’s mismanagement of Sunni protests damaged his credibility as a national leader among both Sunnis and Shiites. To save his prospects, he took a page out of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s playbook by exaggerating – and thereby exacerbating – the threat Falluja poses to national stability. It offered more than a diversion: it was an opportunity to shift the terms of debate, rally Shiites against alleged terrorists, divide and neutralise Sunnis, redeem the army’s image as defender of state and nation and lobby the international community – with an often myopic focus on jihadi terrorism – for support.
Al-Qaeda is a serious threat, which is why the government should mobilise all the help it can get. One way to do so and to defuse tension in Anbar, however, would be to distinguish among the elements in the province, in particular between local insurgents with specific grievances and political interests and transnational ISIL jihadis, whose agenda is anathema to the city’s residents. With a cohesive corporate identity unique in Anbar, Falluja would prefer to evict the jihadis if guaranteed it would not face regime attack, much as it was almost a decade ago, when the sahwa joined with the government. But the prime minister has staked his re-election on an anti-terrorism campaign with a crude sectarian cast; neither he nor any part of the Sunni spectrum is likely to retreat. The Muttahidun electoral list, a predominantly Sunni coalition that initially led protests but is now partially aligned with the government, is as invested in the terrorism narrative as the government; its and Maliki’s Sunni adversaries, believing the elections are rigged and they would lose even if they were not, are set to boycott.
The parliamentary elections, at least in Anbar, will not be credible – not only because they are proceeding with the province a virtual war zone, but also because violence, fighting terrorism and a focus on security – the very factors that have undermined the elections – have become integral elements of governance in Iraq. What is needed is a new political compact, something elections are but one way to spur.
The question is what should happen after the poll. In the short term, the government should work with Falluja’s military council – which itself should endeavour to repair its relationship with its Sunni rivals – to push ISIL from the city. In the longer term, the violence in and around Falluja should be seen for what it is: a consequence of the state’s deep political flaws, not their root cause, that needs to be addressed as such. There is no better or more convenient time to begin to do so than in the wake of the elections, when political horse-trading will be the order of the day.
[To read the full report click here]