When tens of thousands of American troops were patrolling Iraq’s streets, the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah were often the most troublesome to pacify. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, used both areas as a staging ground for recruitment and a safe haven to plan suicide and car bomb operations that would often take place in Baghdad, the capital. By the time the United States withdrew in 2011, Anbar Province, where Ramadi and Fallujah are located, had accounted for a third of its casualties during the war.
Now, with all American combat troops out of the country, Anbar is again descending into the very type of violence that was so difficult to tame then. Last week, Iraqi special operations troops and reinforcements from conventional units entered both cities, fighting one of the largest open engagements with Al Qaeda militants in years.
The latest violence occurred when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi security forces to demolish a large protest camp in Ramadi that served as a venue for Iraqi Sunnis to vent their frustration against a government in Baghdad that they see as overtly sectarian. The clearing operation proceeded with a minimal degree of violence, despite strong sentiment from Anbar’s predominately Sunni population that the security forces were once again cracking down on their community.
Yet what could have been an relatively brief security operation quickly deteriorated into outright warfare 24 hours later when Al Qaeda militants reasserted themselves in Anbar’s two most important cities.
Seemingly out of nowhere, convoys of vehicles bearing Al Qaeda’s black flag made their way into Ramadi and Fallujah after the security forces had left. Dozens of gunmen in black masks managed to overrun police stations, burn down government buildings and set up checkpoints in selected neighborhoods to ensure that army reinforcements could not reenter. By the time army units were ordered to respond, Al Qaeda’s fighters had expanded their control to half of Fallujah and half of Ramadi — an embarrassment for an Iraqi government that has consistently sought to portray itself as tough on terrorism.
The government in Baghdad sees the threat of a renewed Al Qaeda presence in Anbari cities as a threat to its credibility as well. Tanks have been dispatched to the outskirts of both cities and fighter jets were deployed to strike those parts of the province that are controlled by Al Qaeda.
All of this activity comes as dozens of Iraqi civilians are dying in other areas of the country, including in a car bombing in a city northeast of Baghdad that claimed nineteen lives.
How the Iraqi government confronts this latest challenge could provide a hint to how bloody the new year will be for Iraqis nationwide. If Maliki simply relies on the army or special forces to root out terrorism in Ramadi and Fallujah, he will have missed a golden opportunity to improve a relationship with Sunni Arab tribes that, to date, has been frosty at best. Relying on the people who actually live in the province and rejuvenating the Awakening program that was so successful in diminishing Al Qaeda’s power during the American occupation could be far more effective than sending in shock troops from Baghdad. The Sunni tribes were successful in combatting the jihadists in 2007 and 2008 and could be successful again if they are backed wholeheartedly by the central government.
If reports that the Iraqi army is enlisting the help of the Anbari tribes are true, then Al Qaeda’s attempt at a powergrab might have inadvertently brought Maliki’s government and the Sunni sheikhs closer together.