Is It Really al-Qaeda who Rules in Fallujah?

Iraq’s sectarian divisions are rending the country apart again, as a Sunni insurgency under the black banner of al-Qaeda overruns the country’s northwest. The country has been ruled for years now by a Shi’ite nationalist prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. But the shocking Sunni jihadi advances of the past weeks were presaged by the year-long ISIS occupation of Fallujah. Six months ago, Feurat Alani studied Fallujah’s ‘conquest’ by ISIS, and concluded that what was really happening there was a generalized Sunni uprising against the perceived abuses of a Shi’ite government in Baghdad.

Undoubtedly, similar factors are at play in other Sunni-majority cities that have fallen to the radical jihadis of ISIS this month. Much of the Sunni frustration can surely be traced to the national election of 2011, when Sunni support gave a less sectarian Shi’ite, Ayad Allawi, an apparent mandate to replace Maliki. Instead, Maliki engineered a return to power. A prescient analysis of Iraq’s new dilemma, from Orient XXI:

Abu Younis is an Alwani, a member of the Al-Bou Al-Wan tribe, which is influential in the region of Al-Anbar. The 35-year-old lives in Falluja. A few days ago, he exchanged his soccer jersey for a camouflage vest. The keffiya he wears on his head covers everything but his eyes nowadays. Like the majority of young men in the city, he has elected to take up arms to defend Fallujah against the attacks of the Iraqi army. Abou Younis never sets down his mobile phone. When he isn’t videoing exchanges of gunfire with security forces, he is sending back news from the front: “We control all the entrances and exits of the city. We are steadfastly awaiting the attack that Nuri al-Maliki has announced, and we are ready.”

Is he a member of al-Qaeda? Reading the international press, the answer would appear to be ‘yes.’ All the headlines on the subject say the same thing: that Fallujah is under al-Qaeda’s control. But the reality is more nuanced. Abu Younis is no member of the organization founded by Osama bin Laden; he calls himself a ‘revolutionary,’ as a group, he and his companions are ‘thuwwar.’ He sketches out a very different situation in Fallujah than the version in the government communiques. “The government-connected press make every effort to twist reality and dirty the image of our revolution,” he says.

Reducing Fallujah and Ramadi to a pair of cities under the control of al-Qaeda is to misunderstand the al-Anbar region and its tribal nature. It is difficult to imagine a group of fighters, many of them foreign to the area, taking control of a city of 300,000 inhabitants simply by planting a flag on a roof. Fallujis are constitutionally incapable of taking orders from outsiders, whoever they are. They have proved it numerous times in the course of history, beginning in 1920, when they threw out the British during the Iraqi revolution; they did it again with the Americans in 2004, and yet again with Al-Qaeda in 2007.

The fact is that the Iraqi government has lost Fallujah. But the loss did not happen overnight. The prime minister abandoned the city long ago, during and after the departure of the Americans. Like them, he has continued to ostracize this rebellious city in both speech and deed, an attitude which has generated larger demonstrations against the national government than anywhere else in the country.

To understand what is taking place now, we have to roll the clock back a year. In December of 2012, 120 bodyguards of the Sunni finance minister Rafa al-Issaoui are arrested in Baghdad, and the minister himself only escapes arrest by the skin of his teeth, fleeing to the city of his birth, Fallujah. The arbitrary arrests unleash demonstrations at the entrance of the highway leading from Fallujah to Baghdad. Referring to a sense of tribal identity that is strongly linked to honor, the demonstrators baptize the place “Dignity Square.” Sunni demands are on clear display: release of the thousands of Sunni prisoners, equal rights, equal employment opportunities, and an end to the rule of fear. The demonstrations are peaceful, but are repeatedly repressed by police.

While the movement is portrayed as sectarian by a portion of the political class, in reality several Shi’ite religious leaders, important ones, reveal their sympathy for it. The Sadr City Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Sadr lends his support to the demonstrators. Shi’ite tribal leaders show up at the site in person to show their solidarity with the Sunnis. Maliki takes notice. In January 2013, he tries to push some reforms through parliament, but they are blocked by Shi’ite rivals who consider them too generous, and by Sunni adversaries who consider them insufficient. The Sunni tribes take this impasse as a provocation by the prime minister. And this is the point where things break down. Maliki’s discourse and attitude harden against the demonstrators.

