The last few weeks in Iraq have been good to the extremist organisation, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The Al-Qaeda affiliated group managed to attack and assassinate a number of high ranking Iraqi army officers and policemen in a number of provinces, including Ninawa, Diyala, Baghdad and Anbar. All of these are known as places where the organisation, also called ISIS or Daash, keeps bases. They are also areas where a large proportion of the population is Sunni Muslim. Al Qaeda is a Sunni Muslim extremist organisation and it often targets Shiite Muslims – although recently it has also attacked Sunni Muslims it considers to be cooperating with the Iraqi government.
A few weeks previously, at the beginning of December, ISIS clearly stated that its ambition was to annex the Anbar province, which shares a border with Syria. The extremist group already has control over various areas in Syria and it seems it wants to add this part of Iraq too.
Attacks in Anbar cities like Fallujah, Qaim and Rutba, have been tactical and well planned and have involved not just the killing of security forces but the occupation or destruction of security forces’ outposts and command centres. This has seen the cities loose contact with one another to some extent.
And this is a bigger problem than it might appear at first. Anbar is one of the biggest provinces in Iraq and actually makes up about a third of the country. It has deserts and rugged mountainous landscape which makes it difficult for regular military forces to control it. The long borders with Syria, from where it’s assumed many of the extremists are coming, are also difficult to control. Additionally much of the population stems from Sunni Muslim tribes or clans who have always lived here and who are generally fairly conservative. Add to their conservative attitudes, the feeling that the Shiite Muslim-led government has marginalized them and persecuted them of late, then it becomes easier for extremist groups like ISIS to bring these tribesmen on side.
“Daash want to separate Anbar and annex it to areas under its control in eastern Syria,” Hakim al-Jumaily, a member of the Parliamentary committee on security and defence, told NIQASH. “But it seems that we have been too late in responding to this threat – our troops should have been preventing the infiltration of militants into the country from the beginning.”
One of the major problems in Anbar is how porous the long border between Iraq and Syria is. “We’ve been appealing to the federal government to control the borders here for the last nine months,” says council member Suhaib al-Rawi, who is on the local security committee. “But members of these extremist groups continue to cross over every day and nobody seems to be able to stop them.”
“The security forces here in Anbar have acted too slowly and the Iraqi army is also weak,” al-Rawi told NIQASH. “The result is that today members of Al Qaeda are crossing into Iraq, living with us, resting in their desert camps and then killing us.”
From the beginning of this wave of activity in Iraq, ISIS’ strategy seems to have had two major goals. Firstly the rehabilitation of military-style camps in Iraq in places like the Anbar desert region, northern parts of Salahaddin province, eastern parts of Mosul and northern parts of Babel. The groups had these camps previously but had been driven out over the past decade. Now however they are returning.
Secondly, the organisation has continued to wage a kind of guerrilla war on the streets of Iraq’s cities – it’s been successful in launching simultaneous waves of suicide bombings.
As the New York Times noted recently the group is sending suicide bombers into Iraq “at a rate of 30 to 40 a month, using them against Shiites but also against Sunnis who are reluctant to cede control”.
Local security analyst Asad al-Yasiri believes the guerrilla war has distracted Iraqi police and army from the construction of the camps and the border zone infiltration.
“Daash [ISIS] has been doing what it is known for around the world, with its guerrilla tactics,” al-Yasiri says. “This is all about chipping away at people’s morale with bombing and murder so that when the time comes for Daash to take control, they are ready to surrender.”
A senior office in the Iraqi army, who did not want to be named for security reasons, told NIQASH that the current operation in Anbar was the biggest military effort in Iraq since US troops withdrew in 2011. Recently the US has been aiding the Iraqi government in this by sending equipment to help in the fight against the extremists, the New York Times reported.
“We were very surprised by the size and number of Daash camps in Anbar,” he continued. “Three days ago we destroyed one of the camps and we found documents there that indicated there were 11 camps in four provinces.”
However it doesn’t seem as though the pressure being exerted on ISIS in Anbar is preventing it from carrying out other deadly missions. Recent events include the storming of a television channel in Tikrit, the capital of Salahaddin, that saw five journalists killed as well as an attack in Abu Ghraib near Baghdad that saw one commander and several officers and soldiers, killed.
It seems clear to many that the Iraqi military alone cannot defeat the extremist group, as it appears to have many cells around the country as well as plenty of back up plans. Many opposition politicians have pointed out that even the might of the much better armed, and more professional US army was unable to make much headway against the Sunni Muslim extremist group - until they enlisted the aid of local Sunni Muslims.
At one stage the so-called Awakening Movement - a home grown initiative dating back to 2006, which saw tribal groups with a Sunni Muslim background halting their fight against the US military and instead taking up arms against Sunni Muslim extremists – was considered the US military\'s magic bullet in Iraq. But more recently, and particularly since the withdrawal of US troops, the Awakening Movement has been neglected by the Iraqi government.
“The government needs to regain the trust of Sunni Muslims if it wants to fight Al Qaeda,” MP Shwan Mohammed Taha, a member of the Parliamentary committee on security and defence, said. “Sometimes a political solution like this can have a magical effect.”
Even US politicians apparently told current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that this was a good idea, especially after ongoing demonstrations were held in many Sunni Muslim parts of Iraq to condemn al-Maliki’s policies.
However al-Maliki doesn’t seem to be taking a lot of notice of that advice. He recently said that the Iraqi military would need to move against Sunni Muslim protestors forcefully because the protests had become a hub for Al Qaeda extremists.
"I say clearly and honestly that the sit-in site in Anbar has turned into a headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda,” news agency AFP reported al-Maliki as saying on state television last week. He also gave the protestors a deadline to leave. But it seems certain that if al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim politician, sends the army in against the Sunni Muslim protestors this will further inflame sectarian tension in Iraq.
As AFP also reported al-Maliki’s comments came after an incident that saw senior military staff killed in an ambush when they went to visit one of the ISIS camps in Anbar after it had been bombed from the air. Although the camp was empty ISIS members had left booby traps. So possibly al-Maliki was reacting to this event.
Still, it is clear that, as the country readies itself for general elections in early 2014, with all of the factions in play, both political and military, both inside and outside the borders, it still seems as though Iraq is on the verge of a very dangerous four months.