Iraq’s Maliki Faces Tough Choices in Fallujah

Defeating the Islamists carries the risk of high casualties, but the government may not have a choice.

In some of the most deadly fighting in Iraq since the American withdrawal more than two years ago, the residents of Fallujah, one of the largest city in the western Anbar Province, find themselves in the middle of a violent confrontation between militants associated with Al Qaeda and Sunni tribesmen who, for now, back the national army and police.

Thanks to reporters on the ground and corresponds in the region, we know that Islamist fighters have effectively taken over the city and held their ground for the last week. While Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital, is also partially in the hands of the same insurgents, Sunni tribes supported by the Iraqi government have reportedly captured its center.

The violence prompted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to appeal to the residents of Fallujah in televised address to evict Al Qaeda’s fighters on their own if they hope to stave off a military operation. With sectarian tensions already at a dangerous high in Iraq, the worst decision that Maliki, a Shia, could take is to order the Iraqi army to storm a major Sunni city and potentially incur civilian casualties.

Ideally, the Sunni tribes of Anbar would unite and take matters into their own hands, launching a grassroots campaign to retake the cities. Instead of using Iraqi soldiers in the lead, the army would be able to back up the tribal fighters with the necessary arms, logistical and air support that is so crucial in a counterinsurgency campaign.

But that is unlikely to happen. Many Sunnis in Anbar see Maliki’s central government in Baghdad as no less vicious than Al Qaeda which hopes to turn the province into the basis for an Islamic state.

Although the Anbari tribes have all experienced the brutal wrath of Al Qaeda in the past, the political situation in the province today is divided between those who support the government in Baghdad, those who oppose it and others who view Maliki and Al Qaeda as predatory actors both. All of this makes it far more complicated for the army to drive the jihadists out.

The fighting currently underway in Iraq has propelled the country back into the mainstream press and the developments in Anbar have caught the attention of an administration in Washington DC that has often depicted the American withdrawal from the country as one of its major foreign policy accomplishments. Fearing that Iraq is again being drawn into civil war, and facing criticism from legislators that the United States left it prematurely, President Barack Obama’s government announced on Monday that more Hellfire missiles will be provided to the Iraqi army in the spring — not in time to be used in the current fighting.

With Fallujah largely in the hands of Al Qaeda and other Islamist militants, Iraq’s national army has held its firepower for the time being. The city is surrounded by reinforcements and some airstrikes have hit insurgent positions, killing dozens in the process. Sooner rather than later, though, Prime Minister Maliki will have to make the difficult choice of either invading one of his own cities with the likelihood of high civilian casualties or hope that the tribes do the work for him.