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anbar crisis
a mini syria developing in iraq’s backyard?

Special Correspondent
It seems to be the most serious Sunni-Shiite split in Iraq for months. And now nobody knows who is in charge of Anbar – is it the Sunni Muslim tribal groups? Or is it extremists from Al Qaeda, come over the…
3.01.2014  |  Anbar
Tribal groups in Anbar, defending the province from Al Qaeda affiliates.
Tribal groups in Anbar, defending the province from Al Qaeda affiliates.

At dawn on Dec. 30, Iraqi government forces stormed the protest camp that had been occupied by Sunni Muslim protesters who had been demonstrating against the Iraqi government for almost a year. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had described the camps as a nest of extremists and terrorists. And on that morning, Anbar was cut off from the rest of the world, with Internet and telephone networks going down.

However by the time the Iraqi army got to the camp, the tents were already empty.

Nonetheless a few hours after this operation, the Sunni Muslim tribes of Anbar province announced that they were going to resort to armed conflict to confront the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. After making this announcement, armed tribal forces took control of the Anbar cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.

“Al-Maliki got the army involved and they have destroyed these peaceful protests and detained an MP from our province and killed some of his people,” Mohammed Abu Assaf, one of Anbar’s senior tribal leaders, told NIQASH. “How could we just sit at home and not do anything about it?”

“We will not stay silent and we will not accept the way the government is treating us,” says Ahmad al-Jumaili, another of the tribal leaders in Anbar. "We went out in the streets to defend our honour. Even members of the military forces realized what they were doing was wrong. They left the area instead of confronting us.”

In the process, al-Jumaili says, several police vehicles were set on fire as were five police stations in the two cities.

“The cities of Ramadi and Fallujah are no longer under the control of the Iraqi government,” al-Jumaili said. “The tribes are in charge and they will fight the Iraqi government if it tries to come too close. The tribes will not allow Al Qaeda to take advantage of this situation either.”

However as Fateh al-Issawi, a member of Anbar\'s provincial council, told NIQASH, “Al Qaeda is in control in some parts of the province. It is not just the tribes. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has taken advantage of this situation and has entered the province. The army should return actually, to clear the cities of these terrorists.”

Several weeks ago the extremist Sunni Muslim organisation announced its intention to try and annex the mostly Sunni Muslim province of Anbar – it’s part of the organisation’s goal to establish an Islamic state. Anbar shares borders with Syria from where Al Qaeda fighters are coming in.

A senior military commander, who didn´t wish to be named for security reasons, confirmed this. “The Islamic State controls parts of Anbar and they have set fire to police stations and military vehicles and killed a number of security forces.”

An Iraqi journalist residing in Fallujah, who couldn’t give a name because of security concerns said that the extremists had entered the city in large numbers, in modern vehicles. At the moment the extremists don’t control the city though, he said, because they haven’t been able to get close to the city’s administrative offices - tribal groups have formed brigades to protect these. “So we’re not sure where all those Al Qaeda fighters went to but we think they’ve moved onto Ramadi,” he said.

It is hard to know exactly who is in control of what in Anbar because of conflicting reports.

Also reappearing on this scene is a senior Sunni cleric, Abdul Malak al-Saadi, who the protesters consider their spiritual leader. Al-Saadi announced on his website that he supported moves made to expel the Iraqi army from the area. He said that any kind of fighting unit – whether it be Al Qaeda or Iraqi military – should be repelled from Anbar’s cities. However he also said that he did not want any of the Iraqi military harmed and that any military personnel who surrendered should be protected.

It is hard to know how this situation can be resolved. Al-Maliki has been trying to reconcile with Sunni Muslims in the province and has held several meetings with senior tribal leaders – in particular, those who once formed part of the Awakening movement to fight extremists in the area. The problem with reaching out to these men is that these leaders don’t actually represent the protesters.

At the moment it seems that al-Maliki\'s government is in a race with extremists to win the hearts and minds of the tribal groups who currently do seem to control a lot of the province. Some observers suggest that the tribal leaders may want to come to a compromise with Al Qaeda because the extremists may help them end what they see as oppression by al-Mali’s Shiite Muslim led coalition. But others believe the tribal groups would rather fight against Al Qaeda because the extremists have done them so much harm in the past.

The coming days and weeks will reveal whose side the tribal groups in Anbar take. Ordinary Iraqis can only hope the scenario there does not devolve further and that this question of allegiances will be settled before the federal elections next year.