Concurrently, in April of 2013, the Islamic State in Iraq announces its merger with the Syrian branch. It becomes The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL/ISIS depending on transliteration], and it claims a territory stretching from Raqqa in the northeast of Syria, all the way to Fallujah, the gateway to Baghdad. As a result of its proximity to the chaos in Syria, attacks in the Iraqi capital are intensifying. The rage of the Sunni tribes against Nuri al-Maliki permits the group to install itself locally, profiting from the circumstantial tolerance of the tribes. But there on Dignity Square, one runs into both young and old, activists and merchants, professors and students, taxi drivers and engineers, local notables and tribal chiefs. Flags here and there: that of Iraq in the days of Saddam Hussein as well as the flag of contemporary Iraq under al-Maliki, the flag of the Free Syrian Army, and finally, flags of the jihadi groups.

Like many other jihadi groups, ISIL can count on the sympathy of certain tribes, as a consequence the national government’s sectarian policies. But nothing more than sympathy, because the majority of those who have taken up the fight are the ordinary people of Fallujah: tribal members or demonstrators angry at being portrayed as Saddam Hussein supporters or al-Qaeda members, and ofbeing treated as pariahs.

On December 28, 2013, the very brutal arrest of Sunni parliamentary deputy Ahmed al-Alwani ends in the death of his brother and six of his bodyguards. This pushes the demonstrators to take up arms. ISIL takes advantage of the moment to plant its flag and announce, particularly on social networks, that the city of Fallujah is now that capital of an Islamic state that encompasses the Sunnis of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The plan is to establish a ‘Sunnistan’ that will split in half the Shi’ite axis that runs from Damascus to Baghdad and through to Tehran. But this idea is rejected by the majority of inhabitants and tribal chiefs, who oppose the partition of Iraq.

ISIL has seized the opportunity to take on the Iraqi army and the prime minister, who is seen as a puppet of Iran and a double for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. In December of 2013, ISIL skirmishes repeatedly with the Iraqi army, causing heavy losses.

Clearly, there are ISIL jihadis fighting in Fallujah. But they are a minority, even if they make more noise than everyone else. “Everybody in Fallujah and Ramadi is fighting now,” says Ahmed al-Jumaili, spokesman for the Fallujah tribal council. “The tribal chiefs, and the Mujahidin have united to take stock of the situation. I can assure you that we are defending our city and our children. We don’t need any help. Not the al-Anbar governor, who is aligned with al-Maliki, and not al-Qaeda. We will defend our honor on our own.”

It is too soon to say what is going to come out of all this. But what is certain is the following: we are watching a popular uprising against a government that has been increasingly deaf to the demands of the population of the west and center of Iraq. Yes, there are armed men wearing masks in control of certain parts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. No, these cities are not in the hands of al-Qaeda. What is taking place right now is a good deal more complex. The terrain is occupied by at least three actors:

*The Iraqi army, accompanied by portions of the Sahwa militias- tribal members who collaborated with the Americans in their struggle against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

*ISIL and other Islamist groups who have seized this occasion to assert themselves.

*Antigovernment forces, composed of tribal members organized around the inter-tribal military council, and who represent the majority of the inhabitants of Fallujah and Ramadi. Abu Younis is now a part of this element.

Ten years after the terrible battle that took place here in November, 2004 between American soldiers and Iraqi insurgents, Nuri al-Maliki is preparing a new attack on the symbol of revolt that the city of Fallujah has become. This crisis reveals a noticeable shift in the geopolitics of the region. The United States is contenting itself with arming Nuri al-Maliki, while Iran offers military aid to the Iraqi ground forces. It is official now: Iraq’s biggest ally has triumphed over American interventionism . The ‘War on Terror’ has retreated in favor of a fratricidal war between Sunnis and Shi’ites in both Iraq and Syria.

Feurat Alani Translated from French by International Boulevard